Prisons and Jails Impose More Restrictions on Mail, Visits to Curtail Contraband (2023)

Loaded on April 2, 2018 by Matthew Clarke published in Prison Legal News April, 2018, page 30

Filed under: Guard Misconduct, Clothing, Mail Regulations, Visiting, PLN Litigation. Locations: Arizona, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Virginia, United States of America.


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by Matt Clarke

Citing a need to stop the smuggling of drugs and other contraband, some prisons and jails have placed new and stringent restrictions on both prisoner mail and visitation.

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Beginning in April 2017, prisoners in the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) must be strip-searched and change into new underwear and a jumpsuit that zips up the back prior to meeting with outside visitors. After the visit, they are again searched then change back into their regular prison clothes. Female prisoners have to wear jumpsuits but are not required to change their underwear. Visitors may no longer make certain vending machine purchases in state prisons, either.

Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Virginia DOC, explained that the new rules were needed because “visitors pass contraband to offenders at visitation through things like potato chip bags purchased in the vending machines.”

Except for legal and privileged correspondence, Virginia prisoners also no longer receive their actual mail. Instead, each letter – which is restricted to five pages – and its envelope are photocopied, and the copies are given to prisoners. Newspapers and magazines sent from publishers are still delivered without being photocopied. West Virginia has implemented a policy of providing only copies of incoming mail to prisoners, too. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.35].

Kinney said one major reason for the rule change was that Suboxone, an opioid used to treat heroin addiction which can be addictive itself, is dispensed on mouth-freshener-like strips that are easily hidden in mail and difficult to detect. Corrections expert Donald L. Leach agreed, saying paper soaked in Suboxone or other drugs – the synthetic marijuana K-2 is also popular – can be mailed to prisoners.

DOC officials issued the policy changes in response to the deaths of nine prisoners in 2015 and 2016 due to overdoses of heroin or fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. In 2016, drugs were discovered in prisoners’ mail a dozen times and found on 31 prison visitors. Virginia’s 30,000 state prisoners receive approximately 250,000 visits and over 1.4 million pieces of mail every year, indicating the problem is not as severe as prison officials claim.

The Indiana DOC also issued new rules for prisoner mail in April 2017. Banning colored paper and envelopes, the state now requires all letters to be written on lined white paper and sent in a white envelope, in an effort to prevent drug smuggling.

Beginning on October 1, 2017, Michigan’s prison system no longer allows mail that contains perfume, lipstick, marker or crayon drawings, or paint. Humanity for Prisoners founder Doug Tiapkis said he understood the problem of mail-smuggled drugs but wondered, “What is the issue with the crayon?” He added, “We don’t get that explanation yet and its been very vague so far.”

New Hampshire prison officials supplied an explanation – they said they had found Suboxone strips in crayon drawings, as well as under postage stamps (leading some facilities to remove stamps from incoming mail). Visitors have also transferred the strips to prisoners during in-person visits, not only in vending machine snacks but during embraces, too.

As a result, New Hampshire prisoners and their visitors are prohibited from kissing and are limited to three seconds of hugging upon arrival and departure. Board games and vending machines were removed from visitation rooms when the new policy took effect in January 2017 – the same month that four prisoners overdosed.

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In late January and early February 2017, prisoners at two New Hampshire facilities protested the three-second hugging rule. They organized a brief hunger strike involving around 200 prisoners at a facility in Berlin, while at another they set trash on fire before the disturbance was quelled by guards deploying Tasers and chemical agents.

Maryland placed restrictions on hugging and kissing during visits beginning in 2015. Then, in July 2016, prison officials convinced the state’s health department to remove Suboxone strips as a treatment option in the state’s Medicaid program. The number of Suboxone strips found in Maryland prisons dropped 15 percent – from 2,217 in the first four months of 2016 to 1,886 during a comparable period in 2017.

New York City’s jail oversight board recently voted to similarly restrict visitation at the Rikers Island jail complex. Physical contact between adults is now limited to a brief hug and kiss at the beginning and end of visits. Visitors had already complained that the slow and extensive security measures at multiple checkpoints at the jail resulted in spending many hours or even an entire day just to get a one-hour visit.

