A new policy banning physical mail in New Mexico state prisons follows a recent trend in prison systems around the country outsourcing prison mail to private contractors.
The New Mexico Corrections Department on Dec. 29 told prisoners’ families that it will be banning physical mail in prisons, and directed them to send their letters to a private company that creates photocopies for the recipients. The department says the change is because of incidents where contraband material was smuggled in through the mail.
LuzHilda Campos, policy manager at Bold Futures New Mexico, said mail is often a significant form of connection between incarcerated people and their loved ones.
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, connection is more important than ever, but has been significantly impacted,” she said Tuesday in a written statement. “Communication through mail can be a critical way for incarcerated people to ask for help when basic needs are not met in the facility, stay updated on family emergencies and celebrations, and/or receive emotional support from their loved ones.”
Receiving mail is already an uncertain process, she said, and further delaying it or increasing the chances of lost mail will negatively affect those in need of that life-line connection.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, family contact for incarcerated people has positive effects for everyone, including better health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school.
Barriers to family contact imposed by prisons and jails fly in the face of social science research dating back to the 1970s showing associations between family contact and outcomes, including in-prison behavior, measures of health, and reconviction after release, PPI wrote.
Other prisons systems have adopted similar mail digitization services, PPI found, also in response to claims of contraband entering prisons through the mail. These services can result in low-quality images or even missing pages.
New Mexico’s new policy also prohibits families from sending cash and checks through the mail, impacting money transfers. The state only allows prisoners to receive money from approved visitors in the form of a money order processed by the prisons.
State points to contraband in mail
Starting on Feb. 1, if any state prison receives a piece of personal mail, it would get returned to the sender unopened, Corrections spokesperson Eric Harrison said. The mail must go directly to Florida-based company Securus Technologies instead, he said.
Within 48 hours or less of the Securus receiving the mail, Harrison said, the company will open it, check it for contraband, scan it over to the prison, and then that same day, the prison is expected to print it and pass it along to the prisoner.
If Securus finds contraband in the mail, it will turn it over to police, if it doesn’t have contraband, it will be “stored or discarded,” Harrison said. Something like a news article would be scanned normally and then shredded.
As of Wednesday, the Department had not fulfilled a Jan. 4 records request for the contract with Securus. A spokesperson for the company told New Mexico Political Report that it will not charge for photocopies.
“We’re not gonna infringe on anything,” Harrison said. “I get peoples’ concern, and I get peoples’ frustration.” He said he understands the “personal touch” of a physical letter.
Asked about incidents that led up to the policy change, Harrison said Gary Maciel, the state’s director of adult prisons, told him that September was a “heavy month.”
At the state penitentiary, a prisoner was found foaming at the mouth, unresponsive, escorted to medical and given Narcan. The prisoner “admitted at the hospital that he inhaled spice from his mail,” Harrison said.
Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid. Harrison did not say whether guards actually found any drugs on him or in his cell. Nor did he say whether anyone tested any drugs that might have been found.
“That’s happened multiple times over the last few months,” Harrison said. He recommended filing a records request for the details.
Another prisoner at Southern in Las Cruces was also found unresponsive, given Narcan, “same thing, was smoking spice,” Harrison said.
Harrison said the new policy has no effect on legal mail, privileged mail, medical information and financial information or lawyers writing letters, which all still go directly to prisoners.
The policy only affects personal mail that is received, not sent, so inmates can still send personal mail, he said. Religious supplies for ceremonies inside prisons will continue to be delivered, he said.
“None of that’s changed,” he said.
Harrison said Corrections officials are working to establish access to publications inside from prison libraries.
New Mexico state prisons have never accepted personal packages, Harrison said. Families can buy packages through approved vendors.
Asked why the policy doesn’t apply to the two remaining private prisons in the state, Harrison said those prisons have their own processes for mail. He said it’s the Department’s goal to bring those private companies on board with the same mail system “in the next few months.”
This story was originally published on Source New Mexico