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State prison system upgrading offender mail security

Following 18-month pilot program, third-party provider expected to reduce contraband smuggling via mail

Posted on September 23, 2021

Updated on September 26, 2021

Local news
A corner tower is shown at Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn. The state will soon begin using a third-party contractor to process all mail sent to inmates.

Lindell J. Kay | Enterprise file photo

A corner tower is shown at Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn. The state will soon begin using a third-party contractor to process all mail sent to inmates.

Quote

Besides hiding contraband in prison mail, smugglers have learned to make the mail itself into a drug. Paper coated with liquid fentanyl, suboxone, synthetic cannabinoid K2 or other controlled substances is hard to distinguish from regular paper."

RALEIGH — To make prisons safer and more secure, the North Carolina prison system, which operates prisons in Momeyer and Bunn, is changing the way offenders receive mail.

Beginning Oct. 18, mail to offenders in a state prison must be sent directly to a private company, TextBehind. Prison officials said contraband smuggling is the main reason to contract with the Maryland-based company.

“The safety and security of our prisons are always foremost,” Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said. “Reducing the volume of drugs and other contraband entering our prisons will help us protect our staff, the offenders in our custody and the general public. This new system will be faster and safer.”

Officials said the program will reduce smuggling because TextBehind provides offenders with copies of their mail rather than the original documents.

TextBehind, which processes mail for prisons and jails across the nation, will copy the mailed contents, including cards, photos and artwork. The company will then send the digital files to the prison where the offender is housed. The prison mailroom at that facility will print the pages and deliver them to the offender.

This new system is expected to reduce mail delivery times to next-day delivery once TextBehind receives the correspondence.

“Contraband makes a prison unsafe in so many ways,” said Ishee. “You have offenders struggling for control of the contraband trade. You have the risk of overdoses. Anything we can do to cut that off makes our prisons a safer, more secure place to live and work.”

Besides hiding contraband in prison mail, smugglers have learned to make the mail itself into a drug. Paper coated with liquid fentanyl, suboxone, synthetic cannabinoid K2 or other controlled substances is hard to distinguish from regular paper.

“There’s always the possibility that someone—a staff member or an offender — is accidentally exposed to some dangerous substances, whether through breathing it in or its contact with skin,” Ishee said. “Relying on a third-party expert to process mail shifts the risk of exposure away from prison staff.”

Prison systems across the country have transitioned to digital mail over the past few years, including those in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas. Numerous jails nationwide have done so as well through digital mail delivery businesses.

In North Carolina, offenders’ relatives and friends must send their letters directly to TextBehind starting Oct. 18. Instructions will be posted on the N.C. Department of Public Safety website.

All legal mail, case files, supporting documents and court documents must be sent to the prison facility directly by an attorney or legal organization. Such mailings must be clearly marked as legal mail, and prison mail handlers will inspect that correspondence at the facility.

In addition to processing mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service, TextBehind offers a smartphone and personal computer app. Those wishing to send offenders letters, greeting cards and uploaded photos and artwork can do so using the app. Downloading the app is free, but fees to send content start at 49 cents.

Since the company earns its revenue through app fees, the state and its Department of Public Safety will not pay any fees for the service — not even for copies.TextBehind will provide high-speed printers and printer maintenance to all 55 state prisons.

This digital system has been piloted in North Carolina’s four female prisons since February 2020, and state officials say they fielded few complaints and noted several benefits. In the year after the female facilities began using TextBehind, disciplinary infractions for substance possession and use by offenders dropped by 50%.

Over the same period, the men’s prisons recorded 568 cases of drugs or paraphernalia caught by mailroom staff.

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