And according to a March 2018 news report, Massachusetts prisons are limiting the number of visitors prisoners can have on their visitation list – five at maximum-security facilities, eight at medium-security and 10 at minimum-security and pre-release centers.

“This policy is designed to reduce the flow of drugs coming into institutions while balancing that goal with the rights of inmates to receive support from family and friends visiting,” said Massachusetts DOC media coordinator Cara Savelli.

As in other jurisdictions, the limitations on prison visits in New Hampshire occurred at the same time that additional mail restrictions were implemented. A new mail policy issued by the state DOC in May 2015 was amended in September 2017 following a successful suit filed by a prisoner’s mother. The DOC had rejected a drawing by the prisoner’s 3-year-old son because it violated the original policy’s ban on greeting cards, postcards with any graphic designs and “personal drawings of any kind.”

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the New Hampshire ACLU chapter, called that rule “particularly punitive to inmates who have a child family member who can only communicate through drawings.”

The prisoner’s mother sued and prevailed, ensuring that prisoners can receive original drawings in pen or pencil – although those made with markers, crayon, glitter, chalk and paint are still prohibited. The settlement was reached on September 20, 2017. See: Y.F. v. Wrenn, U.S.D.C. (D. NH), Case No. 1:15-cv-00510-PB.

“This settlement is a victory for the First Amendment rights of prison inmates and their families,” said attorney Ned Sackman, with the law firm of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, P.A., which litigated the case with the New Hampshire ACLU. “We are pleased that the NHDOC has reversed its policy of banning all original handwritten drawings and pictures. Under the original policy we challenged, the state had eliminated one of the few ways young children could communicate with parents who are in prison.”

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Meanwhile, no prisoner mail is allowed at New Hampshire’s Stratford County House of Corrections, which is not subject to the same rules as DOC facilities. The county maintains an email system for prisoner correspondence, which costs $.50 per email.

At the Greene County Jail in Missouri, prisoner mail is now limited to postcards – and prisoners may have no more than 10 in their possession at any time. Beginning in February 2018, all other mail is returned to the sender. Legal, government and religious correspondence is exempt from the ban. Pre-paid postcards are offered for sale in the jail commissary, and indigent prisoners receive two free postcards each week.

“Our mail room staff can no longer safely and efficiently keep up with the amount of incoming and outgoing mail volume and this increases the risk that contraband could make it into the jail through the mail,” said James Craigmyle,a spokesman for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.

Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio instituted one of the first postcard-only mail restrictions in Maricopa County, Arizona in 2007, according to Leah Sakala, a research associate with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Based on her investigation into correctional mail policies, she wrote “Postcard-Only Mail Policies in Jail,” a report published by the Prison Policy Initiative. Typically, jail officials justify postcard-only policies as a way to control contraband – even though all mail is inspected by jail staff.

Sakala noted that most people are held in jail for only a short period of time, after which they will be released and need the very contacts and relationships that are most damaged by mail restrictions, especially given how expensive it is to make and receive phone calls from jail. That’s why law enforcement agencies and groups ranging from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the American Correctional Association (ACA) have opposed such restrictive policies.

“It’s pretty clear that any attempts to limit incoming and outgoing mail in envelopes really needs to be weighed against the advice and body of evidence we have from the top experts in the field,” Sakala said.

The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, has filed suit over numerous jail postcard-only policies nationwide, and obtained the first favorable ruling on the merits of that issue in a case against Columbia County, Oregon in 2013. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.44; June 2013, p.42].

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, overdoses account for less than one percent of prisoner deaths. Yet all prisoners are subject to mail and visit restrictions intended to reduce drug smuggling. Not only do such policies run contrary to research showing that prisoners who maintain close family ties are less likely to reoffend, they also fail to address the problem of prison and jail employees who smuggle drugs and other contraband.

“You ultimately have employees coming into facilities, and a lot of them are not adequately searched when they enter,” said PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “The vast majority of correctional officers don’t smuggle drugs, but the vast majority of visitors don’t either. It doesn’t make sense to only go after one group.”

