Jail mail handled with care

September 14, 1998|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

The 19-inch television set in a big brown box was addressed to a prisoner at the Washington County Detention Center.

Detention center prisoners are not allowed to receive such packages, especially if the TV contains more than wires and hardware.

"We looked in the back. We found a quantity of cocaine," said the jail's security chief Richard Blair.

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Mail containing illegal materials is nothing new to detention center officials, who, drawing from state and federal guidelines, have formulated a policy to handle incoming and outgoing letters and packages for the jail's 350 prisoners.

"We don't read the contents of the correspondence. But we thumb through it to make sure their is no dangerous contraband," said Blair of incoming mail.


Exceptions are made if a prisoner's behavior is suspicious or if Warden Van Evans has been alerted by a source.

Outgoing mail guidelines are not as strict, he said.

"We don't really inspect mail going out as a rule. We consider it privileged unless we have some reason to believe they are going to be breaking out at midnight or taking a hostage," Blair said.

Each day, about 100 pieces of mail are sent by or received by prisoners.

It takes security personnel about two hours to process the mail, and prisoners are never given mail processing duties, he said.

Mail is sorted by housing unit and then officers give the mail directly to the prisoners.

"About one-third of the inmate population corresponds at a given time," said Blair.

There is no limit to the amount of mail a prisoner can send or receive.

If mail addressed to a prisoner is found to contain items that are legal but are not permitted, they are held by officials until the recipient is released, he said.

In his 20 years at the jail, Blair said he has seen such things as plastic flowers and boxes of Cracker Jacks arrive for prisoners.

"We permit very little personal property into the facility. No TVs, no radios, no Walkmans," said Evans. "What is allowed is processed to the inmate."

The mail policy gives the staff better control over the detention center population, he said.

If the mail contains illegal items such as drugs or weapons, the sender could be charged, he said. All such items are turned over to the sheriffs department, he said.

"If there is an indication that the inmate was in collusion with who sent it we may also take action," Evans said.

Overall, officials receive few complaints from prisoners about the policy, which every inmate is made aware of when first incarcerated, he said.

Typical complaints are from inmates who didn't receive letters their girlfriends said they had mailed, Evans said.

Many of the prisoners think the jail is withholding the letters, but in fact they might never have been sent, he said.

Frequently, the warden receives letters mailed to him from inmates, although it is not necessary to go through the U.S. Postal Service to contact him.

Each inmate has access to request slips that can be used to relay information to the warden. Evans said he reviews each form and deals with those that have merit.

Prisoners who want to write letters can buy paper, pens and stamped envelopes at the jail. Those deemed indigent are issued a supply of writing materials.

Dealing with inmate mail is a constant challenge because of the ingenuity of the inmates, Blair said.

"There is an old saying in corrections than an inmate has 24 hours a day to plot," he said.

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