by Phillip Vance Smith, II
Correctional facilities in North Carolina began using Text Behind, a third-party mail service provider in 2021. Instead of sending personal mail directly to a prison, senders must either create an online account for electronic mail or send physical letters to be scanned at a processing facility in Maryland. Prison officials cite drug use as the catalyst for such a drastic change, but as an incarcerated individual, I can testify to how Text Behind does more harm than good.
I have been incarcerated for 21 years. In that time, I have made significant personal changes, despite limitations set by the prison system. Creative writing played a role in my transformation by helping me analyze moral decisions through characters I created. My talent helped me connect with writers in the free world who mentored me. Mentors sent me unpublished manuscripts and screenplays to study. As my talent grew, relationships with writers blossomed into correspondence with publishers and filmmakers who asked me to critique their unfinished work. Consulting professionals assisted me in co-instructing a creative writing workshop at the prison where I am housed. I passed on skills I learned from masters to beginning incarcerated writers to help them find the positive change I found through writing.
In early 2022, my friend, Queen Norris, of Qii Films, sent a 30-page screenplay for a short film she wrote and planned to produce. Because prisons no longer accept mail, Queen had to send it to Text Behind’s processing center in Phoenix, Maryland. I never received the package. Forty days later, Queen received the open package back with a “Return to Sender” notation from Text Behind, but no explanation as to why they rejected it. Queen searched their website for Text Behind’s rejection policy and found none. We agreed that Text Behind may have a limit on pages it will process, but their website offered no information. Without knowing the cause of the rejection, Queen was afraid to send the screenplay again, severing our correspondence.
In December 2021, Kimberley Carter sent a letter informing me that she had published my poem, “The Inheritance” on her website Walk In Those Shoes. Text Behind rejected the letter twice without giving a reason. Frustrated, Kimberley was forced to create an online account and pay Text Behind $1.29 to relay the same three-sentence message.
My experiences point toward predatory practices by Text Behind. By rejecting mail with no cause, Text Behind compels our friends and family to create online accounts ensuring we get mail they wish to send. Also, by not telling people what they can send or how many pages they can send, Text Behind neglects continued contact through materials prisoners have always been able to receive. Before Text Behind, I never had a problem receiving manuscripts or screenplays; now, I can receive neither, and no one will explain why. This situation hinders a necessary facet of my rehabilitation, because I can no longer correspond and exchange these materials with people who have greatly impacted my personal growth and development.
To write to Phillip Vance Smith, II, you can send a letter to the following Text Behind address:
Phillip Smith # 0643656
Nash Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 247
Phoenix, MD 21131