New Michigan prison mail policy: Inmates to receive photocopies, not originals

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Effective Thursday, people in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections will no longer receive original versions of mail they are sent.

The change is meant to stop the spread of contraband into correctional facilities, the state said Friday, and applies to mail that doesn't require "special handling." The state says attempts to smuggle drugs via mail have ticked up in recent months, as in-person visits have been halted due to COVID-19.

March:Coronavirus prompts state, federal officials to halt all prison visits

In all of 2019, 23 pieces of contraband were discovered in the mails in Michigan's 29-facility prison system. Just since March, 115 pieces of mailed contraband were seized, which represents five-fold growth over the entire year prior.

"Once in-person visits were cut off, people lost a major avenue for smuggling contraband," said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the corrections department. "Now we want to take away another one."

Prisoner mail and email through the JPay system have always been monitored, but mail that passed that initial check and was deemed safe was delivered to inmates in its original form.

"All prisoner mail that does not require special handling, including the envelope and all its contents, will be photocopied and these photocopies will be delivered to the recipient prisoner in a separate envelope," the department of corrections said in the announcement.

Due to concerns about contraband, the Michigan Department of Corrections is changing its policies concerning inmate mail.

"Original copies of mail items will not be delivered."

Heidi Washington, director of the corrections department, said that "with a recent increase in attempts to conceal contraband in the mail, it was necessary for the department to institute these measures as an added protection."

The department says neighboring states such as Ohio and Indiana already photocopy mail rather than giving people the originals.

The photocopies will be made in black and white, and the policy applies to letters, envelopes, greeting cards, photos and artwork.

As a Michigan Department of Corrections document on smuggling drugs into prison facilities explains how mail has become a common method. What looks like a child's coloring from a coloring book might be dissolved drugs. What looks like an envelope seal might contain a tab of suboxone. 

Gautz said that in recent weeks, about a dozen prisoners got sick at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. The state believes they overdosed on K2, a synthetic drug. People liquefy the drug and apply it to paper, and send it. The recipient will eat the paper and consume the drug.

This came soon after the department announced the new mail policy, which at that point was to take effect on Oct. 1. But the department didn't have enough copiers, to its effective date was moved to Oct. 15.

"This might have been a rush to get drugs in before the deadline," Gautz said.

People who want color versions of any items can still use the JPay email system, the state says. 

The original piece of mail will be kept for 14 days, and then "placed in a locked bin for shredding," according to the two-page policy.  

The policy presents the change as an opportunity for people to get mail they might have been denied in the past.

"Since prisoners are only receiving photocopies of incoming mail, mail room staff shall no longer reject mail that prevents an effective search," the policy reads.

Mail that requires "special handling" is usually legal correspondence from a person's attorney, which is confidential. 

Even that process is being reviewed, Gautz said. 

"Each time we shut off an avenue, people find another way," Gautz said.

People aware that attorney mail is not searched will sometimes send contraband from fake but real-sounding law offices. 

Michigan is studying what other states have done to prevent this, including one state that gives each attorney a unique identification code to be used in all correspondence, along with another time-based code that's good only for a week or two.

That two-factor system is believed to be tougher to beat, Gautz said.

Michigan has less than 35,000 prisoners, the first time it has fallen below that number in 30 years, the state said last month when it announced the Detroit Re-Entry Center would close in January.