A private company scans all mail sent to North Carolina prisons, digitizes it, and gives the incarcerated copies. Is that a problem?
By Kelan Lyons, NC Policy Watch
Those writing to loved ones in North Carolina prisons must send their letters not to whichever of the more than 50 prisons where their family member is locked up, but to a P.O. Box in Maryland, where their envelope is opened and scanned by a stranger before a copy is delivered to their family member in a North Carolina facility.
That’s because of a change last year allowing the private company TextBehind to scan and digitize all mail sent to the incarcerated.
Calling TextBehind “safer, faster and cheaper,” the North Carolina Department of Public Safety website says the agency went from dealing with mail in-house to relying on the private company “to reduce the volume of drugs and other contraband entering prisons.”
Data provided to Policy Watch suggests the service could be at least partly responsible for a reduction in substance use behind bars.
Across the entire prison system, there were 7,573 infractions issued for substance abuse in Fiscal Year 2019-2020; there were 5,649 in Fiscal Year 2021-2022, a 25% decrease from the last year before TextBehind was implemented across the entire prison system.
That said, there were four deaths by overdose in state prisons in 2019, according to figures provided to Policy Watch and five in 2021, the year TextBehind was implemented system-wide.
“The state prison system works hard to keep drugs out of our facilities. It is a constant battle, fought daily,” Brad Deen, a communications officer with the Department of Public Safety, said in an email, praising the practice of digitizing mail. “Because the original contents never enter the prison, we are confident that the introduction of drugs into N.C. prisons through general offender mail has been all but eliminated. We continue to work on interdiction of contraband through other avenues, whether it’s smuggled in by staff or visitors, thrown over the fence, etc.”
A report published by the Prison Policy Initiative earlier this month, however, argues that there are collateral consequences to digitizing mail, including harm for the incarcerated,the prioritization of profit over inmate well-being, and ultimately, the failure to make prisons safer.
“This practice of mail scanning, either performed at the prison itself or off-site using a third-party vendor, strips away the privacy and the sentimentality of mail, which is often the least expensive and most-used form of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones,” Leah Wang writes in the report.
Wang, a research analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, surveyed the websites of correctional departments across the country. North Carolina is o
ne of at least 14 states in which prison systems are replacing physical mail with scanned copies.
At least seven states, including North Carolina, use private companies for the scanning. West Virginia and Arkansas have been using mail-scanning the longest, since 2017, but four states adopted the practice this year — following the lead of four other states in 2021 — indicating a growing trend.
TextBehind has been processing mail sent to women incarcerated in North Carolina’s prisons for females since February 2020, and for its incarcerated males since October 2021.
Mail sent to people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons is first sent to a P.O. Box in Phoenix, Maryland, where it is scanned. Digital copies are then sent to the incarcerated person’s prison, where the mailroom prints the approved pages and delivers them.
“Keeping suspect mail out of prison, yet still providing the contents, should reduce the contraband smuggled into prisons,” the Department of Public Safety website reads. “The result is a safer and more secure prison environment, reducing drug use and risk of overdose. Violence among offenders fighting over the contraband trade should also decline.”
Deen said that the use of TextBehind is part of a broader set of policies in recent years to crack down on drug use behind bars. Those policies include beefing up entry and exit screening processes for visitors and staff and installing motion detectors at some prisons to prevent outsiders delivering drugs by throwing them over the fence.
“Prisons has a zero tolerance for the introduction of contraband to any prison from any source,” Deen said, including staff. “When possible, we support prosecution of those responsible.”
Reaping profits from inmates and their families
One of the issues Wang finds with mail-scanning is it priorities profit over the well-being of the incarcerated. Private companies often offer “bundled” services to prison systems, like phone calls and tablet computers — TextBehind also offers electronic messaging and electronic children’s drawings — incentivizing the incarcerated to use other means of communication which may be more costly.
“Scanning mail pushes incarcerated people to use other, paid communications services provided by the companies: Compared to mail that’s delayed due to scanning procedures, or scanned incorrectly, incarcerated people and their loved ones often understandably switch to electronic messaging (which requires the purchase of digital stamps), phone calls, or video calls,” Wang writes.
The DPS website states that mail sent via the company’s app is processed faster than if it is sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Anything sent through the app is forwarded by TextBehind to the prison for delivery. That app is free, but it costs at least 49 cents — “less than a stamp,” the DPS website reads — to send anything. The company also lists a slew of pay-to-send options on its website.
“NCDPS (and taxpayers) will not pay for anything, not even the paper copies. TextBehind provides the printers and printer maintenance to all 55 prisons,” the DPS website reads.
Original letters mailed to the Maryland P.O. Box are shredded in 30 calendar days. Family members can request their letter be returned, but it costs $2.50.
Drug interdiction trumps human contact
The North Carolina prison system’s use of TextBehind means that the incarcerated do not lay their hands on the letters touched by their loved ones. Artwork sent by their children is scanned by strangers, copied and then delivered to the incarcerated parent, a duplicate of a drawing lovingly rendered to a father or mother separated by miles, concrete and barbed wire.
The DPS website acknowledges this in a list of frequently asked questions: “Why do you have to make copies? A copy of a card or kids’ artwork isn’t the same.”
The department said using TextBehind keeps people safe.
Prison drug smugglers often coat paper with liquid forms of fentanyl, Suboxone, K2, LSD and other deadly drugs,” the website reads. “Mailroom staff can accidentally be exposed to the drugs by touching the paper or breathing the fumes.”
The idea that touching fentanyl can lead to an overdose is a persistent narrative in the law enforcement community. It also is disputed regularly by public health experts, one of whom told the Washington Post that secondhand exposure is “complete nonsense.”
Asked to elaborate on how often this happens in North Carolina prisons, Deen said DPS did not have any reports of mailroom staff having suffered contact exposure to drugs or fumes.
“We train our mailroom personnel in proper precautions for handling mail and avoiding exposure to dangerous materials,” he said.
Wang’s report contends that mail screening doesn’t even do what it’s purported to do: make prisons safer. Officials in Pennsylvania said 0.7% of incoming mail was infected with drugs in 2018, right before they started using mail scanning. Nearly a year into scanning the mail, 0.6% of mail was tainted. Overdoses in Missouri, meanwhile, increased in the first three months after the prison system started digitizing mail.
What’s more, security measures like mail scanning or banning in-person visitation ignores the fact that corrections staff are a major source of contraband in the prisons, Wang argues based on a survey from 2018.
Deen said DPS’s zero-tolerance policy for anyone trying to bring in contraband is applied to prison employees.
“We hold staff accountable. We do contact law enforcement for criminal investigations if staff are found smuggling drugs or suspected of smuggling drugs into a prison,” he said.
Perhaps the most serious effect of mail scanning is intangible, Wang writes. Mail has great sentimental value to people in prison, offering hope to those cut off from the rest of the world for years at a time. Incarcerated people often refer to their mail over and over throughout their imprisonment; scanned mail is often incomplete or low quality, often lessening its meaning.
Ryan M. Moser, a man incarcerated in Florida, wrote a piece for Truthout last month, after the state’s Department of Corrections banned the incarcerated from receiving physical mail. Moser called the letters his “lifeline to the outside world — and now it’s gone.”
The nearly year-old Florida policy requires the incarcerated to view their mail on tablets or at communal kiosks. Moser recalled the comfort he felt when he held a 3×5 picture of his recently deceased father, memorizing its features before putting it in his photo album.
“We treasure these mementos behind bars because we have little else,” he wrote.