On Wednesday the hundreds of letters streaming through the Spokane County Jail and Geiger Correctional Facility slowed to a halt.
That was the day the jails began a new policy requiring inmates to correspond primarily by postcard. The policy was designed to improve jail security while reducing the staff time required to screen prisoners’ mail.
It began after Lt. Joanne Lake, a detention services administrator, read a news story in The Spokesman-Review about a similar policy in Marion County, Ore. She recalled a recent Spokane incident when a jail staff member discovered a white powdery substance in an inmate’s letter.
Ever since 2001, the jail staff has worn masks and gloves to sort the mail. When they see white powder, they worry about anthrax or cocaine. In this recent case, the substance turned out to be baby powder. But the anxiety stayed in Lake’s mind.
A jail committee examined the Oregon policy, and on Wednesday Spokane’s version went into effect. Inmates now must correspond with family members and friends on postcards no larger than 8 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches. Legal mail, such as that between inmates and attorneys, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration and the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, may still be mailed in envelopes.
Although the policy change initially required more staff time to alert letter writers outside the jails of the new policy, the new regimen appeared well worth the trade-offs.
The jail regularly receives letters containing drugs such as black tar heroin and blotter acid, Lake says. Jail correspondence sometimes includes unsanitary substances ranging from bodily fluids to human hair.
Screening mail for 710 inmates can be time-consuming and difficult. Even with a child’s homemade valentine card, jail staff members must scrape away the glue and each sticker and piece of glitter. All can be hiding places for drugs.
Inmates complained that the new policy would disrupt their connections with their families, hinder their privacy and curtail their First Amendment rights.
But postcards and jail telephones continue to help prisoners strengthen their relationships with family members. Much of an inmate’s privacy vanishes anyway once he or she steps through the prison door.
As for the First Amendment, that law provides prison inmates the right to free speech, not the unlimited freedom to receive envelopes of black tar, heroin or mysterious white powder.
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