New Jersey revamps prison mail delivery to fight drugs

Mail scanning proposal sparks concerns about privacy and cost

By: - April 14, 2023 7:05 am

A Drug Enforcement Administration official holds up a package of synthetic marijuana, known as K2, at a press conference in New York City. The drug is behind a new push in New Jersey to digitize prison mail. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New Jersey corrections officials are trying a new strategy to keep drugs out of prisons — they’re withholding prison mail.

Since the synthetic marijuana known as K2 or “spice” first emerged about 15 years ago, prison officials say they have struggled to keep out the drug, which can be sprayed on paper that’s disguised as mail.

Last week, the state Department of Corrections began piloting a program to give incarcerated people paper copies of their incoming mail instead of the original letters.

The pilot is the start of an anticipated transition to electronic mail, in which an outside vendor scans physical mail sent to incarcerated people and delivers digital copies to the intended recipients. Mail scanning is a drug-fighting tool that more than a dozen other states including Pennsylvania have embraced in recent years.

Department spokeswoman Amy Z. Quinn said the move is necessary to help officials “confront this rising threat head-on.”

“Traditional methods of detection and interception of K2 have proven to be extremely difficult compared to other illegal drugs and contraband. K2 poses a serious danger not only to the incarcerated population who consume it but to staff who are exposed to it,” Quinn said.

The paper-copy pilot launched April 4 at a 130-person housing unit in South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, a mixed-custody lockup that’s the state’s largest, with 2,700 people incarcerated there, Quinn said. It likely will be expanded throughout the prison system, where about 13,200 people are serving time in nine state prisons and satellite sites.

Officials now are exploring mail-scanning technology, with an eye on eventually replacing the paper-copy pilot program, Quinn said. They haven’t yet identified a vendor nor a cost projection, she added.

A pricey loss of privacy?

Prison justice reformers weren’t happy to hear of the possible privatization of prison mail.

“It’s an excuse for another industry that’s making money from people in prison,” said Bonnie Kerness, coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee’s prison watch program.

In other states where prison mail has gone digital, the shift has been costly.

Pennsylvania has paid more than $4.5 million a year since August 2018 to Florida-based Smart Communications to scan mail and deliver digital copies to incarcerated people, according to a state contract. The state incarcerates more than 37,000 people in its state penitentiaries, corrections spokeswoman Maria Bivens said.

In New York State, officials recently switched to providing copies of mail — except legal mail, photos, and greeting cards that show no evidence of tampering or contraband — at most of its 44 state facilities, where nearly 32,000 people are incarcerated, spokeswoman Nicole Sheremeta said. In New York City, officials last month abandoned a plan to digitize Rikers Island detainees’ mail after prison-rights advocates threatened legal action and city Comptroller Brad Lander and several council members voiced privacy and cost concerns.

The Prison Policy Institute also has raised civil rights objections, saying letters are the cheapest and most popular way for incarcerated people to communicate and mail scanning strips away the privacy and sentimentality of physical mail.

“I’m very disappointed to hear that New Jersey is considering switching to electronic-only mail,” said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Mail scanning strains family contact, is harder on people with visual disabilities, and makes it really hard for nonprofits like prison ministries to get their materials inside.”

Kerness said she already has had trouble getting physical mail to its intended recipients behind bars, saying she’s twice unsuccessfully sent an incarcerated person mail she suspects screeners rejected because it was “not flattering.”

It's an excuse for another industry that's making money from people in prison.

– Bonnie Kerness, American Friends Service Committee

Mail isn’t how most contraband ends up behind bars anyway, she added.

“The reports we’ve been getting from people inside is that they’ve gotten stuff from the officers,” Kerness said.

One harm reduction advocate also panned the plan, saying officials worried about how to stop drugs from entering prisons should instead examine why incarcerated people want them.

“Drugs that we’ve criminalized serve a purpose in people’s lives — it could be for relaxation, it could be for pleasure, it could be for very difficult situations or experiences,” said Jenna Mellor, co-founder of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “There will always be a drug supply when there’s a demand. People are endlessly creative in figuring out ways to get what they need.”

Instead of “playing Whac-A-Mole” with drugs entering prisons, Mellor added, officials should embrace harm reduction approaches that help incarcerated people get addiction treatment, if that’s what they want, or use drugs more safely.

Correctional officers on board

Quinn said the system already has safeguards in place to cut the contraband smuggled into prisons by staff.

Correctional officers and others who enter prisons are supposed to go through metal detectors, along with their coats and other belongings. They’re also subjected to pat-downs.

Quinn did not have figures on how many incarcerated people have overdosed on drugs and how much drugs and other contraband have been seized in state prisons. The state Department of Health has estimated that 70 to 80% of incarcerated people struggle with addiction.

The new mail strategy does have at least one fan.

William Sullivan heads the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #105, which represents more than 5,000 state correctional officers.

K2 can make a user act in unpredictable, sometimes violent ways, which creates security challenges, Sullivan said. In prison, people who use K2 roll up the drug-laced mail, light it, and smoke it, he added.

“When they smoke, it smells like burning wires. Some of these prisons don’t have proper ventilation, and the officers are getting sick from it,” Sullivan said.

Besides targeting the mail, officials also have abolished things incarcerated people jerry-rig to light up, like tin foil food packaging, which they can stick in an outlet to get a spark, Sullivan said.

He applauded the planned shift to electronic mail.

“It’s expensive,” he conceded. “But it’ll be worth it.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.