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How to strike a balance between mail security and prisoners’ rights

The first step for prison officials is to have a clear view of the mail security vulnerabilities in their particular facility


In this Oct. 4, 2018, Pennsylvania Corrections Department mail inspector Brian Strawser sorts inmate mail at Camp Hill state prison in Camp Hill, Pa.

AP Photo/Mark Scolforo

By Will Plummer

The benefits of physical mail correspondence and personal letters for inmates are well known. Inmates have a First Amendment right to receive mail. However, these rights have sometimes caused issues for officers and mailroom personnel.

The flood of drugs like synthetic marijuana, fentanyl and suboxone strips that have been inserted into letters and parcels has resulted in dangerous incidents for prison officers who were exposed to these substances during the mail-screening process. There has also been a high number of overdoses and drug-related deaths among inmates, in part due to drugs that slipped past mail screening.

Prisons have had to find a way to assess and address mailroom vulnerabilities in a way that balances not only security and the safety of correctional officers, but also prisoners’ right to receive correspondence and privacy in legal communication.

Assessing vulnerabilities

The first step for prison officials is to have a clear view of the mail security vulnerabilities in their particular facility. How serious is the threat?

Prisons and jails deal with overwhelming amounts of mail. Virginia’s correctional system has to manage around 1.4 million individual pieces of mail each year. Of course, the amount and type of mail change around holidays, with an increase in care packages and gifts sent by family members and friends.

It’s hard to find specific statistics regarding the danger that these packages and letters pose, but one example is particularly eye-opening. Last year, a Delaware prison intercepted 100 contraband mail items without any advanced screening methods. That should make you ask, how much more contraband got through without being detected?

And while many facilities have been close-mouthed about the exact number of threats they’ve discovered, there have been plenty of incidents in the news highlighting times when contraband that got past mailroom personnel caused serious harm. For example, four officers were injured in a single incident of inmate violence due to drugs just last year. Two more were sickened by accidental contact with drugs in a prison mailroom in March, and inmate deaths due to overdose have increased by 600% in the last 20 years.

And drugs aren’t the only dangers. Other types of contraband include electronics like cell phones that facilitate criminal activity behind bars and materials that could be made into a weapon. Still, drugs remain the top mail security vulnerability, as they are generally the hardest to detect. And they are also the most potentially dangerous for officers and inmates.

Addressing the Problem

What are some of the things prison officials need to consider as they try to address these mail security vulnerabilities and increase safety for inmates and officers alike?

One top consideration is simply cost. Prison facilities have limited budgets, and as much as they might want to prioritize solving mail security vulnerabilities, that can be expensive. Implementing more efficient strategies in the mailroom could save statewide prison facilities over $1 million each year, according to the California Department of Corrections.

Even the simplest technologies can make a big difference. Requiring the use of an automatic letter opener for screening personal mail can help prisons save on hundreds or thousands of hours of labor in a given year across many facilities. Some facilities have also opted to simply outsource personal mail processing to companies with additional technological resources, although this isn’t always cheaper in the long run.

Legal mail requires additional consideration since mailroom personnel are restricted from simply opening and scanning such mail. Unfortunately, the majority of drugs enter through mail disguised as legal correspondence rather than personal letters. So another useful technology is a scanner to check for contraband without needing to open packages or letters at all.

Maintaining Privacy and Timely Delivery

Another top consideration for any facility is the legal and privacy aspect of mail security. This affects not only inmates, but also their families and legal counsel. Some prisons have resorted to photocopying personal mail and photos and destroying the originals in order to mitigate risks to officers and reduce overdoses and drug-related deaths for inmates due to suboxone, fentanyl and K-2.

While this copy-and-destroy practice does reduce security incidents for personal mail, it also means mailroom personnel or third-party companies can open and potentially read all correspondence. As an alternative, prisons can avoid legal issues by implementing scanners that check for powders, liquids and any other contraband without even opening letters or packages. For example, the Virginia Department of Corrections just recently announced that all legal mail must be sent to a centralized distribution center to be security screened for illicit substances prior to being delivered in order to preserve both the privacy of privileged mail and the safety of inmates and officers. Though this can still be somewhat labor-intensive and requires additional logistics to re-route the screened mail, it provides additional layers of security to mitigate the flow of drugs and contraband.

A variety of screening tools may be used to screen mail without opening it, however, it is important to understand the benefits and limitations of each. X-ray scanners produce a static 2D image and can work to detect some electronics and other large contraband like weapons and explosives. But they can’t detect drugs in their most common forms including powders, liquids, or drug-soaked papers and they give off harmful radiation, so they require special certification and training. On the other hand, T-ray scanners are a new technology that provides a live video 3D view of items concealed in the mail and can be used to detect a wide range of contraband including powders, liquids, suboxone strips, treated papers, electronics and weapons, among others, without exposing employees to harmful radiation or opening packages and letters at all.

Another alternative is getting a K-9 unit. A drug-sniffing dog speeds up the mail search process without opening mail, but a drug-sniffing dog may also fall victim to accidental exposure, resulting in expensive vet bills or animal deaths. Still, some prisons weighing the ongoing costs against the benefits of K-9 involvement have decided that the advantages make the expense worthwhile.

The final consideration every prison facility needs to deal with is time. One of the top complaints for inmates is that their mail is heavily delayed. In some cases, it gets lost in a pile of mail that sits for months before being delivered. Then there’s the lengthy appeal process: if an inmate doesn’t get mail in a reasonable amount of time, that might provide a reason to file an appeal. Each appeal takes time and effort to address, so the best principle is to avoid appeals by ensuring timely mail delivery.

However prisons work to address mail security vulnerabilities, the important thing is that they balance the legal implications of the First Amendment with the safety of officers and inmates.

About the author

Will Plummer is a military veteran and Chief Security Officer at RaySecur.