Open Letter on pen pal communications in Victorian prisons

March 26, 2018 |

The Federation of Community Legal Centres calls on Corrections Victoria to reverse its ban on pen pals in Victorian Prisons. 

Sign the petition calling on Deputy Corrections Commissioner, Brendan Money to immediately reverse the ban on pen pals for people in prison.

The following letter was sent to the Deputy Corrections Commissioner Brendan Money, calling on him immediately reverse the ban on pen pals for people in prison.

 

Dear Brendan

RE: The ban on pen pal communications in Victorian prisons

We write with regard to the current ban by virtue of the current Deputy Commissioner’s Instruction (‘DCI’) 4.07 on pen pal communication with prisoners in Victoria.[1] We are deeply concerned that the ban deprives people in prison of the right to communicate freely while providing no further protection for the community than is currently available under legislation and relevant DCIs. Shutting people who are in prison off from pen pals slows rehabilitation without achieving any discernible objective beyond the aforementioned broad protections already available to Corrections Victoria.

Pen pal programs operate successfully across the world and the rest of Australia. Tens of thousands of people across the UK and US engage in pen pal programs from prison, some formally administered by prisons.[2] One state-funded program operates across 52 prisons in England and Wales.[3] Victoria’s ban on pen pal programs puts it at odds with protections of freedom of communication in other comparable jurisdictions both here and abroad.

We are particularly concerned about further limitations on the rights of people in prison. When people are in prison, every minute of their lives is determined and shaped by the many and varied restrictions deemed necessary to maintain good order in the prison. Allowing people to make connections and seek solace or friendship through communicating with a pen pal is a small concession that Corrections Victoria could allow. Every non-legal letter in and out of prisons is already checked, and any safety concerns can of course be addressed on a case by case basis.

We call on Corrections Victoria to reverse its ban on pen pals in Victorian prisons.

We say the following are six reasons to allow people in prison to have pen pals:

1. Safeguard mental health

Giving people in prison the opportunity to write to someone is a powerful tool. Letter writing can be a useful way for people to navigate complex issues, from drug dependency to the emotional toll of being separated from family and friends.[4]

International evidence has confirmed that pen pal programs offer people hope to lead fulfilling lives outside of prison in what is otherwise a profoundly isolating experience.[5] For people in prison who don’t get visits from friends and family in particular, pen pals can offer a crucial connection to the world beyond prison. Pen pal programs can also reduce feelings of stigma and assist rehabilitation.[6]

Not only do pen pals contribute to good mental health for people in prison, they can also offer crucial points of contact to help intervene when people experience mental health crises.[7] In the UK, prisons proactively offer pen pal programs because of their positive effects on morale and mental health.[8] We ask that Corrections Victoria recognise the positive role pen pals can play for people in prison, and to consider amending DCI 4.07 to allow pen pal communication to bring it into line with other developed Western countries.

2. Protect the right to freedom of communication

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006 (Vic) protects people’s freedom of communication, including through writing.[9] The ban on pen pals in Victorian prisons unreasonably limits this freedom. It is an unacceptable violation of people’s rights to communicate freely where this right is already limited by a number of mechanisms open to Corrections Victoria to ensure both the public and prisoners’ safety.

The Corrections Act 1986 (Vic) has a specific provisions that confers the ‘right to send and receive other letters uncensored by prison staff’.[10] This right is only subject to reasonable censorship, such as to protect ‘prison security’ or prevent ‘unlawful activity’.[11] In the case of any letter to a pen pal that does not pose such a risk, this ban potentially breaches peoples’ rights to communicate and we say is imposed outside of the legislated limitations on communication by letter.

3. Promote community safety

Potential risks to the community offer no justification for the ban on pen pal communications given the wide powers of prisons to search and restrict mail. The Corrections Act 1986 (Vic) entitles the censorship of letters where they are ‘indecent’, ‘unlawful’ or ‘threatening’.[12] Given these powers apply to all letters processed and searched by prisons, there is no reason for a specific ban or restriction on letters received from or to pen pal.

Even if there were a risk of prisoners contacting members of the community inappropriately, there is no reason why prisoners would specifically use a pen pal program to do this.

