Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)
Q. I'm just not sure what I can send into an inmate - books, pictures, envelopes. I hear that I can't even use return address labels.
A. This article helps to sum up all of these issues AND explain why the DOC doesn't allow certain items to be sent to inmates:
Byko: When it comes to mail, state prisons
have a color bias
By Stu Bykofsky
Here's a problem I hope you never have,
because having the problem means a loved one is a "guest" of the
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
I have several pen pals (pun intended) at
locations around the state, but the one I am closest to is Marcus Perez, who
wound up with a wrongful life sentence. I have written several columns hoping
to get him the justice he deserves.
It was to meet Perez that I made my first
visit inside the buff walls of Graterford. In later communications I learned
about some rules that seem bizarre and baffling.
One year on his birthday, I sent Perez a
card that was returned - eventually - with a blood-red stamp that said
"unacceptable mail." The card was Hallmark. Should I have sent
No, Perez informed me, I should have mailed
it in a white envelope. The dwindling number of people who still buy greeting
cards know that almost no birthday cards come in white envelopes. They are
blue, green, pink, yellow, rose - all the pretty colors.
OK. I dig up a white envelope and mail off the card
Three weeks later, it's back - "unacceptable
mail," the blood-red stamp says again.
You know the return address stickers you get in the
mail from many charities? They are prohibited by the Department of Corrections.
You must hand write your address in the upper left corner. If you don't use a
return address, that'll get the letter rejected, too.
As a matter of fact, DOC is monitoring greeting
cards closely and might wind up banning them, regardless of the envelope color.
I'll explain why in a minute, but here are some
other rules that seem to be in place just to harass inmates and their loved
ones, but that have reasons. These are prisons, not resorts.
Inmates like to have reading material and easily
can get newspapers. That's why female newspaper columnists have so many fans
behind bars. Male columnists, less so.
Inmates can subscribe to magazines, which are
reviewed on an issue-by-issue basis. "A magazine may be permitted one
month but not the next," an online listing of rules explains, depending on
Nude pictures, for instance, are not permitted.
Books? Don't even think about sending a book. I
made the mistake of mailing one, which was returned to me as - go ahead and
guess - "unacceptable mail."
The only way you can send a book into the Graybar
Hotel is to have it shipped from a publisher, distributor or department store
with a packing slip identifying it as an original source.
Seems pretty heavy-handed. Just what is the DOC
Lots of things, explains press secretary Amy
Let's start with the ban on color envelopes.
That began on Oct. 29, 2015, to thwart "the
introduction of suboxone and other drugs," says Worden. DOC noticed a
"significant increase" on envelope flaps, and colored stock makes
detection difficult. Since the ban, the number of cases has decreased, she
Address stickers are banned for the same reason.
"They are prime locations" for concealing drugs, she says. DOC can't
prohibit postage stamps, but they are "generally removed and inspected
carefully," says Worden, adding that mail is inspected but not read.
The people on the outside can be very creative.
Thick greeting cards can conceal banned substances,
but they still are permitted - for now.
Books must come from an original source because
"it is extremely easy to hide cellphones, weapons, razors, and drugs in
bindings and cut-out pages," Worden says.
For security reasons, she declined to discuss
individual cases displaying unusual creativity, but says DOC works
"aggressively" to monitor contraband and makes changes to meet new
It's too bad that the vast majority of
innocent inmates have to pay the penalty because of the rule-breakers, but
that's also true outside prison walls.
Q. Has the DOC banned inmates from receiving greeting cards?
A. After careful consideration, the department has decided to
ban only those greeting cards that arrive in a colored envelope. Only
white envelopes will be permitted. Colored envelopes will be stamped
“Unacceptable mail” and returned to sender. The DOC will continue to
monitor and track the use of greeting cards as instruments used to introduce
contraband for the next several months. Should greeting cards continue to
be used to introduce contraband, ALL greeting cards WILL be banned.
The department understands the benefits of family support
and the use of cards to send well wishes; however the safety and security of
staff and inmates must be a priority at all times.
Q. How do I send a book to an inmate?
A. All publications, new or used, must be sent directly from a
publisher, bookstore, book club, distributor or department store, accompanied
by a packing slip, shall usually be deemed to have come from the original
source. View Section 3 of
DC-ADM 803, Inmate Mail and Incoming Publications Policy.
