General guidelines for writing to folks locked up in the state of Michigan
Before writing to anyone inside it is crucial to understand how the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) handles incoming and outgoing mail. In particular, the MDOC sets out very explicit guidelines for what is allowed to be sent in to the facilities. These guidelines are laid out in the MDOC’s Policy Directive on “Prisoner Mail.”
The “Prisoner Mail” Policy Directive defines what constitutes “mail” for the MDOC; describes what incoming and outgoing mail is allowed; sketches out the specifics of handling “legal mail”; and describes the process for handling rejected mail. Very generally, the Prisoner Mail policy directive states that:
“Mail shall not be prohibited solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social, sexual, unpopular, or repugnant. However, mail shall be prohibited if it is a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, may facilitate or encourage criminal activity, or may interfere with the rehabilitation of the prisoner.”
The state law detailing this issue can be found here, and includes prohibition of “material that depicts, describes, or encourages activities that may lead to the use of physical violence or group disruption.”
In addition, MDOC’s website contains brief guidelines for family on sending mail.
So when writing to folks inside DO NOT mention September 9, organizing, striking, insurrection, burning prisons, or anything else that may put folks inside at risk.
Note that what the MDOC considers “mail” is “any written, typed, or printed communication of information, including magazines, catalogs, books, and photographs.” This means that you should NOT send stickers or postage. These are not considered “mail” because they “do not communicate information” and may be considered contraband.
So, in general, assume that everything you send is going to be read and screened. Be smart about what you send in and if you want to send in something that may get anyone in trouble (inside our outside) consider what risks everyone involved is willing to commit to. Lastly, the mailroom does not have time to screen every single sentence, so it should be possible to obscure specific sentences or words that may trigger security concerns. Consider using vague terms, if that’s possible without being confusing. Other ways to veil sensitive topics is to write out numbers and dates as words, avoid capitalization and special formatting, and generally make the text as dense and uniform as possible so that nothing stands out and it’s harder to skim. You can also bury sensitive topics within blocks of benign text or develop some coded or metaphoric language that would be understandable to your contact inside, but less so to staff.
Also be aware that levels of scrutiny will vary by facility, by which staff are on duty, and by which person you are writing. Incoming mail might also be scrutinized more than outgoing mail. Keep this in mind before making assumptions about what is “safe” to write, since circumstances vary.
Be careful with homemade cards and items. Glue or unknown substances could get your mail rejected.
Sending zines and newsletters
According to the MDOC’s own guidelines, zines and newsletters may in principle be sent in, especially if they are sent from a “publisher.” In so far as you are printing this out yourself you are technically a “publisher” so as a sender you should write: “MAPS publishing” or something along those lines.
However, depending on the content, the zine or newsletter may or may not make it in. As an example, in March 2017 we were informed by the North Carolina-based crew “Prison Books” that a zine called “Every Crook Can Govern” was blocked from going through the mailroom at the Ionia prison in Michigan. The specific reason as to why the zine was rejected is because it contains (on pg. 1) “information on [a] prison strike.” Even though the “prison strike” the zine is referring to is the 2013 Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit strike in California, staff at Ionia prison rejected it. As such, as stated earlier, be smart about zine titles, headlines, bold/italicized words, and whatever can easily be spotted by the mailroom.
Books will be accepted only if they are sent from approved vendors. These include Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Schuler’s (a Michigan-based bookseller), and prisonlegalnews.org. Note that the books must be new and purchased directly from the approved vendor rather than from a third party vendor selling through sites such as Amazon or B&N. See “Attachment A” on the “Prisoner Mail” Policy Directives for the full list of approved internet vendors. However, a recent requirement being selectively enforced is that the package must contain an invoice or packing slip. Amazon does not enclose an invoice unless you select the “gift receipt” option. In that case, do not write a message to go on the receipt, or that may also cause the package to be rejected.
Some books are on the Restricted Publications List and will be automatically rejected. This list is not currently published, but might be available through a FOIA request.
When a book is rejected, imprisoned people typically have only three options: they can return the package to the sender at the imprisoned person’s expense, they can have it held at the facility for someone to physically pick up within 15 days, or else it will be destroyed.
As with postage or stickers, you cannot send money directly through the mail. Instead you must use the vendor GTL Financial Services. To send funds by money order via GTL, follow these instructions.
If you can send funds, we recommend that you do not include any message at all. If you write separately, we recommend that you do not mention the donation explicitly. We have heard of cases where donated funds were rejected based on MDOC’s claim that the recipients were being “paid to riot.” The funds were never returned to the sender.
That said, funds are badly needed by many people, especially those in segregation who cannot work and need funds to purchase stamps and writing materials.
Apart from funds, it is also possible to send a package of approved items via the Secure Pak program. This should be done only in close consultation with a contact, since they can only receive one Secure Pak every three months and they should select the items they want and need.
In addition to the “Prisoner Mail” policy directive, you may also want to read to the following memoranda by the MDOC Director released in the past year or so:
Black and Pink’s “pen pal guidelines”
This excellent resource lays out some questions you may want to ask yourself before writing to folks inside.
Writing to Prisoners: Frequently Asked Questions
A general zine that includes suggestions on what to write about.
To send a letter to someone inside, make sure you include the MDOC number next to their name! Like this:
Legal First Name Legal Last Name #MDOC number
Name of Prison
If for whatever reason you do not have the person’s MDOC number you can find it online through the MDOC OTIS website.