4. Improve employment and rehabilitation

Prison can present an opportunity for some to address the complex disadvantages they face on reception.  The evidence is clear that 40% of people in Victorian prisons have the literacy skills they need to get by independently in the workforce.[13] We should encourage people to improve their literacy by participating in pen pal programs, which can aid their rehabilitation, help them forge links and integrate into the community.

A UK study found that people who engaged in a pen pal program during their time in prison were more likely to seek opportunities to improve their social and literacy skills.[14] Pen pal programs offer a low-risk solution to the low literacy levels that many people in prison have. Given the link between crime and economic inequality, Corrections Victoria should be promoting rather than suppressing literacy among people in prison. Reversing the ban on pen pal programs is a crucial opportunity to improve opportunities for rehabilitation.

5. Advance LGBTIQ equality

Being in prison can be a particularly tough experience for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and/or queer (LGBTIQ). We should make this experience less isolating by allowing LGBTIQ people to participate in organised pen pal programs.

Communication with other LGBTIQ people both inside and outside of prison can offer a crucial support network and help people to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation. People in Victorian prisons should not miss out on this opportunity which is available to LGBTIQ people in other states and territories around Australia.[16]

6. Penpal programs are secure and safe

Pen pals offer people in prison a safe context to talk about themselves and their experiences. There is no reason why pen pal programs pose a particular risk to prison security or to the safety of people in prison. Prisons should manage risks directly and in a targeted fashion rather than blanket banning all pen pal communications.

The Deputy Commissioner’s Instruction purports to ban pen pal communications to protect prisoners from ‘exploitation’ even though people in prisons around the world engage safely in pen pal programs. We ask for Corrections Victoria to produce evidence of this risk, because on our view this is marginal at best.  It certainly does not justify a general ban on pen pal communications and fails to outweigh the consequential risk of a ban to prisoners’ rehabilitation and mental health.

Allowing people in prison to have pen pals helps them to establish links to the community while aiding their rehabilitation. Having someone to talk to can help people to navigate the complex emotions of living in prison, particularly where there is chronic underfunding for the rehabilitation programs people in prison need.[17] This is a resource-neutral opportunity for Corrections Victoria to allow or even encourage a program that the evidence shows addresses mental health issues and may create opportunities for employment after people leave prison.

We urge you to reverse this ban and allow people in prison to freely communicate with pen pals either as individuals or through programs.

We look forward to your prompt response.

 

Yours sincerely

Federation of Community Legal Centres

 

[1] See Deputy Commissioner’s Instruction, DC1 4.07 as detailed in Minogue v Dougherty [2017] VSC 724.
[2] There are more than 14,000 profiles on WriteAPrisoner.com.
[3] Jacqueline Hodgson and Juliet Horne, ‘Imagining More than Just a Prisoner: The Work of Prisoners’ Penfriends’ (18 April 2015) Warwick School of Law Research Paper No. 2015/12.
[4] Jacqueline Hodgson and Juliet Horne, ‘Imagining More than Just a Prisoner: The Work of Prisoners’ Penfriends’ (18 April 2015) Warwick School of Law Research Paper No. 2015/12, 28.
[5] Ibid 28-33.
[6] Ibid 5, 31.
[7] Ibid 33.
[8] Economic and Social Research Council, ‘Pen pal is powerful boost to prisoner wellbeing, 9 November 2015, accessed at http://www.esrc.ac.uk/news-events-and-publications/news/news-items/pen-pal-is-powerful-boost-to-prisoner-wellbeing/.
[9] Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006 (Vic) s 15(2)(b) and (c).
[10] Corrections Act 1986 (Vic) s 47(1)(n).
[11] Ibid ss 47(1)(n), 47D.
[12] Ibid s 47D(1)(b), (c), (d).
[13] Mary McDonald, ‘Victorian prisoners to be tested for literacy, numeracy in justice system shake-up’, ABC News Online, 9 November 2015.
[14] Ibid 42.
[15] For example, Inside Out Australia: LGBTIQ+ Prisoner Solidarity Network, accessed 5/03/18, <https://insideoutaustralia.org/.
[16] Eg, Prison Inmate Pen Pal, Prison Pen Pals (Australia), Meet-An-Inmate.com
[17] Victorian Ombudsman, Investigation into the Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Prisoners in Victoria (2015) 145.

 

Sign the petition calling on Deputy Corrections Commissioner, Brendan Money to immediately reverse the ban on pen pals for people in prison.