Santa Clara County Jails Want To Limit Incoming Mail To Small Postcards

A recent article written by the mercury news covering a policy that would stop some of the work we are doing and harm the mental health of many inmates.

To jail inmate Lisa Coulter, the Hallmark card she got from a support group is a lifeline, something to hold close to her heart as she nervously waits for a judge to release her or send her back to prison after 16 years behind bars.

“Welcome home,” the card read, and “We are praying for you.” Coulter wrote back, “All the days I’ve spent holding my emotions in, being so visibly strong through this entire ordeal, came to an instant surface and I cried so hard for the better part of two hours.”

To Santa Clara County jail officials, such greeting cards and letters — no matter how therapeutic to inmates — are a security risk. Citing concerns about drugs and other contraband tucked into envelopes, hidden under
stamps or painted onto sheets of paper, jail officials want all mail from friends and family to be limited to small postcards.

The restrictive mail policy — the only one in the Bay Area and the fifth in the state — was set to start June 1. But after vocal objections from community and advocacy groups, the jail this week postponed the change until at least July 1. Supporters say limiting mail to inmates would hinder rehabilitation and unfairly punish the estimated 90 percent of correspondents who don’t try smuggling. Along with the danger of contraband, authorities say too much effort goes into checking the volume of mail. Even though correspondence from attorneys would be exempt from the restrictions, the public defender’s office and inmate-rights groups also are dead-set against the change.

“It’s not right,” said San Jose resident Ramona Redmond, whose boyfriend is in county jail. “How you supposed to get everything you want to say on a postcard? What are you supposed to do, send a thousand postcards?”

Cost is another consideration: A letter costs 46 cents; a postcard is 33 cents. Phone calls must be made collect, and each 15-minute call costs $5 to $20, depending on whether it’s local or out of state.

County jails chief John Hirokawa plans to hold a community meeting to hear the concerns and present the Department of Correction’s rationale.

“The new policy is predominantly for the safety of staff and the inmate population,” he said, noting that people have tried to smuggle hypodermic needles, staples for tattooing, black tar heroin, PCP and tabs of acid through the mail. Hirokawa notes that drugs create a black market, and cause overdoses and fights between inmates and assaults on guards.

Jail officials have the administrative authority to make the change without approval from the Board of Supervisors. However, the board can modify the new policy or stop it.

Hirokawa said the pause also gives county lawyers time to review a 3-week-old federal court ruling from Oregon that found restrictions on incoming and outgoing mail in a suburban Portland-area jail unconstitutional. The ruling noted that the policy “prevents an inmate’s family from sending items such as photographs, children’s report cards and drawings, and copies of bills, doctor reports, and spiritual and religious tracts.” However, the decision is not binding in California. Nationally, the ACLU has won cases in Florida and Colorado, while challenges by inmates and other groups elsewhere have met with mixed results.

Before the community meeting, Hirokawa also will consider tweaking the policy, including allowing inmates and their correspondents to use email, and families to send photos via snail

Incoming mail for inmates is held up to a light at the Elmwood Correctional Facility on Tuesday afternoon, May 14, 2013 in Milpitas, Calif. Staff uses the light to see if the paper or envelope have been treated with any foreign substance. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) mail. But Los Angeles County rejected the policy out of concern it would aggravate inmates’ mental health problems — and possibly spark violence. No state prison system has taken it up. According to a spokesman for the California prison system, “Letters are a really good rehabilitative tool. It keeps them connected to the community, it’s very important.” But, he noted, the prisons may not need to restrict mail because they have dogs that can sniff out contraband, including cellphones.

One other difference between jails and prisons is that everyone in prison has been convicted of a crime, while two-thirds of the 3,986 inmates in Santa Clara County jails still have pending cases, many of which are misdemeanors. They are considered innocent until proven guilty.

“We’re a civilized society, and we need to treat incarcerated individuals in a civilized way,” Public Defender Molly O’Neal said. “Letters keep them from acting out and give them something to do. It’s a positive in a negative situation.”

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at

How Jail Mail works

There’s no denying that it takes a significant amount of time and effort to deal with jail mail Monday through Saturday. At Elmwood jail in Milipitas this week, two “custodial support assistants” were hard at work in a high-ceilinged room while minimum-security inmate Israel Andrade sat in his black-and-white striped uniform looking on.
A jail official said one inmate is assigned per shift to make sure the sorters don’t pocket anything or read the letters. “It’s his chance to be the police,” the official joked.
Wearing latex gloves to prevent being exposed to possible drugs, the sorters first check each name and booking number against a computer database.

Each envelope then is run through an automatic blade that slices them open. Stamps are torn off by hand because they could be affixed with glue that contains drugs. Envelopes and letters are lamp-checked for hard-to-detect liquid drugs. Nothing pornographic is allowed — though much is sent — lest it create a hostile work environment for female staff members.
Any physical anomaly, including glitter, crayon drawings or a lipstick kiss, renders a piece of mail “suspicious,” and it’s returned to sender. Sorters officially note all such mail on a special form.

