Santa Clara County inmates will continue receiving mail after jail officials abandoned a contentious plan to limit correspondence to just postcards.
Jail chief John Hirokawa originally brought up the idea earlier this summer in hopes of limiting the amount of drugs smuggled in through envelopes or postage stamps. But the community put up a fight, saying the mail restriction could dry up prisoners’ ties with friends, family and life outside their cell. The county jail and Elmwood Correctional Facility receive about 200,000 pieces of mail a year. If the postcard-only policy passed, the county would have become the first in Northern California to enact such a ban and one of a few-dozen in the nation.
Ex-Elmwood inmate turned probation counselor Stacey “Steeda” McGruder, 29, led the charge against the policy proposal, enlisting help from nonprofit media and advocacy group Silicon Valley De-bug. Families of inmates, re-entry experts, religious leaders, media and jail officials met in July to discuss the plan. Families shared tearful pleas to continue allowing letters, often the only lifeline between an inmate and any meaningful relationship. (See a video of that community meeting.)
McGruder, whose ex-inmate support group Sisters That Been There writes reams of letters to those still on the inside, let out a sigh of relief when she heard the news.
“It feels good,” she says. “I’m proud to be in a county that values and respects its community members’ voices and that I’m in a place that continues to show me that it truly is a team effort that makes things possible. I’m grateful and relieved.”
Silicon Valley De-Bug head Raj Jayadev says he’s glad jail officials took the time to hear them out.
“We were pleased that … Hirokawa considered the perspectives, experiences and concerns of our affected communities when making his decision,” Jayadev says. “Taking away mail would have been in contradiction to the philosophy and strategies of re-entry this county has invested so heavily in. For those inside, those letters, photos, kids’ report cards are critical connections to the community outside and serve not only the incarcerated and their loved ones, but the community as a whole.”
Hirokawa tells the Mercury News the change of heart came after a lot of listening.
“It was my decision,” he tells the paper. “Nobody put a stop to it. I just listened to the community, and the sheriff’s and board [of supervisors] weighed in a bit.”
In SoCal, Santa Barbara County residents are still opposing a letter ban, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which is fighting similar bans across the country.