Mo. jail to begin postcard-only policy for incoming mail

Many county jails in the region have already switched to this policy to cut down on the time staff spend checking for contraband

By Rayna Karst
The Joplin Globe, Mo.

NEOSHO, Mo. — The Newton County Sheriff’s Office is joining counties across the state in limiting incoming mail for inmates to postcards, effective Oct. 1.

The county jail will update its mail policy to cut down on the time that corrections officers spend opening and checking envelopes for contraband as well as to increase both prisoner and officer safety, Sheriff Chris Jennings said.

The jail has around 100 prisoners every day, which can lead to hundreds of envelopes in a week.
The jail has around 100 prisoners every day, which can lead to hundreds of envelopes in a week. (Photo/Pixabay)

“We have to remove anything with glue, like the stamps, because they will try to bring drugs in behind the stamps or stuck to the glue,” he said. “With the postcards, that’s not an issue. We don’t have to search for other contraband and make sure there’s nothing else in there.”

Jennings said the jail has around 100 prisoners every day, which can lead to hundreds of envelopes in a week that the officers MUST search.

“That ends up being quite a bit of mail that we have to spend time with people searching through and removing items,” he said. “It’s time plus officer safety.”

Legal challenges elsewhere

Newton County had been considering updating its mail policy for some time, but officials initially decided to wait until lawsuits on the issue elsewhere in Missouri were resolved, Jennings said.

One such lawsuit was filed against Cape Girardeau County by Cheryl Simpson, who alleged that the county jail’s postcard-only mail policy violated her First and 14th amendment rights by restricting her ability to communicate with her son, who was an inmate there at the time.

Prior to the postcard-only policy, Simpson would regularly send her son two- and three-page double-sided letters that could be contained in one envelope with a single stamp, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which represented the plaintiff in court. Under the new policy, she would have to send 40 postcards with $15 in postage to communicate the same information, the ACLU argued.

“The content of Ms. Simpson’s written correspondence is quantitatively less and substantively different than it would be had the policy not changed, which is a real infringement of her constitutionally protected right to communicate with her son,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, in February 2014.

But the district court sided with the county, ruling that the postcard policy did not violate Simpson’s constitutional rights. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the ruling, affirming the postcard-only mail policy as constitutional.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, also has advocated for the right to send letters to and from jail inmates, alleging that a postcard-only policy places a “significant burden” on black and low-income inmates and their families.

“In practice, (postcard-only policies) have the perverse effect of deterring written communication between incarcerated people and their communities, straining connections that are essential for both successful reintegration and for preventing reoffending,” the initiative’s Leah Sakala said in February 2013.

A regional shift

In Newton County, Jennings acknowledged that the postcard-only policy might be an “inconvenience,” but he noted that many county jails in the region have already switched to this policy.

“We’re just going to do the same thing that everybody else is doing,” he said.

The Jasper County Jail implemented a postcard-only policy in 2010, and Sheriff Randee Kaiser said it has helped increase productivity and safety.

Brad DeLay, sheriff of Lawrence County, said his office has had the policy in place for eight to 10 years.

“It’s just worked out wonders,” DeLay said. “The contraband has dropped significantly — obviously you can’t hide anything in a postcard — and it saves jailers a lot of time having to dig through a lot of mail making sure that there’s not any contraband. It’s been a huge benefit for us.”

DeLay said jail inmates and their families were upset about the new policy for the first year or so, but there have been no other issues since.

And the Greene County Jail announced in January that incoming and outgoing letters, greeting cards and other forms of mail would be restricted to postcards beginning in February, with an exemption for privileged mail. James Craigmyle, a spokesman for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, told the Springfield News-Leader at the time that the policy change was “due to safety and efficiency concerns.”

“Our mail room staff can no longer safely and efficiently keep up with the amount of incoming and outgoing mail volume, and this increases the risk that contraband could make it into the jail through the mail,” he said.

Other policy notes

Under the new Newton County policy, postcards can be no larger than 5 inches by 7 inches, a standard size. If inmates receive envelopes after the policy goes into effect, that mail will be returned to the sender with an attached card that explains the policy, Jennings said.

“The prisoners are also notified the minute they come into our jail of our policies,” he said. “They can tell their family or friends.”

All legal correspondence sent to inmates in an envelope will continue to be accepted, and inmates can still send outgoing mail in envelopes, Jennings said.

Inmates also will no longer be able to receive checks or money orders in envelopes, Jennings said. Instead, the jail has implemented an online system for adding money into an inmate’s account, which can be accessed at Money can also be brought to the jail’s lobby and added to an account using a new kiosk that takes both cash and credit cards.

Anyone with questions regarding the new postcard policy can contact Lt. Mike Barnett with the Newton County Sheriff’s Office at 417-451-8311.

©2018 The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.)

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