Restrictions on prison mail don’t appear to decrease drug use, legislative report says

Corrections Department has not responded to lawmaker’s public records request for six months

By: - July 7, 2022 4:30 am
Detail of the New Mexico Corrections Department logo painted on a wall inside the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility.

Detail of the New Mexico Corrections Department logo painted on a wall inside the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Restrictions on personal mail for people incarcerated in New Mexico prisons have not had any effect on drug use, according to legislative analysts, even though state prison officials said the new policy was meant to prevent drugs from getting inside. And the contractor that processes the mail has likely made over $100,000 so far.

The New Mexico Corrections Department in December told incarcerated people’s families that it would ban personal mail in prisons, and directed them to send their letters to private company Securus in Florida, which creates photocopies and sends those on to the prisons.

Incarcerated people, their families and advocates say the restrictions isolate them from their loved ones, and violate their basic humanity.

New prison mail policy costly to families — emotionally and financially

The department previously said Securus will charge the state $3.50 for each prisoner in the state’s prisons, at the beginning of every month. 

In April, the number of people held in New Mexico prisons averaged 5,651, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. That means Securus made around $19,778 in April.

If the average prison population has stayed the same since the department hired Securus, then the company has made an estimated $118,000 so far processing mail.

At the time, the department said new procedure and expense were needed because of contraband smuggled in through the mail.

But a report from the LFC published on June 6 raises questions about how drugs are really getting into New Mexico prisons.

Every three months, the LFC publishes quarterly reports on how various state agencies are performing. According to the latest quarterly report on the Corrections Department, the new prison mail policy “does not appear to have reduced drug use in the third quarter.”

In fact, the proportion of positive results from random drug tests on people incarcerated in state prisons rose from 2% between July 2020 and June 2021 to 3.7% between July 2021 and February 2022, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

The report said the increase was significant and “reverses three years of reduced drug use.”

Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart said in a written statement Wednesday that “there will always be those who are inventive in their attempts to skirt the rules, and eliminating contraband is a daily endeavor.”

“But, with the increased use of body scanners and security searches, and extensive efforts by our dedicated security professionals, NMCD is continuously working to reduce the introduction of contraband,” Hart said. “The department will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the changes to our mail system policy.”

The LFC suggests that results on drug use in prisons should be monitored to determine if the prison mail policy is having its intended impact.

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), co-chair of the Courts, Corrections & Justice Committee which meets between legislative sessions, said members intend to ask the department to explain its rationale for the policy, show evidence of whether it is working and for details about other options officials explored before paying Securus to screen N.M. prison mail in Florida.

Chasey expects the committee will want to hear more about this LFC evaluation of the practice “as early as possible,” she said. “The committee will also seek information from experts regarding evidence-based practices to reduce drug use in prison and to protect correctional staff.” 

Independent lawmaker Sen. Jacob Candelaria, who is also a civil rights attorney, on Jan. 4 submitted a records request to the state’s Corrections Department asking for all documents related to its new prison mail policy, because it could still be subject to challenge.

On Wednesday, over six months later, Candelaria said he had received no response from the department to the records request.

“It’s clear to us at this juncture that the Corrections Department is in absolute, glaring violation of the Inspection of Public Records Act, which for me raises additional red flags and concerns about whether or not there is even a rational basis to support what the agency has done in this policy,” he said, “which has had the net effect of severely limiting the communication that inmates have with the outside world, and thus infringing upon their First Amendment rights.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.