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Prisons and Jails Impose More Restrictions on Mail, Visits to Curtail Contraband

by Matt Clarke

Citing a need to stop the smuggling of drugs and other contraband, some prisons and jails have placed new and stringent restrictions on both prisoner mail and visitation.

Beginning in April 2017, prisoners in the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) must be strip-searched and change into new underwear and a jumpsuit that zips up the back prior to meeting with outside visitors. After the visit, they are again searched then change back into their regular prison clothes. Female prisoners have to wear jumpsuits but are not required to change their underwear. Visitors may no longer make certain vending machine purchases in state prisons, either.

Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Virginia DOC, explained that the new rules were needed because “visitors pass contraband to offenders at visitation through things like potato chip bags purchased in the vending machines.”

Except for legal and privileged correspondence, Virginia prisoners also no longer receive their actual mail. Instead, each letter – which is restricted to five pages – and its envelope are photocopied, and the copies are given to prisoners. Newspapers and magazines sent from publishers are still delivered without being photocopied. West Virginia has implemented a policy of providing only copies of incoming mail to prisoners, too. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.35].

Kinney said one major reason for the rule change was that Suboxone, an opioid used to treat heroin addiction which can be addictive itself, is dispensed on mouth-freshener-like strips that are easily hidden in mail and difficult to detect. Corrections expert Donald L. Leach agreed, saying paper soaked in Suboxone or other drugs – the synthetic marijuana K-2 is also popular – can be mailed to prisoners.

DOC officials issued the policy changes in response to the deaths of nine prisoners in 2015 and 2016 due to overdoses of heroin or fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. In 2016, drugs were discovered in prisoners’ mail a dozen times and found on 31 prison visitors. Virginia’s 30,000 state prisoners receive approximately 250,000 visits and over 1.4 million pieces of mail every year, indicating the problem is not as severe as prison officials claim.

The Indiana DOC also issued new rules for prisoner mail in April 2017. Banning colored paper and envelopes, the state now requires all letters to be written on lined white paper and sent in a white envelope, in an effort to prevent drug smuggling.

Beginning on October 1, 2017, Michigan’s prison system no longer allows mail that contains perfume, lipstick, marker or crayon drawings, or paint. Humanity for Prisoners founder Doug Tiapkis said he understood the problem of mail-smuggled drugs but wondered, “What is the issue with the crayon?” He added, “We don’t get that explanation yet and its been very vague so far.”

New Hampshire prison officials supplied an explanation – they said they had found Suboxone strips in crayon drawings, as well as under postage stamps (leading some facilities to remove stamps from incoming mail). Visitors have also transferred the strips to prisoners during in-person visits, not only in vending machine snacks but during embraces, too.

As a result, New Hampshire prisoners and their visitors are prohibited from kissing and are limited to three seconds of hugging upon arrival and departure. Board games and vending machines were removed from visitation rooms when the new policy took effect in January 2017 – the same month that four prisoners overdosed.

In late January and early February 2017, prisoners at two New Hampshire facilities protested the three-second hugging rule. They organized a brief hunger strike involving around 200 prisoners at a facility in Berlin, while at another they set trash on fire before the disturbance was quelled by guards deploying Tasers and chemical agents.

Maryland placed restrictions on hugging and kissing during visits beginning in 2015. Then, in July 2016, prison officials convinced the state’s health department to remove Suboxone strips as a treatment option in the state’s Medicaid program. The number of Suboxone strips found in Maryland prisons dropped 15 percent – from 2,217 in the first four months of 2016 to 1,886 during a comparable period in 2017.

New York City’s jail oversight board recently voted to similarly restrict visitation at the Rikers Island jail complex. Physical contact between adults is now limited to a brief hug and kiss at the beginning and end of visits. Visitors had already complained that the slow and extensive security measures at multiple checkpoints at the jail resulted in spending many hours or even an entire day just to get a one-hour visit.

And according to a March 2018 news report, Massachusetts prisons are limiting the number of visitors prisoners can have on their visitation list – five at maximum-security facilities, eight at medium-security and 10 at minimum-security and pre-release centers.

“This policy is designed to reduce the flow of drugs coming into institutions while balancing that goal with the rights of inmates to receive support from family and friends visiting,” said Massachusetts DOC media coordinator Cara Savelli.

As in other jurisdictions, the limitations on prison visits in New Hampshire occurred at the same time that additional mail restrictions were implemented. A new mail policy issued by the state DOC in May 2015 was amended in September 2017 following a successful suit filed by a prisoner’s mother. The DOC had rejected a drawing by the prisoner’s 3-year-old son because it violated the original policy’s ban on greeting cards, postcards with any graphic designs and “personal drawings of any kind.”

