Explainer: What is Jail Mail?

Explainer: What is Jail Mail?

Jail mail generally refers to the rules that apply to incoming and outgoing mail for people in custody, especially in local county jails and detention centers. 

Jails (just like state and federal prisons) have rules to govern handling mail and packages at their facilities to protect everyone involved in the process. Safety and security are a priority when processing jail mail. Access to legal assistance for people in detention is also a top priority.

What does “jail mail” usually look like?

Most “jail mail” policies at jails across the country are similar. Below are a couple of examples…

Image courtesy of wutwhanfoto via iStockphoto.com.

Butte County Jail (California)

Here is a typical set of “jail mail” rules for incoming, outgoing and legal mail at many local county jails from the Butte County Jail in California… 

Incoming Mail

  • The mailing address is: “Person’s Name & Jail ID Number,” 123 XYZ DRIVE, GLENVIEW, CA, 99999.
  • You have no restrictions on the number of letters you can receive.
  • You cannot receive food items, cards, Polaroid photographs, stationery items, postage stamps, cash or personal checks.
  • You cannot receive mail from other jails or prisons.
  • For security reasons, officials will open and search your incoming mail.
  • For security reasons, any non-English language mail may be subject to delivery delays.
  • Any mail that may pose a security risk (such as stickers, stamps, mail labels, lipstick or unknown substances or contraband) is not acceptable and will be returned to the sender.
  • Officials process all mail on weekdays, excluding weekends and holidays.
  • All mail is subject to delay based on unforeseen circumstances or matters beyond the facility’s control.
  • You may receive newspapers, magazines, periodicals and books if sent directly from the publisher, not from a bookstore or individual. 
  • Corrections staff will not cancel subscriptions after you leave.
  • Used books or books that pose a security risk (for example, hardcover books or leather-bound books) are unacceptable.
  • Obscene or inflammatory mail will not be allowed.
  • You will receive written notice if mail is returned to sender.
  • You will receive a property receipt if mail is placed with your personal property. 

Outgoing Mail

  • There is no restriction on the number of letters you may send.
  • Staff will collect unsealed outgoing mail before 11:30 PM.
  • Mail is subject to search and is subject to delay for security reasons.
  • Legal mail will be marked as “legal mail” outside the envelope. Staff will search the “legal mail” envelope and seal it in your presence.
  • You can have nothing written or drawn on the face of the envelope except the “to” and “return” addresses. 

Legal Mail

  • Incoming or outgoing correspondence between you and the court, a member of the State Bar, a holder of public office, the State Board of Corrections, the County Jail Commander, and the County Sheriff can be labeled LEGAL MAIL. 
  • Staff may open and inspect such mail only in your presence and only to search for contraband. 
  • Staff may not read legal mail. 
  • You may receive unlimited paper and stamped envelopes, for legal mail, by submitting a request to the appropriate officer.
Photo courtesy of Kerkez on iStock via Getty Images.

Burlington County Jail (New Jersey)

For comparison, the following “jail mail” exist in the Burlington County Jail in New Jersey… 

  • You may send and receive mail daily.
  • You may receive the following items through the mail:
    • Up to 6 of the following clothing items: white or orange plain t-shirts, white underwear, and white socks,
    • Up to 2 of the following clothing items:
      • white thermal long johns and
      • white or orange sweats,
    • Up to 2 solid white bath towels.
    • Up to 2 of the following items:
      • newspapers,
      • magazines and
      • paperback books (must come directly from publisher or source of sale),
    • 1 of the following items:
      • AM/FM only (no cassette or CD types) or
      • Walkman type radio with earbuds (but you can only purchase batteries from the commissary).
  • No boots or sneakers are allowed.

  • All of these items must be brand new and mailed directly from the source of the sale, and the jail will not accept any packages from Amazon.

The Takeaway:

The above rules provide a good overview of how jails and many detention centers typically handle their “jail mail.” Safety and security are a priority in the handling of jail mail. Access to legal assistance for people in detention is also a top priority.

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