New prison mail policy drives wedge between families

Corrections Department points to incidents of contraband in mail

By: - January 13, 2022 5:45 am

A prisoner at Rhode Island’s John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, watches television during free time in his wheel chair in 2013. New Mexico’s prison system is the latest to outsource its mail to a private corporation. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A new policy banning physical mail in New Mexico state prisons follows a recent trend in prison systems around the country outsourcing prison mail to private contractors.

The New Mexico Corrections Department on Dec. 29 told prisoners’ families that it will be banning physical mail in prisons, and directed them to send their letters to a private company that creates photocopies for the recipients. The department says the change is because of incidents where contraband material was smuggled in through the mail.

LuzHilda Campos, policy manager at Bold Futures New Mexico, said mail is often a significant form of connection between incarcerated people and their loved ones.

“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, connection is more important than ever, but has been significantly impacted,” she said Tuesday in a written statement. “Communication through mail can be a critical way for incarcerated people to ask for help when basic needs are not met in the facility, stay updated on family emergencies and celebrations, and/or receive emotional support from their loved ones.”

Receiving mail is already an uncertain process, she said, and further delaying it or increasing the chances of lost mail will negatively affect those in need of that life-line connection.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, family contact for incarcerated people has positive effects for everyone, including better health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school.

Barriers to family contact imposed by prisons and jails fly in the face of social science research dating back to the 1970s showing associations between family contact and outcomes, including in-prison behavior, measures of health, and reconviction after release, PPI wrote.

Other prisons systems have adopted similar mail digitization services, PPI found, also in response to claims of contraband entering prisons through the mail. These services can result in low-quality images or even missing pages.

New Mexico’s new policy also prohibits families from sending cash and checks through the mail, impacting money transfers. The state only allows prisoners to receive money from approved visitors in the form of a money order processed by the prisons.

State points to contraband in mail

Starting on Feb. 1, if any state prison receives a piece of personal mail, it would get returned to the sender unopened, Corrections spokesperson Eric Harrison said. The mail must go directly to Florida-based company Securus Technologies instead, he said.

Within 48 hours or less of the Securus receiving the mail, Harrison said, the company will open it, check it for contraband, scan it over to the prison, and then that same day, the prison is expected to print it and pass it along to the prisoner.

If Securus finds contraband in the mail, it will turn it over to police, if it doesn’t have contraband, it will be “stored or discarded,” Harrison said. Something like a news article would be scanned normally and then shredded.

As of Wednesday, the Department had not fulfilled a Jan. 4 records request for the contract with Securus. A spokesperson for the company told New Mexico Political Report that it will not charge for photocopies.

“We’re not gonna infringe on anything,” Harrison said. “I get peoples’ concern, and I get peoples’ frustration.” He said he understands the “personal touch” of a physical letter.

Asked about incidents that led up to the policy change, Harrison said Gary Maciel, the state’s director of adult prisons, told him that September was a “heavy month.”

At the state penitentiary, a prisoner was found foaming at the mouth, unresponsive, escorted to medical and given Narcan. The prisoner “admitted at the hospital that he inhaled spice from his mail,” Harrison said.

Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid. Harrison did not say whether guards actually found any drugs on him or in his cell. Nor did he say whether anyone tested any drugs that might have been found.

“That’s happened multiple times over the last few months,” Harrison said. He recommended filing a records request for the details.

Another prisoner at Southern in Las Cruces was also found unresponsive, given Narcan, “same thing, was smoking spice,” Harrison said.

Harrison said the new policy has no effect on legal mail, privileged mail, medical information and financial information or lawyers writing letters, which all still go directly to prisoners.

The policy only affects personal mail that is received, not sent, so inmates can still send personal mail, he said. Religious supplies for ceremonies inside prisons will continue to be delivered, he said.

“None of that’s changed,” he said.

Harrison said Corrections officials are working to establish access to publications inside from prison libraries.

New Mexico state prisons have never accepted personal packages, Harrison said. Families can buy packages through approved vendors.

Asked why the policy doesn’t apply to the two remaining private prisons in the state, Harrison said those prisons have their own processes for mail. He said it’s the Department’s goal to bring those private companies on board with the same mail system “in the next few months.”

State senator demands records

Independent Sen. Jacob Candelaria, a civil rights attorney and outspoken critic of the current administration, said that while the courts have upheld the rights of prisons to restrict prisoners’ mail, those restrictions must be applied neutrally with no regard for the contents of the mail.

Candelaria sees the new prison mail policy as less of a constitutional issue and more of a fiscal one: costs and expense to correctional departments of doing piece-by-piece mail inspection have been part of challenges to state and federal regulations reviewed by the courts, he said.

“We just don’t really have the information, at least I don’t really understand, ultimately, why this policy was necessary,” he said.

Candelaria on Jan. 4 submitted a records request to the Department asking for all documents related to its new prison mail policy, because it could still be subject to challenge.

“This is placing an additional burden on communication between inmates and the outside world,” he said. That needs to be based not just on generalized concerns but on actual, demonstrable concerns and problems.

He said he will ask them why they adopted the policy when they come before the Senate Finance Committee.

“If the Corrections Department’s gonna make this argument, I hope it’s benefiting the taxpayer, and not just a nice little chunk of cash for a politically connected company,” he said.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.