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In fact, as repeatedly reported in PLN, guards and other corrections staff are caught smuggling drugs on a regular basis. In January 2018, for example, two prison guards in Maryland, Warren Wright, Jr. and Phillipe Jordan, Jr., were charged with taking bribes to bring drugs into a state prison in Jessup. And in 2015, a New Hampshire prison food services worker, Charles Hanson, 49, was caught smuggling $67,000 worth of narcotics intended for sale to prisoners. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.63].

California has spent $15.3 million on a program to curtail prison contraband smuggling, with mixed results. The three-year program involved 11 facilities that received additional drug-sniffing dogs and ion scanners, three of which included enhanced measures – full-body X-ray scanners for prisoners and video surveillance of visiting rooms. Positive results for drug tests dropped by 23% at the three enhanced locations but there was no change at the other prisons.

Jeff Lyons, a spokesman for the New Hampshire DOC, said it was important to subject both prisoners and guards to random screenings with devices like X-ray machines.

“If staff is going [in and out] six, seven or eight times a day, we don’t want to subject them to those rays,” he said. “That’s why we want to make it random.”

Better security screening of employees is more likely to reduce the smuggling of drugs and other contraband, since mail sent to prisoners is already inspected and visits are already monitored by prison and jail staff.

Sources:,,,,,,,,, Huffington Post,

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Related legal case

Y.F. v. Wrenn

Cite, U.S.D.C. (D. NH), Case No. 1:15-cv-00510-PB
LevelDistrict Court


Prisons and Jails Impose More Restrictions on Mail, Visits to Curtail Contraband? ›

Prisons and Jails Impose More Restrictions on Mail, Visits to Curtail Contraband. Filed under: Guard Misconduct, Clothing, Mail Regulations, Visiting, PLN Litigation.

What is the most common kind of contraband in prisons? ›

According to correctional officers, the most common types of contraband recovered from cells are cell phones, medication, razor blades, and hoarded food, especially fruits that can be fermented to make alcohol. Staff also regularly find weapons and drugs during these shakedowns.

Why are greeting cards not allowed in Texas prisons? ›

According to TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel, the policy change is a response to a significant amount of drugs smuggled into prison on paper that was dipped in liquid drugs, then dried and mailed to prisoners. He said searches turned up greeting cards containing SIM cards for use in contraband cellphones.

What is considered to be contraband? ›

Contraband is commonly defined as goods prohibited by law from being imported or exported. There are many different kinds of contraband, including homemade weapons, gambling paraphernalia, excessively metered envelopes, weapons, drugs, food, and whatnot.

Can you send a birthday card to an inmate? ›

You can send holiday and birthday cards to an inmate but they must not have any electronics or popup/out content.

How can we stop contrabands from entering prisons? ›

According to the National Institute of Justice, wardens and correctional officials spend millions of dollars on metal detectors to curb the widespread use of contraband. In comparison, body scanners can be a cost-effective solution to intercepting contraband.

Why is it important for prisons to control contraband? ›

This will reduce opportunistic use, and with it the risk of prisoners developing „jail habits‟ in custody. Devising a policy for tackling contraband in prison is prudent for major contribution in reducing criminal behaviour in prison as well as offences outside prisons.

Can Texas inmates receive Christmas cards? ›

Offenders may only receive greeting cards directly from an approved third party vendor. There is no restriction on the length of incoming or outgoing correspondence; however, a limit of 10 photos will be allowed per envelope.

Can Texas inmates receive birthday cards? ›

But in March 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) implemented a new policy that largely banned incarcerated people from receiving greeting cards in prisons, saying the measures would prevent delivery of contraband.

Can you send colored envelopes to inmates? ›

A new Department of Corrections mail policy bans mail that arrives in colored envelopes from reaching inmates. A department spokeswoman says it is for security reasons.

What is an example of contraband? ›

Dangerous contraband is anything that can be used as a weapon or to aid in an escape. Examples include guns or gun parts, explosives, magnets, knives, wire, torches, tools, chemicals, razor blades, alcohol, matches, and lighters.

