Trending Topics

Battling narcotics in jail mail

The creativity behind contraband smuggling is endless so it is imperative that correctional officials stay abreast with what inmates are conspiring


What most officers who work in mailrooms will acknowledge is that contraband drug mitigation efforts are as much an art as a science.

Joseph Kolb

Mail sent to correction and detention facilities continues to be a popular method for introducing narcotic contraband into correctional facilities.

The situation has been made even worse by COVID-adjusted visitation policies that cause inmates and their outside cohorts to broaden the ingenuity used to conceal drugs from mailroom staff.

What most officers who work in mailrooms will acknowledge is that mitigation efforts are as much an art as a science. Knowing what the trends are and how to identify contraband requires a mix of intuition, knowledge, sensory acuity, intelligence, and, if available, technological or K-9 resources.

What drugs are being smuggled in?

The kinds of drugs attempted to be smuggled into facilities continue to reflect inmate preferences from the streets.

The range is expansive: Suboxone, Subutex, Xanax, heroin, cocaine, crack, K2/spice, methamphetamine, marijuana, ecstasy, and more recently, fentanyl.

Many of these drugs can be introduced both in sold and dry-liquid forms.

Astonishingly, some inmates will go so far as to have an outside source spray paper with a bug repellent, then mail it to them where they chew the paper for a pyrethroids-induced high.

How are drugs being smuggled in?

The typical vectors for introduction include concealing the drugs in the seams of envelopes. Manila envelopes are especially popular as they are similar in color to the orange Suboxone strips. The adhesive of the envelope and stamps are also common sites.

More savvy smugglers will spray or soak the paper of letters with the drug of their choice. Other options involve photos where the drug is sprayed on the back or inserted between two photos adhered together. There is also the abuse of perceived legal mail that has to be opened in front of the inmate.


Veiled attempts to reproduce a section of an official document, such as a black bar that highlights the content, may be used to conceal drugs beneath it.

Joseph Kolb

On one occasion I was opening legal mail with an inmate and, as I removed the staples, which I customarily do, I observed half-size strips of Suboxone beneath the stapled corner that would have been concealed had I not removed the staples.

Inmates have also received documents such as the legal name change of motor vehicle ownership where the sender meticulously copied, cut, replaced and ironed a segment – usually a broad black bar – that conceals the drug beneath it only to be peeled off later by the inmate.

One of the most ambitious attempts was liquefied Suboxone that was painted with a fine brush between the double-margin lines of sheets of loose-leaf paper.

The prison drug market is extremely lucrative with markups as high as 500%. In New Mexico facilities a strip of Suboxone can range from $300-$600 depending on the level of security the inmate is housed in. A strip on the street may go for $15.


Common mail concealment locations are the seams and flaps of envelopes.

Joseph Kolb


Prevention through specific policies and information sharing has a significant impact on smuggling efforts. Specific policies eliminate ambiguities and can prevent lawsuits when certain materials are prohibited.

Inmate mail does have its limitations as to what they can or should be received. A basic outline of my facility’s protocols prohibits food items, hardcover books, stickers, coloring pages, colored ink other than black or blue, polaroid photos, greeting cards, or even religious cards sent in by outside sources.

In March the Maine Department of Corrections revised its policy to limit correspondence to only 8.5-by-11-inch white lined paper and the lines were to be blue or black as was the ink. This is only part of the process of contraband mitigation. The inmate receives a photocopy of the letter and does not receive the original, which could be tainted. Michigan Department of Corrections has a similar photocopy policy.

Implementing an intelligence-gathering process

The creativity behind contraband smuggling is endless so it is imperative that correctional officials stay abreast with what inmates are conspiring. This can be daunting but can be alleviated with an intelligence-based process any size facility can employ.

This could include:

  • Security personnel who listen to phone calls share suspicious information pertinent to expected mail delivery to the specific inmate(s). Codes are frequently used and should raise red flags.
  • Line officers and Security Threat Intelligence Unit officers who receive tips or overhear conversations of anticipated mail drops should share this with mailroom staff.
  • Inmate history: Do they have a history of drug abuse or previous smuggling attempts?
  • Inspection of outgoing mail can be useful. On numerous occasions, I intercepted outgoing inmate mail that specifically describes how the recipient should prepare and mail the drugs. “Soak the letters in meth, like a gram, each paper soak it then iron it so it’s not so stiff, put a bogus return address and send it to me,” conspired one inmate. “Get a spray bottle and cotton paper. Put the whole 8Ball in the spray bottle and add just enough water to dissolve the dope and shake it until it’s all liquid and dissolved. Then put the paper on a pan or plate and spray the whole sheet until it is soaked through then flip it and let it dry. Then do the same to the opposite side until it’s completely empty out the bottle. When both sheets are dry write on them and make it look as if they were meant to be authentic letters,” advised another inmate.
  • A well-trained K-9 is invaluable in sniffing out narcotics. There are also resources such as scanners that can quickly scan for the presence of drugs in the mail.


Mailroom staff should be thoroughly trained in identifying the potential for contraband. The following is the process I use in examining mail:

  • Examine the envelope before opening for odd smells, stains, or wrinkled paper that may indicate it was wet then dried.
  • Observe the amount of postage placed on the envelope. An excessive amount of postage that doesn’t correlate to the weight of the letter should raise suspicion.
  • Names on envelopes that do not match those on letters. Nicknames may be an exception but should still be scrutinized.
  • Palpation. I feel the envelope and letter for any rigidity, slippery, waxy, or grainy surfaces. When you’ve examined thousands of envelopes and letters you tend to develop a reliable sense of touch as to how the seams and paper should feel.
  • Observation using a high-powered flashlight or lightbox will reveal concealed contraband in envelope seams, between photos, or on letters. Also look for unusual stains, especially orange and brown. Indications the seams had been separated and re-attached with non-toxic glue.
  • Letters that have little content or are gibberish.
  • Is there anything unusual about the sender? Are they a former inmate or suspected relative or relationships of an inmate? I have had successful finds when there was a scribbled out and replaced sender name. Recently I had a case where two inmates in the same pod received letters from the same girl, postmarked on the same day, but she used two different addresses for herself. Both letters tested positive for meth.
  • Cotton paper can absorb a copious amount of narcotics sprayed or soaked into the paper.

Stamps and adhesive flaps should be removed from all letters. Any suspicious item will be tested.

Prosecuting the smugglers and recipients is daunting for a variety of reasons. The sender typically uses a false name and address that is almost impossible to trace and the inmate, who never comes into contact with the letter, can claim they had no idea the person on the “outs” would do this. It’s not to say it is impossible though. There have been successful cases where conspirators have been implicated. Therefore, accountability would come in the form of institutional disciplinary write-ups.

Joseph J. Kolb, MA, is the executive director for the Southwest Gang Information Center, master instructor for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University. He is also the mail officer for the Santa Fe (NM) County Adult Detention Facility.