Packages and Letters: The Rising Threat Facing Correctional Facilities

By Will Plummer

It’s no secret that prisons and correctional facilities in the United States are struggling to find sustainable methods to address the rising and frequent threat generated by external packages and letters. Contraband, such as drugs, electronics, or weapons, is making its way into prison mailrooms. And as the volume of incoming mail rises, it gets harder for staff to accurately process the letters and packages.

The only widespread feasible solution to date has been low-tech or inefficient: banning physical mail altogether or replacing letters with photocopies. But most of us are familiar with the proven positive impact of regular correspondence on an inmate’s mental health and wellbeing. It’s important that inmates get mail. Delays or bans cause real hardship to imprisoned individuals and their families.

The funny thing is that, in other areas, correctional facilities are using cutting-edge technology. For example, facilities are beginning to use computer vision, machine learning, and facial recognition to track inmates in the facilities. Prisons should apply the same kind of cutting-edge tech to addressing mail threats. With the help of technology, there are better options available that help correctional facilities stay safe while not impinging on the privacy or mental well-being of the inmates and their families.

The Problem with Correspondence

Constitutionally, every incarcerated person has the right to receive correspondence from friends and family. They also have the right to receive “privileged” legal correspondence, which is private communication between inmates and their lawyers. Communication with the outside world plays a large role in the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals.

The problem is that letters and packages can be a huge source of inconvenience and danger to both staff and inmates at correctional facilities. Experts note that the epidemic of drugs in correctional facilities is getting worse, “with the introduction of substances that are more lethal and harder to detect.” These dangerous drugs get into prisons mostly through mail, tucked into books or envelopes sent by friends and family, or infused directly into the paper and ink of various correspondence.

These methods have negative effect on inmates and prison staff alike. The number of incarcerated individuals who died of a drug or alcohol overdose has increased by 600% in the last twenty years, and many officers have become ill after accidentally coming into contact with drugs. Yet drug trafficking continues to be a huge source of profit for many inmates.

Additionally, contraband electronics introduced through the mail could potentially allow inmates to continue criminal activities from behind bars. While most cellphones and other electronics actually get smuggled to inmates by facility staff, some do come in through packages sent by friends and family.

Aside from electronics and drugs, there’s a myriad of other potential contraband items that could make their way into correctional facilities through the mail system. This is what has led to so many facilities developing strict rules and regulations to determine how and what can be sent to prisoners.

Unfortunately, many facilities are severely understaffed and lack the resources to cope with the influx of letters and packages. Virginia’s correctional system alone processes more than 1.4 million pieces of mail annually. Trying to screen that much mail requires time and effort, and therefore money. The result is often long delays before inmates actually receive their mail. If the delays get too long, this could interrupt any correspondence inmates have with their lawyers, and negatively affect the appeals process, which could lead to mistrials.

Facing the Mail Crisis

With the limited resources available to many correctional facilities, any mail-screening method needs to be affordable. It must also maintain the right of prisoners to receive mail while keeping privileged correspondence private. The screening method should be accurate enough to keep inmates and facility staff safe. And ideally, it should help to eliminate some of the extensive delays involved in getting mail safely to inmates.

Opening and visually scanning all correspondence is too time-consuming for most facilities to manage efficiently. Plus, many powders and liquids may not be immediately visible to the naked eye. Drug-sniffing dogs are more accurate when it comes to sussing out drugs, but may be too expensive for some facilities, and they don’t help with stopping contraband like electronics.

Ion scanners that detect trace amounts of narcotics can lead to false positives and the need for confirmatory testing. X-ray scanners may be able to detect certain weapon and electronic threats, but they only work if the package is at the right angle. To reduce exposure to harmful X-ray radiation, most mailrooms would need to scan mail in bulk instead of one at a time, so many threats could go unnoticed.

A desktop 3D scanner is another option. For example, a Terahertz (T-ray) scanner can allow facility staff to scan packages and letters for dangerous contraband without opening them and without any exposure to harmful radiation, unlike X-ray. This increases the speed at which correctional facilities can scan mail, minimizes exposure to potentially harmful contents by mail screeners, and helps comply with the right to privileged correspondence between prisoners and their lawyers.

An Ongoing Dilemma

Today, prisons face a dilemma. They need to protect the constitutional rights of prisoners while also maintaining a safe environment for both inmates and staff. No matter which method, or combination of methods, these facilities choose to pursue, it’s clear that correctional institutions have a duty to find a way to counter the rising threat.

Will Plummer is a military veteran and Chief Security Officer at RaySecur.