'Our loved ones... are human beings': Iowa prisons mail delays isolate inmates, families say (2024)

F. Amanda TugadeDes Moines Register

Billie Hoffman put a lot of heart into the Valentine's Day card for her husband.

Last month's Hallmark holiday marked the second year the Templeton couple has been apart — Timothy Hoffman is serving a seven-year sentence in the Newton Correctional Facility for third-degree attempted burglary.

But Billie Hoffman said nearly six weeks have passed, and Timothy — her "darling Wooley bear" — hasn't received her white card adorned with tiny red hearts and the special note inside.

"We're in March," she said. There's no reason it should be taking this long.

Like others with incarcerated loved ones in Iowa, Hoffman sends her letters and photos through Pigeonly, a Las Vegas-based company recently contracted by the Iowa Department of Corrections to process, open and scan mail not related to legal proceedings. Copies are delivered to Iowa prisoners, and the original mail is destroyed.

Pigeonly also has greeting cards that can be ordered online, printed and delivered — a feature Hoffman opted to use because she thought it would be easier to reach her husband.

Delayed mail isn't new for Hoffman and many other families with incarcerated loved ones in Iowa. They say Pigeonly's failure to deliver personal mail in a timely manner is one example of how prisoners are kept from interacting with people, despite the company and the DOC promoting social connectedness.

Their loved ones continue to feel isolated and bear the brunt of restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which seemed only to heighten when two inmates killed two employees at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in 2021. And, they say, the new forms of communication prompted by security concerns are confusing, hard to use, unreliable and overlook those who do not have access to the internet or electronic devices.

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"Not only is it affecting incarcerated people, but now it's affecting their loved ones on the outside. It feels like we are being punished," said Jade Suganuma, a member of the Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America'sprison abolition group.

Suganuma called the new protocols "dehumanizing” and said they have left prisoners "less in touch" with the rest of the world.

"If anything, it's taking a bigger mental health toll on everybody," she said.

Iowa's prison communication app gets an 'F' rating from the BBB

In an email, DOC spokesperson Nick Crawford said the department "has been in regular contact" with Pigeonly to make sure that scanned mail is delivered on time.

The department spends $1,500 to $2,000 a month — 42 cents per mail item — to process and forward scanned mail to prisons, he said. Pigeonly was hired last summer to prevent synthetic marijuana known as K2 and other drugs from entering the state's nine prisons.

Crawford previously told the Des Moines Register that K2, which can be soaked in paper or put on strips, was found in personal mail. Those instances have halted since Pigeonly came on board, he said.

Yet families repeatedly report problems. One recurring problem with Pigeonly is that users say they don't know anyone they can talk to when they encounter issues and must rely on their loved ones in prison to troubleshoot tech issues.

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Hoffman, who lives in Templeton, said she contacted Pigeonly's customer service twice to track down her Valentine's Day card, and a representative replied with a "generic email response" and promised to reach out again within 48 hours. As of Wednesday, her card still hasn't been sent.

"So really it's pointless now," she said.

Pigeonly has received 337 complaints to the Better Business Bureau in the last three years — 219 of which were filed this year alone. The bureau has given it an "F" rating and comments on its site claim the company has kept credit cardinformation on file and leviedunauthorized charges against the cardholders’accounts.

Des Moines resident Mike Wieskamp said he struggled to reach a customer service rep after the company racked up roughly $630 on his credit card for services he never used or subscribed to.

Pigeonly is a free service for users who send one mail item a month. The company charges fees of $9.99 to $34.99 for anything more.

Wieskamp said Pigeonly charged his credit card at least 20 times over a three-month span. Most transactions amounted to $35 and some occurred twice in one day. He called his bank to cancel his card and then called customer service to get his money back.

"I just kept calling, and I was in a queue," said Wieskamp, who signed up for Pigeonly to stay in touch with a prisoner he met through a pen-pal program. "It would go on for hours. I gave up. They had a system where you'd press 'one,' and you'll reserve your space in line (so they'll) call you — never happened."

"It seemed to me that they were deliberately being evasive. You couldn't get a hold of them," he said.

Video, visitation app called limiting, frustrating to use

In recent months, concerned families and anti-prison advocates have tried to raise awareness about the circ*mstances Iowa prisoners are facing regarding communication with their loved ones. An online petition that calls on the department to increase the number of weekly video calls and in-person visits for Anamosa prisoners recently circulated on social media.

"Our loved ones that are in there are human beings," said Constance Jenkins, who was among the 130 people who signed the petition. Her older brother, Otis Jenkins, is serving a life sentence at Anamosa for first-degree sex abuse.

