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Drug-soaked letters lead to electronic mail policy at Ga. jail

People have gone to great lengths to get drugs into the facility, but the sheriff’s office is gaining the upper hand


AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

By Katie Nussbaum
Savannah Morning News, Ga.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Chatham County jailors take many steps to keep drugs out of their 2,000-bed facility — even down to limiting how those incarcerated there receive mail.

Staff at the local detention center have intercepted letters and envelopes addressed to inmates that are laced with fentanyl, a synthetic and inexpensive opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, along with other synthetic drugs.

“They soak the paper in fentanyl and they take it out and dry it and then they write a letter on it and send it into the jail and then [the inmates] would take and tear it off and sell it like chewing gum and people would get it and get high on it,” Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher said.

The trend has forced the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office to adapt its processes: They encourage electronic mail and photos and photo scan all physical mail sent to prisoners, delivering those communications via kiosks.

A fatal dose of fentanyl ranges from 2 to 5 milligrams. For comparison, a single pack of Splenda contains 1,000 milligrams of sweetener, which would amount to enough fentanyl to kill upwards of 500 people.

During a recent Chatham County Commission meeting, CNT Deputy Assistant Director Dan Flood reported that there had been 34 overdose deaths in the county this year as of Aug. 27, including three on Aug. 26.

Using mail to get drugs into the jail is nothing new. Wilcher became aware of the practice while working in jail administration several years ago.

“We noticed we had a lot of inmates who were getting sick and had to be taken to the hospital. Well, the first thing we came up with, through some reliable sources, was they were putting angel dust and stuff under stamps, putting them on the letters and (inmates were) taking the stamps off, and licking them and getting high,” he said.

To remedy the problem the stamps were cut off of the envelopes before they were given to inmates, but later officials discovered that drugs were then being placed under the seal of the envelopes.

Wilcher retired as jail administrator in 2014 and was elected as sheriff in 2016. When he came back on board at the Chatham County jail he and his leadership team once again noticed an issue with mail.

Senders were creating fake return address labels to disguise letters, cards and other documents as legal mail in order to get prohibited items in the hands of inmates.

After moving to copy the legal mail, officials discovered that incoming letters were being soaked in fentanyl or suboxone, which is used to treat opioid addiction, but when misused can be addictive.

Another issue Wilcher and his team were notified about is the practice of soaking paperback books.

According to a notice distributed through the National Sheriff’s Association, books were being stolen from a store, soaked in drugs and then returned to the store and shipped to inmates.

“Fortunately as far as I know we haven’t had one come in,” Wilcher said of the contraband-laced books.

A little more than a year ago the jail moved to an electronic mail system in order to get ahead of the issue, which Wilcher said is working smoothly. The jail already had kiosks for inmates to send and receive emails and order commissary. Now all mail, except legal mail, is uploaded to the system for inmates to read.

“We have seen a decline on 10-78 calls, which is a sick person that is down and needs medical help,” he said.

As for the drug-laced mail, Wilcher said the return address labels are fake, preventing the Sheriff’s Office from tracing the contraband back to any of the original senders.

“And you can’t do fingerprints, because how many people handled this envelope between where it originated and when it got (to the jail)?” he said.

Using kiosks for electronic mail isn’t unique to the Chatham County Detention Center. Several counties across the state, including Lumpkin, Gwinnett and Muscogee counties, have implemented similar policies.

At the federal level, the Federal Bureau of Prisons launched a months-long pilot program to digitize incoming mail to cut down on contraband in 2020.

The electronic mail system keeps both inmates and officers safe, Wilcher said.

“We’ve tried everything in the world to make sure that no drugs get sent to the jail by doing this with the mail. (People say) ‘Well, that’s depriving them their rights.’ No, it’s not; this is for their safety,” he said.

“Not only for their safety, but my officers’ safety, too, because you get a person who gets back there and gets high and there’s no telling what they’re likely to do.”

Next: Battling narcotics in jail mail

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