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Crime & Justice

NC prison system delivers copies of mailed letters to cut down on drugs

prison bars
Emiliano Bar

Inmates in North Carolina prisons no longer receive actual letters penned by friends and loved ones. Starting this week, they receive copies of those letters. It’s a change state prison officials say they made to help reduce the amount of drugs entering facilities.

Prisons have long screened mail to prevent contraband from getting to inmates. But sometimes it’s tough to detect, especially when it comes to drugs like fentanyl and suboxone.

“They liquify the drugs and they put it on the paper. They put it in what is appearing to be birthday cards or other children’s drawings,” said John Bull, a spokesperson for North Carolina’s prison system.

He says mailroom staff at the state’s men’s prisons caught 568 cases of drugs or drug paraphernalia in a one-year period ending in February. That's out of a population of about 28,000.

“We reached the point here with the drug smuggling problems in the North Carolina prison system that a technological fix would be a benefit for everyone,” Bull said.

The prison system contracted with the company TextBehind to screen and digitize letters, cards and photos. It’s a technology that many other prison systems have adopted in recent years. Instead of sending mail directly to the state’s prisons, you must now send it to a Maryland address where the mail is digitized and transmitted to the prison. Prison staff then print them and hand the copies to the inmate.

“They get the exact same thing that they’d normally get through the mail, it’s just not on the original paper that was sent,” Bull said.

But getting the copy, not the original is a big difference, said Wanda Bertram with the inmate advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative. She said it’s not fair to punish everyone because dangerous items occasionally come in through the mail.

“People in prison depend on being able to hold and feel and smell a letter from their loved one to feel close to people they know on the outside,” said Bertram. “This is a critical part of what keeps people sane while they’re locked up and allows them to hold onto an understanding that there is a home waiting for them.”

TextBehind doesn’t bill the state for its services. The company makes its money by offering friends and family the ability to upload messages and photos directly from their smartphones via an app. Prison staff then print those messages and give them to inmates.

The company’s website says sending one message costs 99 cents, if not purchased in a package. The prison system does not receive a cut of this.

Even though TextBehind doesn’t cost extra for those sending mail, Bertram said it encourages people to move toward the digital uploads. She said physical mail often takes longer to reach inmates in jails and prison systems with a similar set up.

“You’re whittling down the reasons that somebody might want to communicate via physical mail and that makes the other options, all that you may have to pay for, all the more attractive,” Bertram said.

But North Carolina prison officials say they ultimately believe mail delivery will be faster since prison staff will no longer have to sort and search the mail.

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