Inmates are masters at finding loopholes in a facility’s security operations. Whether it is finding a couple extra minutes for a phone call or an extra cookie on your lunch tray, inmates know how to work the system to get what they want. One of these loopholes includes one of the largest and longest on-going security problems that is one of the most talked about topics in corrections: incoming mail. The risks of facility staff safely handling incoming mail are becoming more dangerous, and we’re not talking about papercuts!
Morphine. Methamphetamine. Suboxone. LSD. Fentanyl. These are just a few examples of the liquid hallucinogenic drugs that soak into paper envelopes and are mailed to jail and prison facilities. All the mail recipient(s) must do is rip off the (dried) paper from the envelope, chew it like a piece of gum, and wait for the high to kick in (Nussbaum, 2021). Aside from drug-soaked mail, other items such as razor blades, pornography, and gang messaging are also contraband items that mail handlers need to be aware of.
There have been several cases where contraband has been attempted to be smuggled into correctional facilities. This security hazard has been a problem for decades and still becomes more dangerous with new, evolving smuggling techniques. Drugs can be hidden under postage stamps and stickers, in the seams of the envelopes, blended into adhesives, mixed into crayons, inks, and markers (Corrections 1, 2021). Your first thought may be “just don’t allow inmates to have mail.” However, it’s illegal to withhold mail from its intended recipient, including inmates. It’s crucial to prove that an inmate’s mail has been picked up or delivered. If not, an inmate can file a grievance or lawsuit stating they have not been getting their mail.
Due to the increasing risks of handling mail, several facilities have adapted new efficient ways of receiving, processing, and delivering their incoming mail. Using drug-sniffing dogs and infrared lights are common security protocol practices, but there are many other creative lengths facilities will go to find contraband. Some facilities require staff to manually open and inspect all mail in front of the inmates. Other facilities have banned any non-whitepaper (including photographs and greeting cards) as colored paper makes it difficult to find stains, which came from soaking in liquified drugs. (Jackman, 2016). Another common procedure is to utilize external communication vendors to screen the incoming mail. There are several benefits to using a communication vendor for scanning mail. It increases safety and security within the facility by physically processing the mail at an off-site location. All mail addressed to inmates is sent to a processing facility to open, scan, and upload the information to a mail management portal that can be either automatically delivered to inmates, or filtered with an agency's security settings, triggering the staff to review and approve the material before delivering. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, using a communication vendor reduces the excess paper inside the jail cell. Facilities no longer have to worry about photos and postcards posted to the walls and light fixtures, because all correspondence is now digitally stored on a tablet or kiosk.
All these handling methods come with a price. Luckily, there are alternative ways that facilities have found to track mail accurately and cost effectively. The most common solution is digitally transforming the process of keeping logs. This is done by utilizing a mobile inmate tracking system that takes pictures of the envelope, scans an inmate’s identification, and has the inmate sign for the mail all during the mail delivery in front of the inmate. Now, when you receive a complaint from an inmate suggesting they didn’t receive their mail, you have a digital log specific to the inmate and their communication records. Finding the accuracy of their claim is searchable and downloadable within a few moments.
There isn’t necessarily one concrete “right” answer on how to handle your incoming mail. All these options greatly reduce the risk for staff and allow them much more time to focus on other responsibilities. However, officers aren’t the only ones benefiting from these techniques. Converting communication into a digital format, such as accessing images via tablet or kiosk, opens another avenue for inmates to communicate with their families and loved ones outside of the facility. Communication is a powerful tool. It’s what keeps people sane. Having meaningful interpersonal interactions, especially with family or friends, contributes to positive mental health and reduces negative tensions within the facility. Save yourself time and increase your facility defensibility by finding a way to document what is occurring at the point of responsibility.
Daniel Quam | Director of Jail Operations at GUARDIAN RFID
Jeff Kovar | Strategic Account Executive at GUARDIAN RFID
Jackman, Tom (2016). Jail inmates now getting drug-soaked paper through mail, jails moving to stop it
Nussbaum, Katie (2021). Drug-soak letters lead to electronic mail policy at Ga. jail
Corrections1, BrandFocus Staff (2021). How one tool helps COs screen mail for illicit drugs quickly and safely
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