NC turns to digital mail to fight drug trafficking in prison

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Inmates of NC prisons will receive copies of mail sent by their relatives but not the letters themselves. North Carolina prison officials say a new email system will help outsmart drug dealers. But critics say it will leave inmates more disconnected from the outside world.

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A new method of delivering mail to inmates at the North Carolina prison will help outsmart drug traffickers, state officials say. But critics fear the change will further erode ties between prisoners and the outside world.

Under a change that came into effect on October 18, inmates in state men’s prisons no longer receive the original cards and letters sent by their relatives. They only receive scanned copies.

The system is designed to combat what state officials see as an increasingly common ploy to bring drugs into prisons. Smugglers spray liquefied drugs such as suboxone, fentanyl and K2 – all potent in small amounts – on letters sent to inmates, prison spokesman John Bull said. The inmates then tear up the paper and swallow the pieces.

“Smuggling makes a prison dangerous in many ways,” Prison Commissioner Todd Ishee said in a press release. “You have offenders fighting for control of the contraband trade. You have the risk of overdoses. Anything we can do to end this makes our prisons a safer and more secure place to live and work. “

But for Linda Hanson, a Concord resident whose son is now in prison, the change is “another step in the dehumanization” of inmates.

Hanson usually sends greeting cards to her son and others she got to know in prison – “just to let them know someone cares,” she said. Recently, however, when she was in the store looking at cards, she chose not to buy them.

“I was like, ‘What is this for?’ she said. “It’s so impersonal.”

North Carolina is one of a growing number of state prison systems – including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas – that have moved to digital mail.

Here’s how the new system works, tested in women’s prisons since February 2020, in North Carolina:

The tens of thousands of letters written to NC inmates each week will now be sent to TextBehind, a Maryland-based company that scans letters in color and transmits digital files to prisons. The prisons then print the scanned images and deliver the pages to the inmates.

People who write to inmates have the option of sending their letters, cards and photos to TextBehind, or sending them electronically, using the company’s app. The app allows users to send digital letters, online designs and electronic greeting cards. TextBehind charges a fee, starting at 50 cents, for sending e-cards and letters. Either way, inmates are expected to receive letters a day after TextBehind receives them, Bull said.

Lawyers can still send original letters and paper documents directly to their clients in prison.

The state prison system does not pay for the new system and does not make money for it, Bull said. Instead, TextBehind derives its revenue from the fees it charges for email messages.

In the first year after the system began in women’s prisons, disciplinary offenses for possession and use of substances dropped by 50% in these prisons, according to the State Department of Public Safety.

During the same period, staff at men’s prisons detected drugs or paraphernalia in the mail 568 times, the department said. The drugs most often found in the mail were Suboxone and K2.

Such deliveries are too often dangerous. Drugs smuggled into prisons typically result in multiple hospitalizations each week, Bull said.

“This is a key new technology to tackle the age-old problem of drug trafficking in prisons,” Bull said.

entered suboxone.jpg
Inspecting inmate mail in September 2021, officers at Foothills Correctional Facility in Morganton found these Suboxone drug strips hidden between layers of paper on a birthday card. CN DPS

Historically, most drugs that have entered prisons have been smuggled in by staff members.

“I understand they have a problem with drugs,” said Malcolm Azariah, an inmate at Warren Correctional Facility, northeast of Durham. “But my experience is that most of it comes from the staff. It could slow things down. But I don’t think that will stop the problem.

State prison officials say they have worked to prevent workers from smuggling into prisons. It is now standard practice for employees to search anyone entering prisons, using metal detectors, body scanners and pat-downs, DPS officials say. The state has also tightened fences and added netting in prisons statewide to prevent contraband from being thrown to inmates.

Letters are “life lines”

Similar mail delivery systems in other states are far from foolproof, critics say. The reproduction quality of the scanned photographs has often been poor, making it difficult to see the faces of the people in the photographs, they say.

And digitization issues have left chunks of letters missing, says Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit working to reduce mass incarceration.

“What you might earn is not worth the sacrifice for the incarcerated,” said Bertram. “… We know that contact with people from the outside is essential in helping people be successful after release. “

Unlike some competitors, TextBehind offers “100% accurate” reproduction, company spokesperson Chris Reilly said.

Yet, say the inmates, it is not the same as getting real letters and photographs. Warren Correctional inmate Azariah said he saw scanned photographs sent to fellow inmates. “They’re not bad,” he says. “But they’re a far cry from a glossy photograph.”

Malcolm Azariah.jpg
Malcolm Azaria CN DPS

TextBehind receives mixed reviews from some users. The app downloadable through Apple gets an average of 3.2 out of 5 stars. Some customers have said it is convenient and reliable. Others said they encountered issues that made it difficult or even impossible to use.

TextBehind tries to resolve complaints immediately, Reilly said.

Launched in 2012, TextBehind started out as a social media company. The company made its first foray into email delivery to inmates in 2017. Its biggest prison contract is with the state of North Carolina, Reilly said. The company also has contracts with the state of Wisconsin and with prisons in about two dozen counties.

TextBehind has around 25 employees, but has yet to make a profit, Reilly said.

“Our company’s goal is to make prisons and prisons safer and save lives – and to connect inmates and their families in an efficient and affordable way,” said Reilly. “And I think we are doing this work.”

Others remain skeptical.

The mail is “one of the only lifesavers prisoners have with the outside world,” says Leigh Lassiter, a volunteer with the Prison Books Collective, a non-profit organization in Durham that sends books to North Carolina inmates. and Alabama.

“Imagine you are working away from your family, and instead of receiving mail with your child’s pencil drawing, you get a digitized version,” Lassiter said. “It’s not even close to the same.

“Just hold a piece of paper that someone wrote to you – it’s a piece of human connection that should never be taken away.”

This story was originally published October 26, 2021 6:00 a.m.

Ames Alexander, investigative reporter for the Observer, examined corruption in state prisons, mistreatment of injured poultry workers, and many other topics. His stories have won dozens of state and national awards. He was a key member of two reporting teams that were named Pulitzer finalists.

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