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the New Hampshire ACLU chapter, called that rule “particularly punitive to inmates who have a child family member who can only communicate through drawings.”

The prisoner’s mother sued and prevailed, ensuring that prisoners can receive original drawings in pen or pencil – although those made with markers, crayon, glitter, chalk and paint are still prohibited. The settlement was reached on September 20, 2017. See: Y.F. v. Wrenn, U.S.D.C. (D. NH), Case No. 1:15-cv-00510-PB.

“This settlement is a victory for the First Amendment rights of prison inmates and their families,” said attorney Ned Sackman, with the law firm of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, P.A., which litigated the case with the New Hampshire ACLU. “We are pleased that the NHDOC has reversed its policy of banning all original handwritten drawings and pictures. Under the original policy we challenged, the state had eliminated one of the few ways young children could communicate with parents who are in prison.”

Meanwhile, no prisoner mail is allowed at New Hampshire’s Stratford County House of Corrections, which is not subject to the same rules as DOC facilities. The county maintains an email system for prisoner correspondence, which costs $.50 per email.

At the Greene County Jail in Missouri, prisoner mail is now limited to postcards – and prisoners may have no more than 10 in their possession at any time. Beginning in February 2018, all other mail is returned to the sender. Legal, government and religious correspondence is exempt from the ban. Pre-paid postcards are offered for sale in the jail commissary, and indigent prisoners receive two free postcards each week.

“Our mail room staff can no longer safely and efficiently keep up with the amount of incoming and outgoing mail volume and this increases the risk that contraband could make it into the jail through the mail,” said James Craigmyle, a spokesman for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.

Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio instituted one of the first postcard-only mail restrictions in Maricopa County, Arizona in 2007, according to Leah Sakala, a research associate with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Based on her investigation into correctional mail policies, she wrote “Postcard-Only Mail Policies in Jail,” a report published by the Prison Policy Initiative. Typically, jail officials justify postcard-only policies as a way to control contraband – even though all mail is inspected by jail staff.

Sakala noted that most people are held in jail for only a short period of time, after which they will be released and need the very contacts and relationships that are most damaged by mail restrictions, especially given how expensive it is to make and receive phone calls from jail. That’s why law enforcement agencies and groups ranging from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the American Correctional Association (ACA) have opposed such restrictive policies.

“It’s pretty clear that any attempts to limit incoming and outgoing mail in envelopes really needs to be weighed against the advice and body of evidence we have from the top experts in the field,” Sakala said.

The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, has filed suit over numerous jail postcard-only policies nationwide, and obtained the first favorable ruling on the merits of that issue in a case against Columbia County, Oregon in 2013. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.44; June 2013, p.42].

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, overdoses account for less than one percent of prisoner deaths. Yet all prisoners are subject to mail and visit restrictions intended to reduce drug smuggling. Not only do such policies run contrary to research showing that prisoners who maintain close family ties are less likely to reoffend, they also fail to address the problem of prison and jail employees who smuggle drugs and other contraband.

“You ultimately have employees coming into facilities, and a lot of them are not adequately searched when they enter,” said PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “The vast majority of correctional officers don’t smuggle drugs, but the vast majority of visitors don’t either. It doesn’t make sense to only go after one group.”

In fact, as repeatedly reported in PLN, guards and other corrections staff are caught smuggling drugs on a regular basis. In January 2018, for example, two prison guards in Maryland, Warren Wright, Jr. and Phillipe Jordan, Jr., were charged with taking bribes to bring drugs into a state prison in Jessup. And in 2015, a New Hampshire prison food services worker, Charles Hanson, 49, was caught smuggling $67,000 worth of narcotics intended for sale to prisoners. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.63].

California has spent $15.3 million on a program to curtail prison contraband smuggling, with mixed results. The three-year program involved 11 facilities that received additional drug-sniffing dogs and ion scanners, three of which included enhanced measures – full-body X-ray scanners for prisoners and video surveillance of visiting rooms. Positive results for drug tests dropped by 23% at the three enhanced locations but there was no change at the other prisons.

Jeff Lyons, a spokesman for the New Hampshire DOC, said it was important to subject both prisoners and guards to random screenings with devices like X-ray machines.

“If staff is going [in and out] six, seven or eight times a day, we don’t want to subject them to those rays,” he said. “That’s why we want to make it random.”

Better security screening of employees is more likely to reduce the smuggling of drugs and other contraband, since mail sent to prisoners is already inspected and visits are already monitored by prison and jail staff. 

Sources:,,,,,,,,, Huffington Post,


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Related legal case

Y.F. v. Wrenn