Q. Do your prisons have separate mailing addresses for inmates?
A. Most of our prisons have one mailing address. But some of our prisons have two addresses - one for staff and another for inmates -- visit this page to make sure you're addressing your mail correctly.
Q. Is Amazon an acceptable book vendor? Are there issues with magazines?
A. Yes. Amazon is an acceptable book vendor. There are individual book vendors on Amazon that may be
scrutinized for security; however, most are permissible.
All magazines are reviewed on a case by case basis. A magazine may be permitted one month but not the next. It depends on each month's content.
Our listing of denied publications is available on our website www.cor.pa.gov.
Q. How does an inmate make collect calls?
A. The party that the inmate wants to call needs to first set up an account with SECURUS (1-800-844-6591) AND the party also has to be added, by the inmate, to the inmate's telephone list. View DC-ADM 818, Automated Inmate Telephone System Policy.
Q. How can I send money to an inmate?
A. This is done through JPay.com. Visit the Inmate Accounts page of our website to learn more.
Q. I need to inform my inmate about a death in the family or about a family emergency. Who can I call at the prison to reach the inmate?
A. Contact the inmate's counselor, unit manager or the prison chaplain.
Q. How do I go about donating books to the prison library?
A. The DOC operates 26 state prisons. Contact the state prison nearest you and ask to speak to the librarian, who will help you.
Q. Are inmates charged a fee for receiving funds through JPAY?
A. No. If a sender sends $50, the inmate receives the full $50. The sender may incur a fee to send the funds via JPAY, but the inmate does not.
Q. How can I get an inmate that I don't know to stop sending me letters?
A. Write to or call the superintendent's office at the prison where the inmate is housed. Staff will help to end such letters.
Q. How is an inmate's next-of-kin identified?
A. Upon reception to the DOC, inmates are asked who they would like to list as their next-of-kin, or who the DOC should notify in the event of an emergency involving the inmate. While most people think that a blood relative is an inmate's next-of-kin, that may not always be the case. The inmate can name anyone they want, including an individual who is NOT related to them. There have been cases where an inmate's mother would call the prison upset because she was never contacted about an emergency involving her inmate son, but the fact of the matter is that the inmate did not name her as his next-of-kin. DOC policy is very strict about to whom inmate information may be released. DOC employees are not trying to give families a hard time, they just can only provide information to the one person the inmate has designated as next-of-kin.
Q. I want to visit my brother in state prison, can you tell me if I am on his visitor's list?
A. We are not able to divulge the names of individuals on an inmate's visiting list -- not even to confirm for you that you are on it. You must write to your brother and let him tell you if you are on his list.
Q. What happens the first few weeks when an inmate enters the state prison system?
A. All inmates enter the state prison system through the diagnostic and classification center (DCC). There is one for men at SCI Camp Hill and one for women at SCI Muncy. Click HERE for a flow chart/image that shows you how an inmate is received, how treatment plans are created and how home prisons are designated.
Q. My son is an inmate in a state prison in Pennsylvania, and he keeps asking us to send him $60 so he can pay the "Victims Compensation Fund" so he can be released to a community corrections center. He says that they won't release him until it is paid. I find it hard to believe that the state would keep a person in prison over $60. Is this true?
A. There are two fees currently totaling $60 on dockets from
the counties which, by law, must be paid before any other fine, court cost, fee
or restitution is paid on that docket. These mandatory fees are also on every
speeding ticket or summary appeal—they are lumped in with all of the other
fees. (For example, if someone you know is ever issued a speeding ticket, that
fine is $50, but the total of the ticket is around $200 because of all those
fines, fees and costs tacked on to it.)
Part of those fees are the Crime Victim’s Compensation Fund
(CVCF), the other portion is for the Victim Witness Service Act. These help
fund victim/witness programs, shelters and reimburse out-of-pocket expenses for
crime victims who may not be receiving restitution yet or at all in their case.
The way the law for these two fines collections is written,
they are paid before anything else in the case. With that, the PA Board of
Probation and Parole requires them to be paid before an offender is released
from an SCI on parole. Someone would not be denied parole for failure to have
these mandatory fines paid first, however, a release date could be delayed.
