A plan to digitize and screen mail and packages for people behind bars in city jails has remained in limbo for months. 

The pitch to hand over the mail screening system to a for-profit company was first introduced by city Correction Commissioner Louis Molina in October 2022. He cited a spike in fatal drug overdoses by detainees and predicted the mail-screening conversion would save lives by curbing the flow of fentanyl into the jails.

“Books are for reading, not for lacing with fentanyl,” Molina testified before City Council, referring to reports of paper soaked in opioids and narcotics. 

The proposal has since been strenuously opposed by 19 of 51 City Council members, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Comptroller Brad Lander, and all the city’s major public defender organizations. 

They argue that having a private company read detainees’ mail would lead to illegal surveillance while withholding meaningful items from people locked up — and that the main sources of contraband are correction officers and jail staffers who smuggle drugs and other banned materials such as knives. 

On Tuesday, the proposal, formally known as a “variance request,” was shot down by the city’s Board of Correction (BOC), the jail oversight body — without even coming up for a vote. 

None of the board’s seven members offered to formally bring the request to a vote, the first required procedural step. “No action was taken,” BOC Chair Dwayne Sampson said at the hearing. 

New Board of Correction chair Dwayne Sampson leads a public meeting in Lower Manhattan, March 14, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Board also did not formally vote on a proposal to reduce the number of public meetings annually from nine to six. 

The decision to nix the mail-scanning proposals without even voting on them was hailed by advocates for people behind bars.  

“That’s only the second time in nine years this has happened, congratulations!” said Kelly Grace Price, the founder of the “Close Rosies” campaign that advocates for closing the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, where female detainees are held.

‘I Want People to Be Alive’

In his plea to board members to support the plan, Molina cited a spike in fentanyl found in the mail and during searches just last week. 

But he maintained the city’s Department of Correction doesn’t have enough staff — or contraband-sniffing dogs — to search as many as 350,000 letters and packages that come through the mail each year. 

“I understand the sentiment today,” Molina said after several board members expressed skepticism. “Fentanyl is deadly and I want people to be alive. We are in an unprecedented time.”

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.

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina speaks at the BOC hearing in Lower Manhattan, March 14, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Advocates for detainees, however, contend the main culprits are correction officers and jail staffers who smuggle drugs and other banned materials. 

“Recent reports from the Department of Investigation found that officers exploit weakened security checkpoints in order to smuggle contraband,” Williams, the public advocate, testified Tuesday. 

Before the non-vote, Molina also announced that the department would begin to use its body scanners on random correction officers before they enter the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers. 

The plan is to eventually have more officers checked by the scanning devices, Molina said.

“We are trying to stop all of the rivers that are bringing contraband into our system and we are being very aggressive about it,” he said. 

No Competition

Molina’s administration chose Securus Technology, a Texas-based prison communications firm, to run the proposed mail system. 

People opposed to the plan noted the entire no-bid selection process was done behind the scenes and the department has ignored requests for basic information such as how much it would cost. 

In January, Lander sent a letter to the board urging them to drop the proposal, citing the questionable costs and “unwarranted surveillance that infringes upon the rights of those in custody.” 

Lander noted there was no competitive bidding process or formal request for proposals to allow firms to provide ideas and plans. 

Securus also has a history of privacy violations and paid out millions of dollars over the past few years to settle lawsuits brought by detainees who alleged their calls were illegally recorded, according to multiple reports

The board vote was initially scheduled for Feb. 14 but it was tabled when the audio for the remote feed failed to work. 

THE CITY reported in November that two other states that made similar changes in their mail systems have seen no decrease in overdoses or drug seizures. But overdoses continue four months into Missouri’s new program, and even rose 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. 

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. 

The city’s jail oversight board has clashed with the DOC and on some major issues in the last several months. 

The Correction Department in January abruptly yanked the board’s access to real-time video feeds from jails. 

The sudden change in policy came days after NY1 reported on the suicide of 28-year-old Rikers Island detainee Erick Tavira in October. 

The report included video of Tavira being pepper sprayed by officers as he refused to be transferred to a mental observation unit on Rikers. The footage was obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request submitted to the Board of Correction by the cable station. 

The executive director of the BOC, Amanda Masters, also left earlier this month. In her resignation letter, she slammed Molina for making “inaccurate” and “destructive” statements about the board. 

“As you all know, the commissioner of the Department of Correction has made several disparaging remarks about our agency over the course of several weeks, which were inaccurate, and this was destructive,” Masters wrote.

“His messaging has reached the DOC staff and been repeated and that has impaired some of the respect our staff get out in the jails from their DOC staff colleagues,” she added. 

On Tuesday, attorney Jasmine Georges-Yilla was named the board’s interim executive director. She formerly worked as general counsel for the body.