What are the two types of contraband? ›

Traditionally, contraband is classified into two categories, absolute contraband and conditional contraband. The former category includes arms, munitions, and various materials, such as chemicals and certain types of machinery that may be used directly to wage war or be converted into instruments of war.

What is the sentence for contraband? ›

The trade was contraband, and the opium was bought by the Chinese from depot ships at the ports. I figured he was dealing with some kind of contraband.

Can you send bathing suit pictures to inmates? ›

Can you send bathing suit pictures to inmates? Answer: NO. Very few facilities allow nudity or anything that could be considered sexually explicit photos.

How do you show someone you love in jail? ›

Writing Love Letters to Prison Inmates—What To Say?
  1. Talk about your daily life.
  2. Ask questions about their day.
  3. Say how much you miss them.
  4. Discuss a book, movie, or a TV show.
  5. Motivate them to exercise and eat healthily.
  6. Encourage them to keep going and be patient.
  7. Include inspirational quotes or write from the heart.

What kind of envelopes can you mail to jail? ›

Additionally, these items must be white, off-white or yellow, and card stock, sketch paper and other types of craft paper are not permitted. Some facilities let inmates receive self-addressed, stamped envelopes, but check whether there are any limitations.

What are contraband items? ›

Definition of contraband

1 : illegal or prohibited traffic in goods : smuggling … persons the most bound in duty to prevent contraband …— Edmund Burke. 2 : goods or merchandise whose importation, exportation, or possession is forbidden Border police searched the car for drugs and other contraband. also : smuggled goods.

What is nuisance contraband? ›

Nuisance contraband are those items that may not be classified as illegal under Philippine laws but are forbidden by jail rules, such as cellular phones, excessive amounts of money, expensive jewelry, appliances, gadgets, excessive apparel and sleeping paraphernalia, liquors, cigarettes and other tobacco products, ...

What is the impact of illegal drugs and other contraband in correctional settings? ›

Drug use is prolific in the United States' correctional system and increases violent incidences with staff and between inmates, decreases the health and well-being of the incarcerated and staff, and undermines the process of rehabilitation.

How many categories of contraband are there? ›

Traditionally, contraband fell into one of two categories, absolute and conditional. Absolute contraband includes materials used to wage war or made into destructive instruments including arms and ammunition. Conditional contraband includes provisions such as food and other supplies.

What causes corruption in corrections? ›

Corruption in prison usually occurs because of three factors: coercion, recruitment, or emotional blackmail. Sometimes an inmate will use coercion and threaten a prison official or their family if he or she does not comply and smuggle contraband into the prison.

Why can't inmates get greeting cards? ›

“Greeting cards are one of the few sources of cheer and color in an otherwise dull and depressing atmosphere,” the organizations wrote, pointing to studies showing that people in jail and prison are less likely to come back if they maintain close contact with their families on the outside.

How many pictures can you send to an inmate? ›

Although it is important to double check with your incarcerated loved one's specific facility, most jails and prisons allow inmates to have up to 50 photos in their possession. As the sender, you should keep track of the number of photographs you send to make sure they get to keep the pictures that are most important.

Can TDCJ inmates receive books from Amazon? › makes deliveries to prisons. However, we recommend that you contact the prison first to confirm that they accept deliveries and to ask about any special policies they have. The label on the outside of the package should only state the destination address, company name, and return address.

Can TDCJ inmates receive Christmas cards? ›

Beginning in March, inmates will only be allowed to get mail from general correspondents on standard white paper. Mail received on colored, decorated, card stock, construction, linen, or cotton paper will be denied, the new TDCJ rules state.

What kind of things can you send to inmates? ›

5 Awesome Things to Send Inmates in a Care Package
  1. Letters and Messages. According to, sending correspondence is the number one best way to help your loved one feel connected to home. ...
  2. Commissary Money. ...
  3. Photos. ...
  4. Books, Magazines and Newspapers. ...
  5. Celebratory Cards.
Nov 29, 2016

What app can i use to send pictures to inmates? ›

Sending pictures to an incarcerated loved one takes time and effort, which is why this mother-son duo created Pelipost: The Photos-to-Prison App®. This easy to use mobile app allows you to send professionally printed pictures with a click of a button – Pelipost does the rest.

