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City Jails Move to Digitize Mail, Which Led Other Lockups Into Legal Fights

Apart from the obvious privacy and intimacy issues that come with reading everyone’s letters and turning them into emails, experts note that similar efforts in other states haven’t reduced contraband.

SHARE City Jails Move to Digitize Mail, Which Led Other Lockups Into Legal Fights

The Department of Correction presented City Council photos of what it said were drug-soaked letters and books, including Stephen King’s “Misery.”

New York City Department of Correction

The city Department of Correction recently revealed it is moving to a digitized mail and package delivery system meant to curb contraband. Inmate advocates caution the switch will trample privacy rights — and that two other states that made similar changes have seen no decrease in overdoses or drug seizures. 

At an oversight hearing last week, DOC Commissioner Louis A. Molina told City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice that his department will soon start sending incoming mail addressed to Rikers Island and other city lockups to a private company that first scans the letters, then emails the text to detainees. 

Molina said his staff is also “exploring” restrictions on packages sent — potentially limiting them to items bought directly from approved vendors. The state prison system earlier this year enacted a similar policy over opposition from inmate advocates and loved ones.

Three of 18 deaths in city jails this year resulted from fentanyl overdoses, the commissioner testified.

Corrections officials in New York and throughout the country have long blamed visitors, letters and packages as the primary source of contraband. 

“How does fentanyl get into our jails?” Molina asked during the Council hearing, about the powerful synthetic opioid behind most overdose deaths in the last few years. “The short answer is that most of it enters in letters and packages laced with fentanyl.”

Jail leaders say paper and other objects sent — including things like sneakers, according to the commissioner — are often soaked in fentanyl, suboxone, K2 or methamphetamines.

However inmate advocates contend the main culprits are correction officers and jail staffers who smuggle drugs and other banned materials like knives. 

As THE CITY reported in February, when visitors were blocked from entering Rikers early during the pandemic, even more drugs flowed through the jails. 

Between April 2020 and May 2021, authorities seized banned drugs inside city jails over 2,600 times, our reporting showed. That’s more than double the number of seizures made during the same time period from 2018 to 2019, when the jail population was larger and more outsiders came and went, data showed. 

The numbers did also show an increase in seizures of mail containing drugs during that period — but those accounted for less than a third of total drug recoveries. 

‘Dehumanizing’ Digitizing

In an effort to curb ODs, jails and prisons throughout the country have moved to digitized mail systems and using only designated vendors for package delivery. 

Such restrictions violate the free speech rights of the incarcerated, a federal lawsuit argues. Last year, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued the Bureau of Prisons over its digital mail pilot program. 

“These programs are dehumanizing,” Institute staff attorney Stephanie Krent testified at the City Council hearing. “They’re invasive. They’re very harmful for people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.” 

Krent and other advocates contend that physical mail is irreplaceable and that photocopies or digital scans lose expression found in messages like drawings from children. 

“We’ve spoken with incarcerated people who tell us about the value and the importance of holding something that their loved one has also held and the need for them to be able to bring that mail out and revisit it at stressful times,” Krent testified. 

Some of the scans come in blurry or darkened and are often hard to read, according to detainees at facilities where the system is in place. The scans also often take days to arrive or never appear in some cases. 

At least two state digital-mail programs are also being challenged in court. 

In Pennsylvania, state prison officials were forced to rescind the restrictive new policy after lawyers sued, arguing it made it impossible for them to talk privately with their clients. 

In Missouri, jail officials banned physical mail this June to prevent drug smuggling. The department contracted with Texas-based company Securus Technology to scan the letters, pictures and magazines. 

But overdoses continue four months into the new program, and have even upticked slightly, according to a report by the News Tribune. Before the ban, an average of 31 people overdosed per month. That figure rose to 37 between July and September. 

Lack of Transparency

Molina was adamant at the Council hearing that the new restrictions would curb drug smuggling.

“Books are for reading, not for lacing with fentanyl,” he testified. “These changes should help prevent drugs and other contraband from entering our facility. It should save lives.”

The annual number of nonfatal overdoses in the jail system went up from 203 in 2020 to 309 in 2021, according to the city’s Correctional Health Services, which oversees medical care for detainees.  

During the hearing, Molina also addressed contraband smuggling by staff, and stressed that the department has a zero-tolerance policy for any officer busted with smuggling in drugs. 

Since 2017, contraband investigations have resulted in criminal charges against 25 city correction officers, according to the city’s Department of Investigation. 

Molina and DOI declined to detail the current number of open probes into officers accused of smuggling in drugs or other contraband. 

Scanners for visitors to pass through lie right beyond the entrance to a Rikers Island facility, July 1, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

After the hearing, Molina and his team also refused to answer questions about how the digitized mail system would work and how soon it might be launched. 

All city detainees would first need wireless tablets to access the digital mail, but many do not have those devices, Molina told the Council.

“We’re currently in negotiations with a new vendor to ensure that every person in custody has their own tablet, and they will travel and retain that tablet,” Molina testified. “Even if they go from one facility to another. It’ll give us the ability to customize certain programming initiatives for that individual.”

Yet Molina and DOC representatives have refused to disclose the name of the provider, how the firm was selected, and the parameters and cost of the potential contract. 

Information, Indefinitely

Inmate advocates and legal experts against the new system contend that it will lead to unwarranted surveillance. 

“Companies that sell mail digitization technologies explicitly advertise this,” Krent said. “And this can include retaining scanned copies of mail indefinitely.”

Firms can also share the information with law enforcement, as well as collect IP addresses and GPS information, she added. 

Some states, and the federal prison system, have since enacted carve-outs for correspondence with lawyers. 

Council members asked Molina why the department isn’t using its body scanners on its own correction officers to ensure that they aren’t smuggling in drugs. Molina said that jails don’t have enough space for the scanners, similar in size to those in airports.

“We don’t have the infrastructure footprint in order to be able to install those body scanners and all of those access control points,” he testified. “And it would come at a very significant cost.”

Before Molina came on board in January, city jail officials argued for years that scanners would detect knives and shivs of all kinds and drastically reduce the number of stabbings and slashings. 

But the devices, purchased during the Bloomberg administration, were blocked for years by state lawmakers opposed to the use of small doses of radiation on detainees. 

Jail supervisors promised they’d train officers to make sure detainees would not be harmed by repeated radiation exposure from the body scanners. In 2018, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation into law allowing their use on detainees — and officers. 

The DOC began installing them in 2019, but they’ve never been used to check staff. 

Despite promises by correction officials to use them safely, in January 2020 a jail oversight board recommended “an immediate investigation into misuse” of the six devices — which also screen for drugs and other contraband — citing “risk of radiation exposure” due to a lack of staff training.

The 56-page report from the city Board of Correction called for a swift corrective action plan, noting possible health hazards “to staff and people in custody and the potential for misinterpretation in scans.”

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, said she didn’t think a new mail system was the “silver bullet” to getting drugs out of the jail system. 

“I feel like there are many factors contributing to this crisis,” she told THE CITY, noting she also wants the body scanners to be used on correction officers and other department staff. 

Advocates contend the only people who will gain from the new mail system are the for-profit contractors.  

Veronica Vela, a supervising attorney for the New York Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, called the DOC plan “an expensive, cruel, intrusive response that burdens incarcerated persons with no demonstrable benefit except to profit the industry that markets these services.”

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