Calif. county to ban non-legal mail delivery to inmates

The remaining mail items will be sent to a contracted vendor to be screened and digitally scanned

By Jessica A. York
Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Closing the last major hole in jail contraband security measures, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office began phasing out the delivery of non-legal postal mail to correctional facility inmates this week.

Physical "snail mail" that is not monetary, attorney-client or court-related in nature will be sent to a contracted vendor, Smart Communications' MailGuard facility in Seminole, Florida, to be screened, digitally scanned and uploaded to inmates' digital accounts, free of charge. The original letters, documents and photographs are destroyed.

Beginning Dec. 1, the county's jails will no longer accept routine personal mail.

Beginning Dec. 1, the county's jails will no longer accept routine personal mail.
Beginning Dec. 1, the county's jails will no longer accept routine personal mail. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Santa Cruz County's physical mail ban, a practice increasingly echoed in correctional facilities nationwide, is the latest local step by the Sheriff's Office to reduce the flow of contraband into the jails, Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office Lt. Dee Baldwin said. Earlier steps included the installation of full-body scanners for visitors and the introduction of a drug-sniffing K-9 at the jails. Since early last year, the county jails also have been closed to inmate visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic shelter-in-place orders, a practice with no immediate expiration date, Baldwin said.

"Our goal is facility safety," Baldwin said of the reasoning behind the county's new inmate postal system. "Several years ago, there was a committee formed to try and identify methods of drugs coming into the jails. The mail was that last unresolved issue that we were seeing contraband being smuggled into the jail."

Asked to estimate how often drugs and other contraband sent by postal mail are making it past jail security screenings, Baldwin said the answer was unclear. Staff exposure to "unknown substances" in physical mail, however, will be reduced, Baldwin said.

"The challenge is the ones that we are unaware of are the ones that make it through," Baldwin said of contraband. "So, I don't know, I don't have statistics to show what is able to be smuggled into the jail via the mail. But it's been a known area of weakness, historically and across the country, it's a known area of weakness. That's why these mail-scanning systems exist, to try and reduce it."

Developing digitization

The county engaged Smart Communications to take over the Santa Cruz County Corrections Division's inmate virtual visitor and digital tablet program in recent months, a no-cost contract where a 20% slice of video visits' gross proceeds return to the county's Inmate Welfare fund, according to Baldwin.

Santa Cruz County resident Sara Coon, who keeps in contact with a locally incarcerated inmate, raised alarms about the new mail system and criticized the county's switch to a new vendor. In Coon's experience, video visits have been plagued by internet service interruptions, can be costly and are difficult to schedule when inmates are on rotating 23-hour lockdown schedules.

"It's another way they are targeting disadvantaged people of our community and violating the rights just to earn money and they're going to say that the reason why they're doing it is to prevent drugs getting into the jail," Coon wrote in an email to the Sentinel. "Well, there's other ways of them being able to do it without people having to pay for it and not being able to see their loved ones."

Baldwin acknowledged that inmates' access to video visits and email- and text-style messages come at a cost to the parties involved. Digital messages cost the inmate 50 cents apiece, while photographs cost inmates $1 apiece to receive, he said. Video visits cost inmates 25 cents per minute, he said. As for loved ones outside the jails without access to high-speed internet access, Baldwin said there is no easy answer just yet. A future goal for the jail system is to install lobby kiosks that would allow visitors to conduct video visits within the building, a challenge requiring a balance with coronavirus restrictions, he said.

In addition to cutting off narcotic traffic, the new mail program's goal is to "increase your connectivity to the inmates from family and friends on the outside," Baldwin said. Jail staff members attempt to ensure that a limited number of inmates do not disproportionately utilize the tablets by enforcing periodic hands-off charging schedules, Baldwin said. According to corrections' records, a "large percentage" of inmates are logging on daily and some 80% of the population has logged into the system at one point or another, Baldwin said. The tablets also provide inmates access to movies, law library resources, a digital copy of the inmate handbook and a grievance-filing system, he said.

"Hopefully, the tangible piece of it is we don't see any instances of drug use or overdose," Baldwin said.

Inmates wishing to have a solid letter or photograph to hold on to can request that corrections staff print the item out, and the correspondence can be downloaded for a limited time at no cost once the inmate leaves jail, Baldwin said. All the messages are accessible via jail housing unit shared electric tablets, after an inmate creates a personalized account and password. Inmates can request tutorials on the use of the programs from corrections staff, according to Baldwin.

Coon said she worried that the digitally scanned mail would not stand in for the joys associated with receiving a piece of mail sent directly.

(c)2021 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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