N.M. inmates now receive only photocopied mail
Inmates also no longer receive packages, magazines, personal checks or cash
By Rick Nathanson
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Earl Weston knows the isolation of being in prison and how important a magazine, or a letter from a friend or family member can be.
He served 27 years in New Mexico prisons for a murder conviction. Since his release in 2014, he has befriended a number of people still serving time behind bars.
As of Feb. 1, corresponding with his incarcerated friends has become more challenging. The New Mexico Corrections Department, in an attempt to intercept drugs hidden in mail, now provides inmates with photocopies of letters rather than the originals — which they never see and are ultimately destroyed, said Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison.
Inmates also no longer receive packages, magazines, personal checks or cash.
Harrison said inmates had been receiving personal letters with the paper and envelopes sprayed with any number of drugs, including spice, fentanyl and Suboxone, a narcotic often used in the treatment of opioid addiction. The inmates would chew or swallow pieces of the paper to ingest the drugs.
Weston said he became aware of the mail procedure change while corresponding with Michael Clark, an inmate at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces.
Weston said Clark and other inmates criticized the change, and he questioned why all inmates should be penalized for the actions of a few.
Under the old system, corrections officers opened inmate mail to look for contraband; any cash or money orders in those envelopes was removed and credited to the inmate's prison account before the correspondence was passed on to the individuals.
The biggest problem, said Weston, was "sometimes mail would get a little slow or backed up if a corrections officer assigned to the mail room was on vacation or out sick."
The new procedure requires that mail for inmates at the eight state Corrections Department-run prisons must be addressed to the digital mail center of Securus Technologies in Tampa, Florida, a prisons communications company. Securus opens and screens the mail, and scans it into a computer system. From there, it is made available to each of the prisons, which download the files and print out photocopies of the correspondence for the inmates.
The originals sent to Securus in Florida are subsequently destroyed, Harrison said. Packages, as well as letters containing cash and personal checks, are returned to the sender. Inmate mail that continues to be received at the prisons is likewise returned to the sender.
The exception is privileged mail, such as documents from a lawyer, judge or the courts. These can be sent directly to a prison, where they are opened in the presence of the inmate and, after being screened for contraband, are turned over to that person, Harrison said.
The two privately run prisons in Lea and Otero counties continue to receive mail at their facilities and have not signed on with Securus, Harrison said.
Weston, who now lives in California and owns a commercial trucking business, said "drugs will always be a problem in prisons because there's a huge demand and there's money to be made." However, he expressed doubt that drug-laced paper was the primary avenue by which inmates obtain illegal substances.
Weston also questioned, "Why is a business in Florida getting money to operate a prison mail system, instead of a New Mexico company?"
Harrison said he was unaware of any other businesses in New Mexico that provide this type of mail service and because Securus was already operating the state prisons' phone system, it made sense to just expand its services.
The cost to the Corrections Department for the Securus mail system is $3.50 per inmate, per month, regardless of the amount of mail individual inmates receive, Harrison said. With about 3,800 inmates currently at the eight state-run facilities, that comes out to $13,300 a month, or just under $160,000 a year.
Harrison said he didn't know what the cost had been in the past to process prison mail, but corrections officers had to be pulled from their regular duties to open and screen mail, which was time-consuming.
While it's too early to know if the new mail system will prove cost-effective or efficient at reducing contraband, he said the reality is that inmates on drugs are a safety threat to themselves and corrections officers.
Harrison said he did not know how many cases there were of inmates extracting drugs from laced correspondences, only that it "occurred regularly."
"There were a number of incidents where individuals had to be administered Narcan (to counteract drug overdoses) and they later confessed that they had received the drugs through the mail," Harrison said.
Inmate Michael Clark said in a telephone interview with the Journal that he was particularly irritated because inmates no longer get magazines, including educational and faith-based publications or newspapers — items that Securus does not scan and upload.
Securus did not respond to calls or an email sent by the Journal seeking comment.
"That stuff comes straight from the publishers, from churches, religious groups or educational companies. They're not gonna put drugs inside that stuff," said Clark, who was convicted of a 1991 murder in Chaves County and sentenced to life in prison plus 24 years.
"I've got 12 more years till I even hit a parole board," he said, adding, "that's a long time to go" with limited mail availability.
"I don't like it. Nobody likes it, nobody's happy with it. It's just frustrating," said Clark, who said he voiced his concerns in letters to the governor and the secretary of Corrections, and is still waiting for a response.
Clark said he also filed a formal grievance through the normal in-house prison channels. "I was told I was out of time, that I was supposed to have filed it within 10 days of the issue. Ten days from when? It's an ongoing issue."
According to Harrison, prison officials are reviewing the new procedure with respect to magazines and other material that is mailed directly from publishers. It is possible, he said, that these may eventually be made available to inmates, or access could be provided through prison libraries.
The whole thing seems a bit misguided, said Clark. "I know stopping our mail has not stopped the drugs. I can tell you that much."
(c)2022 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)