The petition says Ameelio, an app that offers free video calls to incarcerated people and their families, is limiting because it allows only one video call per week. Families also use Ameelio to book in-person visits, which Crawford said eliminates the previous first-come, first-served system. But those who use the app say they've been given the option to schedule only one visit a week.

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Before the app was implemented during the pandemic, families previously could schedule two video calls or two in-person visits a week, they said.

Crawford said via email he was unaware of the petition and plans to take a closer look at the concerns listed.

"Based on current staffing levels, and the needs of each institution, we believe the current structure is a fair balance between providing multiple visiting opportunities throughout the week for inmates and families while also ensuring the safe and secure operations of our institutions," he said last week.

He said COVID-19 restrictions initially barred visitors to Iowa prisons, but the department contracted with Ameelio as a solution. He did not respond to questions about why the app offers the more limited options. In a follow-up email Wednesday, he said the Anamosa State Penitentiary now offers "inmates and their loved ones, with the necessary privilege levels, two in-person visits and one video visit per week" but did not explain the reason behind the change. He also did not clarify if all prisons now get the two in-person visits or just Anamosa.

Central Iowa DSA also collected input from prisoners and released a list of demands that emphasizes similar issues to the petition's. The organization is working on a call to action, and has asked people to print and sign copies of the demands and mail them to the DOC.

When the Ameelio app first rolled out, Constance Jenkins' daughter, Khristian Andreszcuk, said she turned to her incarcerated uncle for help to set up an account, register for video and in-person visits and understand the rules around both types of visits.

While she tried to navigate the app on her cellphone, Andreszcuk kept her laptop beside her to email her uncle questions as they came up.

She also believes video visitations are too restrictive, especially since the app is available only on cellphones and iPads. During video calls, the 28-year-old mother of two said she has to remain in one place and cannot move around. That means she can't bring her cellphone to the kitchen to get something to drink or show her uncle around her home.

Just like in-person visits, the DOC must approve each person who attends a video call. Andreszcuk, of Minnesota, said she logs her children's names just in case they wander in front of her screen.

The issues may sound minor, but with those platforms pitched as solutions to connect with incarcerated individuals, they become major barriers, said Paul Vasquez, whose son, Gabriel, is serving a minimum 35-year sentence in Anamosa for sex abuse. Problems become larger when people like Gabriel don't have access to the internet or electronic devices, he said.

During the pandemic, he struggled to contact his son.

COVID restrictions barred in-person visits, and phone calls from Gabriel Vasquez became sporadic, as a result of inmates' limited access to phones. Because the elder Vasquez didn't have internet at home, Zoom — available prior to the Ameelio app — was an option only if his daughter was around or if he went to the library.

"It doesn't do you any good to tell me I can do Zoom unless I go and take (my laptop) someplace and sit down with somebody that puts me on it, which I can't always find. So, that hinders everything," said Vasquez, who lives in Davenport.

He said he's called the DOC on several occasions to ask about policy changes, the conditions at Anamosa and his son's safety and well-being.

But the calls end up the same: They go nowhere. Vasquez said he's often passed from one person to the next, and each question leads to another concern.

Food restrictions limit 'sense of normalcy' at visitations in Iowa prisons

Jenkins and Vasquez also are concerned over one particular change, which they say is another example of how prisoners are ignored and forgotten: Food vending machines were removed from many prisons' visiting rooms during the pandemic and have not returned.

Crawford cited "safety and security" reasons for the vending machines' removal.

Visiting incarcerated individuals is a luxury many families can't afford, and to have the chance to sit and eat together — even if it's just snacks from a vending machine — is special, Jenkins said.

"That was our only sense of normalcy," said Jenkins, who is an Armstrong native and now lives in Minnesota.

During visits, Vasquez and his son made meals of the pop and candy they bought from the vending machines. At one point, Vasquez remembered Anamosa's visiting rooms offered sandwiches and had a microwave.

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Those small amenities felt like a "touch of the world," he said.

Crawford said there are no plans to return food vending machines at Anamosa or other facilities.

In the meantime, families say they will continue to advocate for their loved ones in prison. They say the ability to communicate with them is the only connection they have and, because contracts with tech companies are paid for with taxpayer dollars, the systems should be easier to use and more accessible.

"I understand my son's an inmate at Anamosa's penitentiary. He's been an inmate for 10, 11 years. It's not easy," Vasquez said. "I would like all these department corrections people and legislators to know I serve every day with him."

"Anybody (who) thinks they're just a 'bunch of inmates' or that's all they deserve that's not the truth," he said.

F. Amanda Tugade covers social justice issuesfor the Des Moines Register. Email her atftugade@dmreg.comor follow her on Twitter@writefelissa.

'Our loved ones... are human beings': Iowa prisons mail delays isolate inmates, families say (2024)
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