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Fearing drug-soaked letters, Nevada prison officials want to add restrictions to mail

Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman
CommunityCriminal Justice
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A guard tower at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City

Gov. Steve Sisolak declined to immediately approve a state prison policy that would add new restrictions to inmates’ physical mail, saying he first wanted data supporting the idea that it would reduce contraband.

The Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) no longer wants greeting cards and colored drawings sent to prisoners and suggested families send digital copies for prisoners’ tablets or kiosks in common areas. They said the new policy is meant to prevent drugs hidden in colored paper, dye or ink, from entering prison walls

“The incidence of subjects attempting to introduce narcotics into the prison system through the mail is regularly carried out by hiding those substances in colored objects, colored photos, handmade greeting cards,” NDOC deputy director Bill Gittere said during a Tuesday meeting of the Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners. “Anything that has a lot of color to it is helpful in hiding the stains that contain either methamphetamine, fentanyl or other illicit drugs that they're trying to smuggle into the prison system.”

He said they want to eliminate more colors so they can see contaminated pieces of mail more readily. Gittere said the measure can prevent inmates from selling or using drugs and “either causing disturbances or ending up in the emergency room.” He said in the future, prison officials can consider going fully electronic for mail correspondence to shut down contraband mail.

Ideas about restricting or suggesting families digitize certain mail come after a deepening staffing shortage, which caused NDOC to explore drone and sensory surveillance this summer. Roughly 100 American jails and prisons have switched to electronic mail through a communications service called MailGuard in conjunction with JPay, a for-profit prison contractor. When letters, pictures and greeting cards come in, they are scanned by correctional staff and sent to inmates digitally. 

But families and advocates said at the Board of Prison Commissioners meeting that the new restrictions would disrupt “true mail correspondence.” They argued that it was another way for prisons to earn revenue or supplement staffing shortages while placing the burden on the approximately 10,000 inmates in NDOC and their loved ones.

“These revisions are very problematic for multiple reasons,” wrote Jodi Hocking of Return Strong, an advocacy group that includes family members of inmates, in an email. “First they create policies that are anti-family and reduce the ability for families to communicate and connect.”

Charles Daniels, director of NDOC, said at the meeting that contraband enters the prison in three ways: through the mail, during visitation and by way of corrupt correctional staff. He said drugs either enter prisons in very small quantities of rock or powder, but that the majority coming in are liquefied and soaked in the paper. 

“We have to improve, we have to evolve,” Daniels said. “And the good thing about this, in all of our conversation, we have not even remotely discussed eliminating mail to any extent possible.”

The new restriction would send letters that are not written in blue or black ink on white paper back to families but future plans could include fully electronic mail. 

With communications services like MailGuard, prison leaders can administer mail digitally via inmate tablets or kiosks in common areas, or share mail through photocopies that cost inmates at least 10 cents per page. Letters, greeting cards and pictures would be scanned, stored electronically, and available for investigators in real time. User profiles are stored for at least seven years via MailGuard’s “Smart Tracking” system which includes details about senders' IP addresses, email addresses, home addresses, GPS locations and the names of devices that are used to access the communications service.

Critics of the arrangement say that in other states, mail slowed down after switching to digital systems and became problematic when photocopies came back in bad condition or devices malfunctioned, like the kiosks, and were followed with stalled repairs.

Though electronic mail was cited as possible future plans, Sisolak still said he had reservations about the proposed new restrictions on physical mail because prison leaders failed to provide evidence-based data. About 20 advocates, mostly members of the nonprofit Return Strong, spoke against amending AR750, the policy regarding prison mail. 

“We need to support our workers at the facilities and protect the inmates that are there against the unfortunate actions by a few,” Sisolak said. “I just question if this policy is going to achieve that goal. I'll be honest with you.”

Sisolak, along with many public commenters, raised questions about the lack of evidence-based data suggesting that the rejecting colored paper, drawings or colorful ink reduces the risk of contraband. According to The Marshall Project, a Texas prison study showed that even digitizing mail did not reduce contraband and that the majority of illicit substances were brought in by correctional staff. Local prison advocates said the same is true at NDOC and that inmates are too fearful to come forth.

The governor asked prison leaders to reconvene at the next meeting with statistics detailing past outcomes from banning certain pieces of mail in prisons before making changes. But advocates said NDOC has already implemented changes and had begun sending greeting cards back to families and friends.

Mail, drugs and riots

Prison reform advocate Mercedes Maharis said targeting inmates through regulations and restrictions that disconnect them from the outside causes an adverse effect on inmates’ psyche. 

“This administration is a wire mother to our prisoners,” she said in an interview with The Nevada Independent following the meeting. “Where’s the compassion?”

Maharis said the conditions in the prison such as scarce meals or insufficient medical care that left one inmate with a bone exposed in his forearm, can drive inmates to drug use or even suicide. She said prisoners need leadership that is based on care, as opposed to policies that further desolation experienced by prisoners.

“They’re wards of the state,” Maharis said. “And our state should be a cloth mother, not a wire mother. The wire mothers, their babies all die.”

David Toliver, a former police lieutenant of 27 years for the Henderson Police Department, said after the meeting that attempts to restrict mail are one of the leading causes of riots behind bars, next to issues about food, visitation and time outside of cells.

“If you were to go into the history books of prison riots, you will find that there is a seed of one of those things that are causing [riots],” Toliver said. “Now the fifth thing is poor treatment by the staff.”

Holly Murphy, whose boyfriend is in Southern Desert Correctional Facility north of Las Vegas, said it is important to feel connected to him through physical mail, especially with prolonged restrictions on visitation. She said she fears that mail will take longer to receive and will not have the same positive effects that bouncing letters back and forth throughout the week bring.

“It’s so important for me to feel connected to him … and for him to see my words and know that the piece of paper he's reading was hand touched by me,” Murphy said. “And also the timing of it, it's coming in relatively quickly right now.”

This story was updated at 11 a.m. on 8/31/22 to revise the headline and body text to distinguish between mail changes formally proposed through administrative regulations on Tuesday and others discussed as possible future plans.

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