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5 ways to improve drug and contraband interdiction in corrections mail

How to implement effective mail screening as part of a comprehensive interdiction strategy

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As staffing shortages continue across the nation, making the change from manual detection of contraband in mail to technology-based screening solutions not only frees up valuable staff time but also provides the benefit of improved contraband and drug detection.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

By Corrections1 Staff

Corrections facilities across the nation are updating policies and procedures related to the processing of inmate mail to better protect correctional personnel and inmate populations.

As contraband hidden inside letters and packages intended for inmates becomes more dangerous, chronic staffing shortages continue to plague agencies. Administrators today are turning to high-tech tools to implement safer, more consistent safety measures to prevent contraband from entering correctional facilities through inmate mail.

Here are five key steps to successfully implementing a screening operation for detecting illegal drugs and other contraband in inmate mail:

1. No need to reinvent the wheel

Learn lessons from other industries that have already implemented cutting-edge technology into their security protocols:

Email/cyber security: Every email we receive is inspected; those considered non-threatening are sent immediately, while any suspicious emails are quarantined in a secure location for further inspection. It takes constant improvements in technology to automatically detect dangerous files in an email, much like detecting hidden contraband in seemingly innocent mail. The threat of one piece of mail, whether to a computer network, or a correctional facility, is worth the effort to screen all incoming mail. Saving time and making the screening process realistic to staffing and resources is where technology steps in to assist.

TSA security checkpoints: Systematic detection technology (body scanners, X-ray and metal detectors) are used as primary screening tools. Every person and their luggage pass through detection instruments for 100% screening. Most travelers get through TSA security checkpoints in a predictable and reasonable timeline. Likewise, modern correctional facilities deploy advanced technology, such as mail screening machines, to detect dangerous contraband, including drugs and weapons, concealed in all incoming inmate mail. These machines rapidly image letters and packages, displaying the contents of unopened items, and thus alerting staff to potential security risks inside, while reducing staff time needed to conduct manual inspections. This technology ensures the safety of correctional facilities, while also streamlining the processing of incoming mail, thereby minimizing the workload on staff.

Only a small subset of suspect passengers or abnormal items go through secondary screening using additional identification screening tools (ion scanners, trace detectors, colorimetric swab test kits) to identify the potential threat. The higher screening capability of an initial screening using detection systems helps quickly hone in on what items will need further inspection with identification tools and why.

Additionally, TSA pre-check doesn’t give trusted travelers a free pass to bypass security checkpoints. They still get screened. Likewise, in a corrections facility, relying on trusted/verified mail sender programs alone creates vulnerabilities in a good screening system. The lesson is to screen all mail coming into the facility at the highest baseline level the agency can provide.

2. Each facility’s interdiction needs are unique

Start with a risk assessment to define the problem you need to solve before reaching for a solution:

  • Drug detection: What forms of drugs or other contraband (e.g., drug-laced papers, powders, liquids, small electronics, cell phones) are making it into your facility and which will you focus on for screening?
  • Inmate population types: Is your facility’s population mostly made up of long-term inmates or is it a transient population with frequent trips to court, shorter sentences and more access to the world outside your facility?
  • Understand why each screening step is needed: Determine ahead of time if your detection system will be used only to keep contraband out, or if you will use the information from your interdiction system for legal purposes or to research where your efforts should be increased/decreased. If you plan to prosecute those who attempt to introduce contraband into your facility, incorporate a good protocol for chain of custody, including that of the data and reports produced by your detection and identification systems.

3. Utilize the benefits of overt and covert screening

Covert screening can be useful to catch bad actors without them knowing which part of their process was susceptible to detection measures. Word of your covert systems may still get out within the inmate population. This can be viewed as a challenge to covert screening, however, if conspirators are missing any details as to when, where, or how their efforts are being detected, the fear of the unknown offers a rise in the perceived effort needed to smuggle contraband into a facility and will deter some bad actors.

Overt screening provides the benefit of a deterrent effect that can be significant. Prevention is often the least expensive form of security. Overt detection systems also provide a distraction for covert detection systems. A percentage of would-be smugglers will focus only on what they see in front of them. Others will put more emphasis on countermeasures related to overt screening as they fail to account for detection systems they cannot see.

4. Meet your responsibilities to staff safety

The proliferation of synthetic drugs has led to the creation of highly potent and lethal substances that can be easily concealed in mail. Correctional facilities should not be conducting manual inspections of inmate mail before passing it through screening technology to alert staff to concealed risks in unopened mail items. The risk of exposure to such substances is too high for personnel, who can be severely affected by just one opened envelope in the mail room or a housing unit, leading to emergency medical care. It is crucial to rely on advanced screening technology to ensure the safety of your staff.

5. Safeguard inmate rights regarding legal and privileged mail

Legal mail is confidential and privileged communications and therefore can only be opened for inspection in front of the intended inmate. Detection technology that is imaging-based meets this requirement in that screening occurs on an unopened object. Therefore corrections staff will not read the contents of a letter from a defense attorney to his client. At the same time, the screening device will detect any substances that the sender may have added to the envelope, whereas an unscreened envelope with dangerous drugs inside will not be discovered until after it has made its way past the mail room, into a housing unit and to an inmate’s cell.

Legal mail must be delivered to an inmate within a prescribed timeframe. Cutting-edge mail screening technology is quickly replacing antiquated manual inspection protocols that place an undue burden on corrections staff and put staff at risk of exposure to dangerous substances. As staffing shortages continue across the nation, making the change from manual detection of contraband in mail to technology-based screening solutions not only frees up valuable staff time but also provides the benefit of improved contraband and drug detection.


We all know this, but it bears reminding that the more work we put into the front end of any new system, the better the results we will see. If you know ahead of time what your needs will be, what challenges to anticipate and what results you want to see, your implementation will likely be more successful as you update your mail screening system with new tools.