LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When the pandemic hit, prisons across the U.S. canceled visitations for safety reasons. It's been hard on prisoners. It's been hard on their families. But phone calls, letters and packages help keep them connected. Jessica Salinas is an advocate for her brother Christian, who is in a state prison near Sacramento. She is worried that recent cuts to the Postal Service will make staying in touch even harder. Jessica Salinas joins us now.
Welcome to the program.
JESSICA SALINAS: Hi, Lulu. Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a pleasure to have you. First off, your brother is in an area that's currently being impacted by the wildfires. How is he?
SALINAS: Thankfully, he's OK. I heard from him yesterday. But they're evacuating everyone except for the prisons, so it's definitely a high-anxiety time for us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And may I ask what crime sent your brother Christian to prison?
SALINAS: So he was sentenced for armed robbery when he was 23. So he's considered a youth offender.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. How often were you and your family visiting your brother before COVID-19?
SALINAS: We would make the effort to go out once a month. My parents and my family live in Texas. I currently live in Los Angeles. So we would fly out to the Bay Area and then drive the hour and a half to Vacaville.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when was the last time you were able to see him?
SALINAS: February 22.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask you - how do you stay in touch now?
SALINAS: Our main source of communication is phone calls and letters.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much do phone calls cost in comparison to staying in touch by mail?
SALINAS: Oh, man. So I actually did the math. It averaged out to, I believe, 32 cents per minute that I spend. So they're only allowed 15-minute phone calls. And obviously, the providers take a fee, and then we're charged per minute as well - versus a letter, which is 65 cents per stamp.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So mail is really essential just to keep that connection.
SALINAS: It is critical, I think, to stay in contact. I actually got some quotes from people inside, as well as from other family members. I'm part of this community of women - mostly wives, mothers and sisters of those inside. And overwhelmingly, everyone said that the mail service is essential and critical and sometimes the only outlet that they have to stay in communication to family members.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because it's not just writing letters, right? It's also packages and other things to make life more bearable.
SALINAS: Correct. So we use the USPS to send pictures, really important documents like parole documents - because, as you know, technology is not well-integrated into prisons. One, they're not allowed to have cell phones. There are no video calls. But there's also no way to email or really fax important documents, and mail is that medium.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you had reports of delays in getting mail and packages yet?
SALINAS: Yes. So it's varied. So in my conversations with these family members and in our personal - it really depends on the location, it seems like. So some have said they haven't noticed a delay yet, and others who are farther away from where their loved one is incarcerated have started to notice a couple weeks' delay.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are going to be listeners out there who might hear about the crime that Christian committed and say, why should I care if he doesn't have access to cheap phone calls or on-time mail delivery? How would you respond to that?
SALINAS: At a larger structural system level, I would say that it should matter to all of us how we treat our most vulnerable, including those that are incarcerated. Lots of great institutions across the nation have time and time again put out data that says that staying in close contact with family and loved ones outside in this constant communication leads to more positive outcomes post-release, as well as lower recidivism rates, which, again, is great for us at an individual level, but also us as a community.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jessica Salinas of Los Angeles, Calif., thank you so much.
SALINAS: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.