Do prisons read outgoing mail? ›

With the approval of the Facility Commander, all non-privileged outgoing mail may be read by custody staff to ensure inmate communications do not pose a threat to the safety of staff, other inmates, the security of the facility, or if reasonable suspicion exists that it, the correspondence is being used in the ...

Can you send prisoners typed letters? ›

Yes, you can write letters to inmates. Every prisoner has the right to receive written messages from their family and friends. The number of letters they can exchange is unlimited in most states. The only exception applies to correspondence between two incarcerated persons.

Do prisoners have to pay for stamps? ›

Incarcerated people must pay for key necessities, such as stationary, stamps, soup, coffee, rice and beans, and hygiene items. Local California governments contract with private companies to provide commissary items to individuals in county jails.

What is contraband in the US? ›

Contraband in correctional facilities includes illegal items, such as drugs and weapons, or items prohibited in the area being monitored, such as cell phones.

Does contraband mean illegal? ›

anything prohibited by law from being imported or exported. goods imported or exported illegally. illegal or prohibited trade; smuggling.

What is contraband quizlet? ›

Definition. Contraband is any item, artifact, or material possessed by an offender within a correctional facility or area of the centre which is unauthorized.

What are the consequences of carrying contraband? ›

The penalty for carrying contraband goods is the confiscation of the goods and often also of the vessel (see prize). Neutral ships guilty of direct assistance to the enemy may be treated as enemy ships.

What is a contraband cell phone? ›

Contraband cell phones are a growing problem in correctional facilities nationwide. The illegal use of these phones circumvents the monitoring processes in prisons, and helps inmates commit new crimes.

Is contraband property? ›

Any property that it is illegal to produce or possess. Smuggled goods that are imported into or exported from a country in violation of its laws.

How does contraband affect the economy of a country? ›

The flow of contraband products into a country weakens local industries by distorting the prices of the products. These illegal, illicit traders well know by the act of providing the products at chipper prices which will disappoint and may also remove local producers from the market.

Can you send a painting to an inmate? ›

Handmade Drawings (Limit of 5 per letter) – Must be done in lead or colored pencil, ink, watercolor, charcoal, or crayon. Other media forms or any foreign objects attached to the drawing are prohibited. Must not exceed 9x12 inches.

Is JPay free? ›

The online system accepts credit cards for money transfer transactions, making JPay a quick and convenient way to get funds to your incarcerated loved one. Setting up an account is free and the rates for sending money are competitive.

Can inmates send pictures on JPay? ›

You can add attachments to your JPay emails. When sending an email, you can attach an image or a video. You can also record and attach a VideoGram.

How do you tell if a prisoner is using you? ›

5 danger signs of unhealthy inmate relationships
  1. Sign #1: Personal life in disarray. ...
  2. Sign #2: Doing little favors. ...
  3. Sign #3: Looking for opportunities for contact. ...
  4. Sign #4: Correspondence with an inmate. ...
  5. Sign #5: Falling off the cliff. ...
  6. Take action now!
Feb 17, 2011

How do I keep my man happy in jail? ›

Give Surprise Visits

Usually, inmates know when you would visit them as part of their regular visits. But when you give them a surprise visit, you can see the elation and ecstatic happiness in them since it would mean a lot to them. This will further strengthen your relationship with him or her.

Can prisoners reject visitors? ›

As a general rule prisoners have no federal constitutional right to visiting and prison officials can deny the privilege for any reason or no reason at all.

Do prisoners have to pay to send mail? ›

Most prisons provide inmates with stationery so that they could send one to two letters a week. If a prisoner wants to send letters more often, they need to bear the cost of stamps and other essential items.

How many letters can an inmate send? ›

All e-letters will be read by the prison authorities first before you can send them out. Inmates normally gain access to the tablet after one week in prison. Inmates may receive an unlimited number of physical letters, but can only send up to two letters a month.


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