The epidemic of addiction to opiate drugs in Virginia has added to a prison population of nearly 30,000 people, and since 2015, nine of them have died from an overdose of fentanyl or heroin. Last year, the Department of Corrections reported 12 cases in which drugs were sent to inmates through the mail and in the first quarter of this year, eight more envelopes arrived bearing banned substances. Now, prisons are cracking down – making major changes in the mailroom as Sandy Hausman reports.
The comments you’re about to hear were recorded from a phone line. Virginia’s Department of Corrections says it’s dangerous to let reporters with broadcast equipment inside. It’s hard to understand prisoners talking on these private phone lines, and conversations sometimes end abruptly.
“Are you there? Hello?”
Still, we thought it worth sharing these remarks from Daniel Adams – a 56-year-old man convicted of murder. He’s been behind bars for 27 years, and the letters he gets mean a lot.
“I look for a letter, because it lets me know that someone out there who really cares.”
And in the drab world of prison, he’s especially partial to colorful cards.
“I’m a hoarder, so I have a thing of keeping old letters, and I have a thing of keeping old cards, and I sit and I look at old cards – birthday, Christmas – and I say, ‘This is it. This is it until I go home.’”
Now, however, the cards come to him in black and white. That’s because the Department of Corrections scans every piece of mail, shredding the original and giving prisoners a copy.
“Drugs can be smuggled in in a number of ways -- everything from just putting powdered drugs in envelopes to suboxone strips under stamps, hiding them in books or magazines mailed by family members and so on, so a number of policies have sprung up to deal with this. For example, no books or magazines unless they’re sent directly by the publisher. That’s a pretty standard policy.”
Alex Friedmann is managing editor of Prison Legal News. He says the drug suboxone is actually used to help addicts get off opioids like phentanyl, but it can also provide a mild high. Other drugs can be dissolved into liquids.
“In some cases maybe the paper has been soaked with a drug solution. That simply won’t get to the prisoner, because they’re scanning them or making copies, and the originals are destroyed.”
Friedmann says this change is hard on men and women – most of them following prison rules, not using drugs and trying to maintain family ties.
“You’re not getting original photographs or drawings from your children. A lot of people place a lot of sentimental value on that, and getting a scanned copy or a photo copy pales in comparison to having the original.”
And to limit the workload for its mailroom staff, the state will only copy three pages of material – front and back – a limit explained in this film produced by the Department of Corrections.
“Here’s an example. This in-coming general correspondence includes the envelope, a one-page letter, two photographs and two newspaper clippings – a total of six items. The envelope would be copied onto the front of the first page, the one-page letter would be copied onto the back of the first page.”
If a family member sends more than that, the entire correspondence is returned. The head of the department of corrections – Harold Clark – refused to be interviewed and would not say what this new policy costs an agency which is already spending a billion dollars a year, but Alex Friedmann thinks it’s a shame the money is not spent on helping prisoners who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. About 80% of inmates come in with a drinking or substance abuse problem.
“The number of treatment programs, for example, or substance abuse classes pale in comparison with the need.”
And experts say the mailroom policies probably won’t make much of a dent, since most drugs come into prisons through a different channel. Last year, there were 250,000 visits to prisons in Virginia, and 31 of the visitors were caught trying to smuggle in drugs. In response, the state has changes its rules, requiring inmates to change their clothes and submit to invasive searches before and after each visit. Sandy Hausman has details.
There isn’t much privacy in prison, but Daniel Adams remains a modest man. He’s served 27 years for murder and is now 56 years old. We spoke with him by phone, because recorders are not allowed inside. Adams explained that when one of his sisters comes to visit, the Buckingham Correctional Center requires him to strip in front of guards.
“You have to take everything off – your t-shirt, your boxers and your socks.”
He then puts on prison issued underwear – worrying about how clean they are.
“Over the weekend, Saturday and Sunday on visitation, they don’t wash the clothes until Wednesday, and they’re washed in cold water.”
And an orange jumpsuit with a zipper up the back. If he should need to use the restroom during a visit, he’ll have to go through the same routine again, and once his visitor goes home, he’s subject to another inspection that frankly makes him feel molested.
“On the way out the door you have to open your mouth, lift your tongue up, lift your – excuse my language, your scrotum. You had to turn around and have your buttocks face them. Seriously, I felt molested.”
The state says this is necessary, but at Prison Legal News, Managing Editor Alex Friedmann is skeptical.
“Visitors to correctional facilities go through metal detectors, pat searches, and some facilities have drug detection machines. They’re watched constantly while they’re in the visitation area. They have very limited physical contact with prisoners, so there are already plenty of safeguards in place to prevent contraband from getting in.”
And the truth, prison experts say, is that most drugs come in with the guards. 18 of them were charged in Maryland last year.
“Corrupt staff members who typically take bribes or in some cases have personal or sexual relationships with prisoners and smuggle in contraband, including drugs.”
But because they are represented by the Virginia Correctional Association, and because it’s hard to attract prison guards for median pay of $40- $45,000 a year, Friedmann says the state doesn’t mess with them.
“Staff don’t have to, say, change their underwear when they come to work every day or go through drug detection machines or go through any of these other security safeguards.”
Of course, the situation could be worse for prisoners. In New Hampshire, inmates are banned from kissing their visitors or hugging for more than three seconds. Vending machines were removed from visiting rooms, board games were banned along with greeting cards in the mail rooms, and California has begun using drug-sniffing dogs to find illegal substances in its prisons.
There is, on the other hand, one possible step that could address this problem, while saving taxpayers money. Stop putting drug addicts in prison. Here, again, is Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News.
“Frankly, a more effective solution to this social problem is you deal with the actual problem, which is the substance abuse itself, so you put people in treatment, it could be outpatient treatment, drug court programs. It could be a number of things that do not include incarceration.”
The director of Virginia’s Department of Corrections refused our request for an interview on the subject of new mail room and visitation policies and would not say how much those are costing taxpayers who are already shelling out more than a billion dollars a year for prisons, probation and parole.