Advocates express concerns as Kansas DOC starts digital mail pilot

Advocates say more of an effort should be made to stem the flow of contraband via other sources, like staff


By Andrew Bahl
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.
        
TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas is the latest state to explore alterations to its mail policies in state prisons, pointing to the rise of drug use within facilities as justification for a move that has alarmed advocates.

As part of a pilot program launched at Ellsworth Correctional Facility, incoming mail is being scanned and copies are being passed along to inmates, with the original versions destroyed.

In a move seemingly out of a science fiction novel, corrections officials say there have been increased cases of the synthetic drug K2 being soaked into sheets of paper and sent into prisons via the mail, part of an ongoing rise in drug-related incidents.

Unlike other state or local correctional agencies, KDOC has opted not to use a contractor and is instead handling the process in house using existing mailroom employees.
Unlike other state or local correctional agencies, KDOC has opted not to use a contractor and is instead handling the process in house using existing mailroom employees. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

State and local governments across the country have taken similar steps, largely in the face of opposition from criminal justice reform activists and legal advocates worried about privacy concerns.

Similar opposition has formed in Kansas. While activists acknowledge the mail issue may not seem like a major issue for those on the outside, they argue the power of holding a hand-drawn card from your child shouldn't be underestimated

"Rather than get the people the help they need, or ramping up security within their own staff, they make it more punitive, more dehumanizing, more degrading," said Brandilyn Parks, president of the Kansas Coalition for Sentence and Prison Reform. "They are saying 'OK, now you can't even have paper that smells like home.'

"It doesn't really seem like a big deal. But actually, it reflects so much more about how they operate."

There is evidence to suggest the problem of drugs in prison has been getting worse in recent years, across the country and in Kansas.

Drug overdose deaths in state prisons nationally skyrocketed between 2001 and 2018, with national data showing a 600% increase. In raw numbers, the effect was more muted in Kansas, which saw six deaths from drugs or alcohol in that time period.

But the problem has persisted, officials say.

Larned Mental Health Correctional Facility halted in-person visitation for a period of time in 2019 after an inmate was hospitalized for a drug overdose. The prison said 20 individuals were deemed to be under the influence in the 30 days leading up to that event and staff reportedly found "a lot of contraband in the facility."

More recently, KDOC reported the the number of residents found in "altered states of consciousness" have nearly tripled in the past three years and are projected to exceed 1,200 instances by the end of 2021.

In-person visitation has been sharply curbed in the past year-and-a-half due to the COVID-19 pandemic, largely shutting down that avenue for contraband to make its way into prisons.

But activists argue the a key stream for drugs and other illicit materials into prisons and jails comes by way of corrections officers and other staff.

The Sedgwick County Jail, for instance, has pointed to multiple instances where drugs have been uncovered in the mail, including an incident in March where a letter purporting to be from the Kansas attorney general contained 5 grams of K2.

But also in March, law enforcement arrested a jail deputy for allegedly bringing contraband into the facility. Weeks later, similar charges were filed against a contract kitchen worker in the jail.

Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that handles prison privacy issues, said there is undoubtedly a compelling interest in cutting down on the flow of drugs to a facility.

But he said that focusing on the mail element was missing the larger picture — at the expense of inmates' civil liberties.

"There are many other avenues in which contraband, including drugs, are available in facilities," Mackey said. "And so it addresses that and then what it also does is it deprives all these prisoners of access to their physical mail. It intrudes on their own privacy, their own expression, their own autonomy."

The Kansas program is much less involved than what has been introduced in other states. Unlike other state or local correctional agencies, KDOC has opted not to use a contractor and is instead handling the process in house using existing mailroom employees, said Randall Bowman, director of public affairs at KDOC.

[Read: N.C. to change way mail gets to inmates starting in October]

Legal mail, which is subject to attorney-client privilege, is handled differently, Bowman added. That mail is opened in the presence of residents and isn't read by staff, although it is screened for any unusual odors or appearances and can be tested.

The plan is to expand the process throughout the system assuming it proves successful at Ellsworth. That concerns Laura Guengrich, whose son is at Hutchinson Correctional Facility.

While Guengrich often keeps in touch with her son by phone, she quickly noted that isn't an option available to everyone.

Kansas has seen its phone costs in state prisons shrink dramatically in recent years, with the price of a 15-minute phone call shrinking from $18 in 2019 to $2.70 today. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the department loosened the cost structure even further.

But that is still more expensive than using the mail, Guengrich argued.

"There's a lot of people that don't have that financial luxury of being able to have those phone calls and everything with their loved ones," she said. "And they rely on writing and children drawing pictures so they can help stay connected to their parents."

Kansas is far from the first state to implement such a system.

In Pennsylvania, inmates have complained about a similar setup, farmed out to a Florida-based contractor, that has resulted in delivery delays, scanned mail being given to the wrong inmates and poor scan quality, which renders their letters and photos inscrutable.

Officials agreed in 2019 to walk back elements of the program after a lawsuit was filed over the matter.

The ACLU of Kansas declined comment on the matter, saying they were reviewing the issue and wanted to see if KDOC addressed potential concerns before publicly expounding on Kansas' effort.

"Kansas is apparently just adding to the number of facilities and institutions across the country that are adopting this technology," Mackey said.

The Shawnee County Jail has used a scanning system of its own since late 2020. While drugs were the "straw that broke the camel's back" in pushing the county to contract with a Texas-based company, Tim Phelps, deputy director of the Shawnee County Department of Corrections, noted there were other factors in play.

Print mail has long been a thorn in the sides of corrections, Phelps said, with paper letters clogging up jail cells and posing a fire hazard.

"Technology is changing the whole atmosphere in (the detention center)," he said. "Inmates love it. And I suspect to some degree they hate it."

In Shawnee County, mail is sent off-site, digitized and provided for inmates on a personal tablet. The files live on as long as an inmate is being held in the jail, but investigators can maintain access for longer.

Jail officials can also observe a person's contacts and flag incoming messages if they believe an inmate is discussing illicit activities with someone on the outside, although Phelps notes that happened with paper messages as well.

Ultimately, mail levels have decreased since the switch, with only 10 pieces per day digitized. Phelps said this is in large part due to the spread of technology in correctional facilities, pointing to the department's plans to roll out video visits in the coming months.

And while he said he wasn't likely to be "anybody's hero" for the move, Phelps said there have only been a handful of "mild-mannered" complaints. While he was sympathetic to concerns that scanning mail limited the connection with family, he noted security had to come first.

"Literally the top priority for our detention center is safety and security," Phelps said. "Everything comes after that. Then since that privilege of getting that specific type of communication turned into a growing source of contraband, that had to take precedent."

But Parks, of the Kansas Coalition for Sentence and Prison Reform, said the time and energy spent on scanning mail could be better used addressing the root causes of drug addiction and treating those incarcerated for drug offenses in a more humane way.

"The punishment only goes to the incarcerated, rather than getting them treatment and solving it at the core," she said. "You may not be able to solve all of them. But you could heal a lot of those things by just investing in the people rather than more punishment. And that's what we feel is happening here."

Next: Battling narcotics in jail mail

(c)2021 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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