ALBUQUERQUE – Humanitarian concerns are being raised about a new prison policy in New Mexico that provides inmates with photocopies of their personal mail – never the actual mail itself – as part of a plan to limit the flow of drugs into New Mexico prisons.
Initial data doesn’t show an immediate impact on the drug positivity rate of inmates.
Legislators worry it might weaken meaningful communication between inmates and families that is key to rehabilitation, including small keepsakes like a child’s drawing.
“It seems so draconian to find that inmates could no longer get drawings from their kids,” said state Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat who presided over a recent hearing concerning the Corrections Department.
Corrections officials have defended the policy as a necessary step to curb drug use and protect the health of people living or working inside state prisons.
They said some inmates had received letters soaked in narcotics – such as fentanyl or synthetic cannabis – and burned them to inhale the smoke.
Starting earlier this year, people who want to mail a letter to a New Mexico inmate must now send it to an address in Florida, where a private company photocopies the material and then mails it back to the state prison system.
It costs the state about $3.50 per inmate each month, regardless of whether the inmate receives any mail, for the Securus mail system. The cost could reach somewhere in the neighborhood of $160,000 a year, depending on the number of inmates in the system.
The change also restricts what kind of mail inmates may receive, with greeting cards, for example, no longer accepted, according to legislative records.
Wence Asonganyi, health services administrator for the Corrections Department, said the mail changes came after prison leaders determined they had to act amid a rise in symptoms among inmates consistent with a drug overdose.
“It is quite disturbing when on a weekly basis you get numbers of suspected overdoses within the prison system across the state, and all you have is a plan is to take them to a hospital or provide first aid,” Asonganyi said. “You know that’s not sustainable. You know that’s not good care.”
He said the Corrections Department had seen a substantial drop in medical incidents related to drug use after enactment of the new mail policy.
Legislative analysts offered a different assessment. They said the positivity rate from random drug tests of inmates hadn’t shown an immediate improvement, according to quarterly reports issued by the department.
Asonganyi contends the drug positivity rate isn’t the right way to measure the program’s success because some of the drugs have been altered in a way that makes them hard to identify in a normal drug screening.
Legislative analysts, in turn, suggested the Corrections Department propose a better way to measure the program’s success, if they have more meaningful data.
The legislators at the recent hearing said they will further scrutinize the policy.
Chasey, who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said New Mexico’s revenue boom should allow for new investments to improve the prison system. She suggested there might be another safe, cost-effective way to screen the mail.
“I certainly don’t want to put staff at risk, and I don’t want inmates at risk,” Chasey said. “We’d like to try to help.”
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, asked whether the out-of-state photocopying of mail was authorized by state law. Corrections officials said the law is silent on the issue.
Diana Crowson, whose son is an inmate at the state prison in Santa Fe, said the new policy has disrupted mail service to inmates. Keeping in touch with family, she said, is an important way to reduce recidivism for people released from custody.
“Not only the inmates,” she said, “but the families are suffering from this."