To Andrade, 37, the end result is worth the effort. Every week, the construction worker — who failed to pay restitution and appear in court — stays connected to his wife and four children. He treasures at least two letters weekly that report how the kids are doing in school and on their baseball and soccer teams. He tucked the photo they sent him of the family above the bottom bunk where he sleeps as a constant reminder.
“I see a lot of inmates that don’t get letters,” he said, “so I’m very appreciative. You can’t express as much on a postcard.”
— Tracey Kaplan,
Help sisters That Been There stop this policy!

Community Meeting On the Proposed Policy to Stop Inmates from Receiving Letters
(Come and make your opinion heard!)

WHEN: June 5th at 6pm to 8pm.

WHERE: The Community Meeting will be held at the African America Community Service Agency
304 N. 6th Street San Jose, CA 95112


Voices Behind The Walls Speak Out To STBT

As I sat in my jail cell in November of 2010, I read closely an article entitled “The Power of a Letter” from Women’s Day magazine. Although I knew the impact of a letter at that time, I was impressed to see that others on the outside had remembered the powerful art. I had thought it was something that only existed for people affected by incarceration.

Receiving mail is an experience in itself, but to open a letter addressed to you is a gift that no longer gets the recognition it deserves. Letter writing is a lifeline for the incarcerated women I work with. For any human in lock up of any sort, it’s the only way one feels a sense of freedom. That is why any proposal to limit inmates from receiving mail is tremendously harmful – to the inmates, their loved ones, and our collective community.

In the writings you will read here, you will see the true power of the letter. It is life altering, life-saving, therapeutic, a source of mental health support, and much more. You will see that letters are what keeps inmates focused on leading a successful life on the outside, and serve as important reminders that there are people out here ready to support them.

I Have Your Letter Taped to My Wall, Thank You

I woke up at 5 this morning here and found some mail had been slid under my door. Naturally I knew this was some sort of mistake, because I had only been here a short few days. When I opened the card from all the girls at S.T.B.T and read, “Welcome home and we are praying for you” all the days I have spent holding my emotions in and being visibly strong through this entire ordeal came to an instant surface. I cried so hard for the best part of two hours. I am moved by your support and believe you are a gift from God as he knows my heart and who I am. Please thank all the girls for me and I can’t wait to meet all of you. I am so excited at what lies ahead.

I have your letters taped to the wall here in my cell. I reminisce constantly about meeting all of you. I cry every time I read the words in my card “welcome home.” It’s been a long, rough road, but I did it. Thank for making me feel loved, not alone, and home. I love you all.

You Made Me Feel Less Alone

“For my sisters, the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they dont have any.”
–Alice Walker

I like that. Man, you don’t even know just how your letter has made me feel not alone, like someone really does care about me. All I can say is thank you. I’ve been so depressed I don’t know where I went wrong. I never felt so lonely, I never cared how I hurt my family until now, until this moment. I feel so alone. Well, my sisters, I just needed to vent and you were that one. I was the first one to see the article in the Mercury News about Sisters That Been There. Love it. I love you, keep up the positivity.

Need a Letter or Picture As I Start a New Life

I’ll be 33 years old this year. I’m currently doing a 3 year sentence at Elmwood. I’ve been in and out of jail since 2002. I put myself in program, so I can start my life on the right path. I don’t have support from my family and I don’t blame them. But time is so hard without a picture and a letter time to time. I’d like to receive a list of services your support group offers. I look forward to hearing from you.

Please Help, Thinking of Giving Up

I have a long history of drug use and my trauma goes back to the age of 4. I am learning how to change the behavior that get me locked up. I just feel like giving up sometimes. I have 6 months clean and I need all the help I can get. Please help me. I’m 50 years old and I have lost everything. I’m thinking maybe I should just give up.

Please Send Photos, I’ll Be Here for a While

Hi, my friends and I were talking about the new mail rule for inmates. We will only be able to have postcards sent to us. Some of us don’t have any family willing to send us pictures, and our friends brought you up. Is it possible you could please go on our facebook pages and print out some pictures and send them to us? I am 28 years old with two daughters. I will be here for a while and no one writes me. Please help!

A Letter Is Always Timeless For Those Doing Time

There are only a few ways of staying connected to the outside world when you are behind the wall –phones, visits, tv, newspaper, mail and often time lyrics to music. Most people never experience calls, or get visits, so the way we stay connected to the real world is mail at 10pm at night in the women’s side of Elmwood. And for those that don’t get mail, the power is in your cell mates sharing some inspiration. We share photos to uplift our spirits, and read from the folded pages to our podettes. To limit this would be limiting the basic livelihood of inmates period. If us who have been there don’t speak up, no one would ever know the power of a letter – stamped, signed, sealed and delivered to you in a place that feels so far from the real world, but yet is so close when put in the hands of a confined soul! A letter will always be timeless to those doing time!