If any dockets are set up for collection regarding the other
costs, fees, fines and/or restitution, 20% of the monies you send to your
son will be deducted automatically and put towards that debt. For example,
if an offender is serving on a theft case and owes the county $500 in
costs/fees and $100 in restitution to the victim of the crime, the total is
$600. (Minus the $60 mandatory fee we discussed earlier.) The DOC will deduct
20% of all incoming monies to his account until that payment is satisfied. If
his DOC job working in the kitchen gives him a $50 paycheck, we will deduct
$10. If you send $100, we will deduct $20.
This money collected by the DOC is sent back to the
sentencing county to have the payment recorded into the docket and is then put
towards the appropriate parties—including the crime victims owed restitution.
Depending when your grandson arrived at the Department of
Corrections determines how much of the money he makes working (if he’s working)
and how much of the money you send to him is deducted from his account for
these fines and the rest of the case. One of two different options can happen:
20% is deducted for CVCF and for
costs/fines/restitution off of the top of any incoming deposit made to his
50% is deducted for CVCF until it is paid in
full, then 20% starts for costs/fines/restitution
To see what is going on with each of his cases, you can use
the Unified Judicial System of PA Web Portal
click on the DOCKET SHEETS button on the right
side of the page, about halfway down
The bolded Public Web Docket Sheets gives
several options—Court of Common Pleas covers sentenced cases
You can use the drop down menu to decide the
type of search you’d like to do—using Participant Name and selecting “Criminal”
for the Docket Type in the drop down menu will yield the most results
A new screen will open listing a number of
cases, with a docket number looking like CP-01-CR-1234-2015. There is a
magnifying glass you can move your cursor onto on the left of the docket
number, with the cursor placed—you have the option of “Docket Sheet” or “Court
Summary.” Choose DOCKET SHEET.
Another new screen will come up with the actual
docket. It’s several pages long. Towards the end, there is a section entitled
“Court Financial Information” where you can see whether the fees are paid.
If your son’s
cases show as paid, both he and the SCI should have that on record. There is a
possibility that the SCI does not have the same info as the county. Your
son does have the ability to learn what the SCI has showing as well as
what the county has on record.
Q. Is there a limit to
the amount of funds that can be added to an inmate's account at one time, or
for a given time period?
A. If using a credit card, you can only add $300 per card every
72 hours. Multiple cards can possibly be used, but the limit is $300 per
card every 72 hours. If using a money order, the limit is $999.99 per
money order. Senders can send multiple money orders at a time. For
cash/walk in transactions using MoneyGram, a maximum limit is set at $5,000
per transaction. The DOC does not limit how much can be added to an
Q. Can an inmate's
account be funded anonymously, ie. without the inmate knowing who funded the
A. We do not allow accounts to be funded anonymously. JPAY
provides us with sender name for each transaction.
Q. Where can I learn about voting rights for current and former inmates?
A. View THIS DOCUMENT, which is from the PA Department of State.
Q. If an inmate is left money in a will, how can that inheritence be distributed to the inmate?
would have to be distributed by the executor or executrix of the estate.
The funds would need to be on a bank check made payable to the inmate (no
personal checks are accepted). Please
have the inmate ID referenced and the check can be mailed to the institution
where the inmate is housed.
Q. How is an inmate notified when funds have been put into his/her account?
A. They receive a statement each month listing all
transactions form their account, and anytime funds are posted from JPAY, an
individual receipt is given to the inmate telling him/her that they have
Q. How do I address a letter to a DOC inmate?
A. Letters should be addressed…
Inmate Name and DOC Number
City, State, Zip Code
Joseph Jones AB-1234
SCI Camp Hill
P.O. Box 200
Camp Hill, PA 17001-0200
Q. How do I serve an inmate with court-related documents, such as custody papers?
of the document(s) being served on an inmate, it can done by a sheriff,
constable or process server. At some of our prisons, the local county Sheriff’s
Office already has a standing gate clearance with the prison and are able to just
come to the prison to serve an inmate. A constable or process server has to
contact the facility's superintendent's office first so that a gate clearance can be prepared to allow them
access to the visiting room.