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Advocates are raising concerns about the Iowa Department of Corrections' new mail system

Holding cells at a former prison.
Tracy King
Non-legal mail being sent to incarcerated individuals at Iowa state prisons now must be sent through a third-party company, where is it screened and scanned, with copies forwarded to inmates.

All non-legal mail, like personal letters, pictures and cards going to inmates at Iowa state prisons now must be sent through the third-party company Pigeonly that will scan and screen the originals, and send the copies to inmates.

The DOC says this new system is meant to stop drugs, particularly the synthetic drug K2, from getting into prisons through the mail.

But Johnson County assistant public defender Julia Zalenski said this new system could have a big impact on inmates who are trying to maintain connections with people on the outside.

"I think taking that away from people just really sort of contributes to the overall dehumanization that prison inflicts and makes it harder for people to feel like they are still members of their families, still members of their community," she said.

Alison Guernsey, a University of Iowa College of Law clinical professor and director of the university's Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, said receiving scanned copies instead of originals can take away from the closeness inmates are trying to hold onto with loved ones.

"There is value in humanity in the physical mail that people receive from the smells of their house, to the ability to touch the words on the page and maybe feel the cursive of their husband or wife, or to be able to see the crayon drawing that their seven year old child made for them," Guernsey said.

There have also been concerns about if loved ones needed to create an account with Pigeonly or purchase a subscription to stay connected with inmates.

But a DOC spokesman said non-legal mail can still be sent through the United States Postal Service to the address that’s listed on the DOC’s website. Addresses will have to include the facility's mailing ID code. There is also a list of guidelines for what can be sent.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.