The mail restrictions are part of what prison officials refer to as their “Inspect 2 Protect” initiative, which included using drug-sniffing dogs on visitors and employees arriving at the prisons, and a ban on prisoners receiving money transfers into their trust fund accounts or electronic commissary purchases from anyone not on their visitor or phone lists.
The mail restrictions specifically prohibit mail from general correspondents on colored paper, decorated paper, card stock, construction paper, and linen or cotton paper. It also prohibits letters containing “unidentifiable substances,” such as perfume, lipstick, bodily fluids, powdery substances, artwork using paint, glitter, glue or tape, and stickers.
According to TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel, the policy change is a response to a significant amount of drugs smuggled into prison on paper that was dipped in liquid drugs, then dried and mailed to prisoners. He said searches turned up greeting cards containing SIM cards for use in contraband cellphones.
Prisoners, former prisoners, and prison reform advocates counter that most of the drugs in prisons are brought in by employees, not received through the mail. One Texas prisoner who was Skyping with a journalist on a contraband smartphone admitted selling drugs in prison and held up a baggie of meth. He told her that while some drugs do come in through the mail, “Nobody is gonna buy a greeting card if you can come up in here and buy the real shards.”
TDCJ officials counter with a statistic showing that only 53 of its 21,000 guards were caught with contraband in 2019 while over 300 visitors were flagged for contraband. Of course, this ignores the fact that a visitor who inadvertently leaves common daily use items such as cash, a penknife, or a Bluetooth-enabled device in a pocket or on a wrist when arriving for a visit would be flagged for contraband whereas guards would have to be carrying drugs, tobacco or multiple cellphones to be flagged.
“If we caught only 53 officers in 2019, we suck,” said a former prison warden who questioned the accuracy of the data. “We have a distinct inability statewide to catch contraband.”
TDCJ flagged just over 1 out of 200 of the 7.5 million letters received by prisoners in 2019 for suspicious substances. However, glue, glitter, stickers and perfumes are considered suspicious substances, so it is unclear how many actually contained drugs.
“Greeting cards are one of the few sources of cheer and color in an otherwise dull and depressing atmosphere,” wrote a coalition of over a dozen advocates and organizations, including the ACLU of Texas, Just Liberty, and the Texas Inmate Families Association. The coalition also complained that the new policy would further disrupt communication between prisoners and families.
The Texas prison board modified the policy to allow families an option to purchase greeting cards to be mailed by a third-party, but some dislike the idea. “We can’t add a personal touch,” said Margie Stone, whose son spends most of each day in a Huntsville cell, “I can’t put hearts and a smiley face and write, ‘I love you’ in my own handwriting.”
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