For Jessica Brown, whose husband Michael is an inmate at Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton, sending letters to her spouse is one of the primary ways she communicates with him.
But starting Feb. 1, Jessica will have to send letters to her husband to a private corporation in Florida called Securus Technologies. There, Jessica’s letters will be opened and photocopied. Her husband, Michael, will be able to receive only the photocopied version.
New Mexico Department of Corrections notified inmates and their families of the change late last month.
“There’s very few things we get to do to personalize our connection with each other,” Jessica told NM Political Report. “The pandemic hit and we don’t have face-to-face visits anymore. We have non-contact visits, depending on the facility. It cuts down on the amount of visits. He can have one non-contact visit a month and two video visits. To take this away too, it’s crazy to me.”
Jessica called the move “dehumanizing.”
Eric Harrison, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, told NM Political Report that he understands that processing inmates’ incoming mail through a third party “takes out the personal touch,” and he said he empathizes with the concerns but the agency opted to contract out incoming mail processing to “curb the introduction of drugs and keep staff and inmates safe.”
“We don’t have the capacity to do it thoroughly enough,” he said.
Harrison said that the Department of Corrections will be paying $3.50 per inmate on a monthly basis to Securus Technologies. He said the 5,495 individuals in state prisons will be affected.
The private prisons in the state, Lea County Correctional Facility and Otero County Processing Facility, which combined house 1,657 incarcerated individuals, will not be participating in the third-party program, Harrison said.
Some, including Michael Brown, who spoke to NM Political Report from inside the Clayton facility where he is housed, are worried that the inmates themselves will have to pay to receive the photocopies of their mail. Michael said he currently earns 75 cents an hour for work he does in the prison.
Harrison said incarcerated individuals will not have to pay to receive the photocopies of their mail.
Jade Trombetta, spokesperson for Securus Technologies, also confirmed in an email that the company would not be charging inmates for the photocopies.
“All non-legal mail will be digitized, printed by NMCD facility staff and delivered to incarcerated individuals. There is no cost for prints for incarcerated individuals at NMCD facilities,” Trombetta said.
“The Securus Digital Mail Center service will improve the flow of safe communications and help reduce the inadvertent intake of life-threatening drugs into facilities. Mail is one of the main ways drug contraband illegally enters facilities, and adopting a DMC removes this avenue of distribution,” Trombetta said.
Harrison also said turnaround time is currently 48 hours for inmates to receive personal mail that the correction facility currently inspects for contraband. He said that when the incoming mail becomes outsourced to Securus Technologies in February, the incoming mail will still be given to inmates in “the same time frame we’re seeing now.”
Michael Coyte, an Albuquerque-based lawyer who has litigated for years to end solitary confinement in prisons, told NM Political Report that he sees “no reason why they can’t do it locally. Scanning the mail and sending the scan on.”
“There’s no sophistication in Florida – they don’t have some unique skill in doing this,” Coyte said.
Coyte pointed out that the privately-run prisons in New Mexico will continue to process incoming personal mail while the state-run prisons will not.
”The private prisons are exempt from this. They seem to handle it alright,” he said.
Another concern the Browns have is the potential of surveillance of family members who write letters to loved ones. The Browns cited a news story about inmates at federal prisons which already switched to outsourcing incoming personal mail.
According to The Intercept, in addition to fears of surveillance of family members by private, third-party contractors, the mail is delayed and sometimes blurry, cut off or missing pages.
Securus Technologies didn’t respond to a question about surveillance of inmates’ mail.
Michael said that receiving personal mail is “something precious for guys who don’t have a whole lot.”
“Guys who rely on mail can no longer have that personal contact with family. They’ll get black and white xerox copies. There’s no regard for us,” Michael said.
He said he worries about inmates who can’t afford to pay for phone calls and for the mental health of the inmates if their mail is delayed by the new third-party process.
“It does weigh on people mentally for sure. It’s draining emotionally and takes away the little joy we have staring at a concrete wall 24/7. There’s not a lot to do,” Michael said.
Denali Wilson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the incarcerated population is being “stripped of every element of parenthood,” because a child’s artwork will be “shredded in Florida,” and the inmate will receive the photocopy of the artwork.
“This isn’t justified policy in terms of security. They’re already under extreme scrutiny. They can’t receive postcards or greeting cards, and nothing printed in color. They’re not allowed to receive pictures in which they themselves are in the picture. Every mail is read, copied and inspected for contraband. Prison is already doing all of these things,” she said.
Harrison said the state prisons “don’t have the capacity,” to continue to inspect incoming mail in house.
“It takes a custody member off the line to inspect the mail. It saves time and money there. Who knows what the future holds. This is the process now,” he said.
He said he doesn’t “rule out in the future,” that the state could return to receiving incoming mail, “if we have the capacity to do it in house.”
Coyte said that potential delays in the personal mail are not the only potential problem.
“It’s people sending mail to the prison and it never gets there and there’s no understanding of where to send it and they don’t know it doesn’t get there. It’s hard enough to communicate with loved ones in prison,” he said.
Steven Robert Allen, director of New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, called the plan “ridiculous and cruel.”
“People who are incarcerated need to stay connected with family while in prison and jails,” he said.
Allen said there is a significant amount of research that shows that maintaining family and community connections with incarcerated individuals reduces recidivism.
He said the economy that has grown up around incarceration in the U.S. that allows a private company to “rake in a bunch of money” to provide a service is a concern.
“Someone’s kid sends a birthday card and apparently they won’t get the birthday card based on this new contract. How does that help anyone? It hurts families and communities. It means people aren’t going to be able to maintain relations. They need to stay connected to family and community. Ninety-five percent [of the incarcerated population] will eventually be back in our communities and we should care about that. We have to give them all the tools they need to reintegrate. They don’t need structures like this to make it harder,” he said.
Michael Brown said that when the prison is on lock down, the only way he and other inmates can communicate with family members is through the mail.
“When we go on lock down, she [Jessica] doesn’t know if I’m okay, if I’m sick and in quarantine or if we’re on lock down because something happened at the facility. Being able to communicate with family is crucial. It usually takes two or three days,” he said of current mail received into the facility.
Michael worries that family members’ mail will take up to 10 to 12 days for him to receive it.
Harrison stressed that only personal mail will go through the Florida company. Legal mail, cashier’s checks and money orders will still be processed in house through the state, he said.
Another loss in the new policy are newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Michael Brown said incarcerated individuals do not have access to the internet so the only way they can receive news is through hard-copy newspapers and magazines. He said some individuals have personal subscriptions to magazines and newspapers which now, he said, will be ended. He said that for individuals who make less than a dollar an hour, that loss of money can hurt.
Harrison said the Corrections Department will provide magazines and newspaper subscriptions for free through the prison libraries when the new system begins. Harrison said the reason to cut off newspapers and magazines is also because there have been some instances of contraband smuggled in that way.
“Contraband coming into the facilities is not new but in the last few months we’ve seen laced fentanyl melted into paper and dried. Inmates smoke it. There’ve been countless scenarios where individuals were found unconscious because they smoked or inhaled spice [marijuana laced with fentanyl]; it’s something that comes in through the mail. We definitely have seen an increase over the last few months,” he said.
But Michael Brown said the entire prison population is being punished for the actions of one group of individuals.
“To be able to see my wife’s handwriting and smell her on the page…this is big for us. It’s the last little touch of humanity. We’re stuck in this box and warehoused; everything is just so impersonal,” he said.