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Sisters That Been There Reflect on Documentary “Crime After Crime”

crime after crime

When we allow incarcerated women the opportunity to share her experience and allow them to have a voice in the free world, it is truly amazing the magic that transpires.

Though the women in STBT come from many different backgrounds, they often share the same simple solutions stemming from one common experience. I often tell the women in my group the keys to your freedom are within yourself. Their recent writings say the same!

After viewing a documentary “Crime after Crime” which is about a woman, Deborah Peagler, fighting for her freedom after serving 27 years in prison. My hope was to motivate the women to take advantage of their freedom. Emotions were ever present as we sat in our weekly STBT session and viewed the film. Some chose to suppress them, but the exposure alone was the change taking place for these ladies. I asked the ladies to write about how the film impacted them personally, and as I read each entry I again became grateful and re-assured of the position I and the program plays in their lives and in the community.

The women that are coming out of these prisons and jails all have the keys to free themselves. It is our duty as concerned parties to provide them with the experience that enables them to reach down inside with out the fears the confine them and pick up the keys they carry. Here are their writings…

Continue to Fight, and Never Give Up!

I felt a strong sense of hope when I watched this film. There were many times when things didn’t go the way she planned, like getting denied appeal or the process got backed tracked and shot down by prosecution. Yet she continued to fight and never once gave up! I felt hopeful to see that there are still people out there that have good intentions and who believe in people like us and want to help us!

You Can Smell and Taste Your Freedom

I wish the film would of showed Deborah’s release and her walking through the sally port gates. When you walk through the sally port its as if you can smell and taste your freedom. I realize it the same air, but the feeling of the air on one side of the prison is completely different on the free side of the prison gates. Hopefully one day documentaries will show the whole release process of inmates being released after serving a long amount of time.

The Sense of Hopelessness and the Strength of Faith

Although this story is one of hope and freedom, I found myself feeling hopeless. Continually being denied your freedom began to wear my spirit down and I felt a strong since of hopelessness. Debbie gave all of herself to a man who abused her then to the justice system. She lost time with her children, her family and the world. I released my feelings of hopelessness when she was finally released. It was an overwhelming feeling of joy — a journey completed. I admire her ability to continue to have faith in the world and in people. Her trust in others gives me the strength to feel I too can have faith in others and that there is good in the world.

Stayed by Her Side

I experienced sharing a bunk with Debbie in prison. So by me being a woman that has been there, I was very touched to see the lawyer stayed by her side no matter what the case looked like. I realize today that all things are possible. I try to keep this in mind especially when I feel like giving up. So far this support is an A + thank you!

Sometimes we look too deep and miss our opportunity to effectively help one another out of the system. The writings you have read give you a little bit of ingredients to what each woman is in need of to insure she is on her journey to freedom – support, hope, a voice, encouragement and my favorite — love.

– Steeda, founder of Sisters That Been There

Sisters That Been There Graduates (photos by Charisse Domingo)


Regina P was able to fight her addiction and reclaim her place at the celebration of life ceremony she was to complete in the first celebration however was not able to, do to a relapse. But she came back even stronger and completed 16 weeks of intense emotional search for self and we are honored to announced her as a alumnae of s.t.b.t


I received a email one day from a mother seeking help for her daughter little did i know that the woman she was speaking of would walk into my group months there after. Andrea came to me willing to learn and meet people who were doing the same things she was. She has successfully completed the 16 week course and is currently seeking employment she has been a great example of a sister that’s been there.


She knew what she wanted from the moment she stepped in to the class room. “I want to be the best mother I can and get off probation”. She is on her way. Jeniffer came consistently for 6 months and made it very clear what her needs and wants were she never gave up and that is a key quality our sisters that been there share.


Breaking more that one cycle, Latoya has broken not only the cycle of incarceration but also a cycle in her Native heritage, “not many Native American women have help like this now I get to tell them that there is help”, these are her words she is now an example in the Native American community that change is possible and to women who have been locked up with this strong woman get to also see that change is possible. Latoya is a true inspiration to our sisterhood. Her son often attended group with her we wish them both the best on there journey.


Ready for change when Monica came to us she knew what needed to be done and was just so open to doing it. She needed a job, so she got one. She needed a place to call home, so she got one. She is well on her way and was always willing to inspire and motivate the other women in the group. Her down to earth approach on life and her situation has shot her right up to the stars.


My great honor to introduce to you all the second generation of sisters that been there Change is happening right here in Santa Clara County. These women have already broke there own cycle will we encourage there chance or ignore it?
we believe in loving our sisters until they learn from us how to love themselves!