Correctional Facilities Have a Mail Problem

By Alex Sappok

Mail is one of the most persistent channels for smuggling contraband to inmates in correctional facilities. Legal mail in particular is among the most challenging to mitigate because it is constitutionally protected and cannot be digitized or opened without the inmate present. Because of this, inspecting mail correspondence from a legal counsel requires significant time and resources and continues to spawn lawsuits from inmates alleging restrictive mail practices.

Addressing mail security in an effective yet non-intrusive way is imperative for corrections facilities to stop the cycle from repeating. This article explains how to implement more effective mail security practices while reducing screening time, protecting officers from exposure to harmful substances, and minimizing grounds for legal challenges.

The challenge of physical mail inspection in correctional facilities

Physical mail is one of the most important means of inmate communication. According to the Office of the Inspector General, inmates send and receive millions of pieces of mail each year. While time-consuming, correctional facilities have a legal right to inspect every piece of personal mail. But legal correspondence is protected by law and cannot be sent electronically, opened without cause, and requires the inmate to be present for manual inspection.

While often overlooked as a security concern, legal mail is increasingly used to smuggle illicit drugs and other contraband into correctional facilities. Smugglers typically send small quantities of powders, liquids, drug-laced papers, and suboxone strips, in addition to SIM cards and other electronic components, which are easy to conceal and hard to detect.

According to The Detection and Prevention of Illicit Drugs in a Correctional Facility report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, inmate mail is the second most common method for smuggling drugs into state prisons, closely behind intake/booking areas. COVID-19 restrictions on visitations, which is another common method of smuggling, only exacerbated the flow of contraband and drugs through the mail.

Correctional facilities have felt the pervasive effects of the problem nationwide. Recently two correctional officers at USP Thomson in Illinois needed medical attention following exposure to illegal drugs. Similarly, Louisville Metro Corrections has had their 8th death in a 5 month period from drugs that mainly entered through the mail. RaySecur’s 2021 Annual Mail Threat Report found 44% of dangerous mail incidents that were reported involved legal drugs, and of those, correctional facility officials were primary respondents in 11% of the cases.

Compounding the problem are outdated and ineffective screening practices. Some manually inspect every piece of personal mail. This is time-consuming, can be dangerous for corrections officers and highly ineffective given that drugs can be sprayed onto paper, incorporated into ink, hidden under stamps and return address labels, and otherwise inconspicuously concealed within a piece of correspondence. Others outsource personal mail to be digitized. The practice delays mail delivery and is seen by some as restricting inmates’ rights to original handwritten letters, cards, and artwork from family members. The lack of a clear solution has resulted in routine inmate lawsuits around mail processing practices.

Despite this, The Florida Department of Law Enforcement report showed only three out of eleven facilities employed technology to inspect mail.

Developing a comprehensive mail security policy

States have struggled to find a clear solution to address mail security in correctional facilities. Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Department had to settle multiple lawsuits after it updated its mail security policy in 2018. The new policy altered procedures so corrections officers gave inmates photocopied legal mail and stored the originals in third-party affiliated secure boxes. The American Civil Liberties Union, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center, and Amistad Law Project argued this gives guards too much time to read or tamper with the original copies. Current solutions rely on outsourcing, convoluted procedures, and strained limited resources, leaving correctional facilities open to legal liabilities such as this.

It’s time for facilities to implement a solution that adequately allows for inspection without the need to open packages. X-ray scanners are currently the most commonly used technology for mail threat detection. While X-ray scanners can detect weapons or large quantities of powders and liquids, they are ineffective at detecting small traces of powders or liquids, as well as drug-laced papers and suboxone strips, most often smuggled in mail.

Instead, a comprehensive mail security program at correctional facilities should include:

  • Standardized mail screening processes and procedures across all of an organization’s correctional facilities following industry-standard best practices, which should be reviewed and updated on a periodic basis as threats evolve.
  • A scalable and easy-to-use mail screening solution that allows for quick implementation at each site that receives incoming mail to provide comprehensive detection.
  • Technology that correctly identifies drugs in small quantities, especially laced papers, powders, and liquids, without opening mail – reducing risk to staff and maintaining inmate privacy.
  • Access to real-time secondary expert opinions to assist and reduce risk for on-site personnel as well as ongoing staff training and certification
  • A detailed emergency response plan.

Current mail security solutions are time-consuming, inefficient in screening for small quantities of drugs, and have resulted in unsafe conditions for staff and inmates. Thus, correctional facilities must develop mail security programs that ease the strain of resources, leverage technology with the best detection capabilities, and reduce the amount of contraband coming to correctional facilities while still upholding inmates’ rights to receive mail and keeping their staff safe.  Most importantly these processes and solutions must be readily adaptable to new and emerging risks as the method of delivery and type of contraband continually evolve to evade new detection measures as they are implemented.

Alex Sappok, Ph.D., is CEO of RaySecur, a security imaging company with the world’s first DHS Safety Act-designated T-ray desktop scanner for mail and package threat detection.