Jan. 10—Most New Mexico prisoners soon will be unable to catch a whiff of their loved one's perfume in a letter or run their fingers over a waxy crayon drawing created by one of their kids.
In what a spokesman said is an effort to curb the introduction of drugs into state prisons, the state Corrections Department recently overhauled inmate mail procedures — contracting with a Florida-based company that will scan personal cards, check them for contraband and email the digital contents to each prison, which then will print out the contents for inmates.
Letters and cards will be a thing of the past, Corrections Department officials said.
The new policy prohibits inmates from receiving magazines and "cardboard or other rigid parchment incapable of running through the scanner," according to a memo provided by Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison.
Privileged mail — defined as correspondence from attorneys, judges and court clerks — will be opened in the presence of the inmate and checked for contraband.
Harrison declined to provide details of the agreement between Securus Technologies — the Florida-based company that also provides phone service for the prison system. But he said the new protocol won't cost families or inmates any money.
The state will pay $3.50 per inmate per month for the service but only for those approximately 3,838 inmates currently held in eight state-run prisons, Harrison said. Two privately operated state prisons — in Lea and Otero counties — will continue processing inmate mail on site for the approximately 1,657 other inmates in state custody.
That works out to about $13,433 a month, or about $161,196 a year.
Prisoner advocates criticized the switch, contending it will hurt inmates and their families while profiting outside firms.
"It's so important for people who are incarcerated to stay connected with family members, and this just makes it more difficult to do that," said New Mexico Prison and Jail Project executive director Steven Allen. "It broadens the gap between people who are incarcerated and the closest supporters. No one wins from that. It just means this company is benefitting from people suffering, and it makes no sense."
Allen said prison officials in the past have identified in-person visits as pathways for drugs coming into the facilities but noted contraband had continued to flow even after the pandemic resulted in the suspension of almost all in-person visits.
"Now it's that Christmas cards from children are the reason," he said. "If drugs passing into the facility are really a concern, the Corrections Department should look towards their own staff as a major source of the drugs."
The move also was criticized by prisoners, who said the new policy will only further separate inmates from their families.
"I feel like Corrections has moved away from trying to bring us closer to our families and is trying to isolate us more," said John Ray, an inmate at a state prison in Clayton.
Ray, 40, said when he was first incarcerated 20 years ago, he was able to receive cards and drawings made by his daughter and niece. But those have dwindled over time.
"I have an uncle who writes me every once in a while, but he doesn't want them to know too much of his information," Ray said. "This is probably going to keep him from wanting to write me ever again. Other than the occasional phone call, it's going to cut me off completely."
American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico staff attorney Denali Wilson said the civil rights advocacy group also objects to the new practice.
"We are opposed to this policy because it violates people's basic humanity," she said. "It's ushered in in the name of security but only serves to dehumanize people, which does not make the facility or the community the people will return to safer."
Wilson said inmates' ability to receive other informative publications also is in peril, noting the policy does not seem to make allowances for inmates to receive free newsletters, such as one sent out by the New Mexico Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth, which mails information to prisoners serving adult sentences for crimes they committed as children.
Though the service is free to inmates now, Wilson said she fears it could become a way for Securus to profit from prisoners and their families going forward, if the state stops making free copies for inmates and transitions to the company's digital platforms, which require inmates to view their mail electronically at a kiosk or device they purchase from the company.
"Securus does not currently have an official agreement with the New Mexico Department of Corrections for tablet technology," a spokesman for the company wrote in an email. "Therefore we can not comment on that product offering. However Securus will be offering our Digital Mail Center service to NMCD to help keep incarcerated individuals and facility staff safer and streamline operations to speed up mail delivery with limited staff."
Attorney Matthew Coyte said he's concerned the new policy could further delay mail within the prison system and confuse family members.
"I don't know how efficient it will be," he said. "But why on earth do we need to do it in Florida? Don't we have people here in New Mexico who can scan the mail? Pay a New Mexico person to do that rather than some private corporation that is less accountable than our own Department of Corrections."
Allen, of the Prison and Jail Project, echoed Coyte's sentiments about farming out the process.
"Screen the mail at the facility and then once it's screened, let people have their birthday cards," he said.