Ohio prisons to digitally scan mail to thwart drug smuggling

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP): The Ohio prison system plans to scan virtually all incoming inmate mail and provide digital copies to inmates to thwart a new form of contraband also being seen nationwide: drugs smuggled into prison by soaking them in paper.

Thwarting drug smuggling is a necessary measure to help people struggling with addiction, on top of services like medication-assisted treatment already offered by the prison system, said Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. She noted that six in 10 Ohio inmates have a history of serious substance abuse.

“Having the ability to digitally scan mail will cut down on contraband entering our prisons without interfering with the important connections the incarcerated men and women have with their loved ones,” Chambers-Smith said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Beginning in January, each Ohio corrections facility will have equipment that staff can use to digitally copy mail, under a contract with GTL. The contract is worth an estimated $22.7 million annually and includes renewal options through 2031. The company, based in Falls Church, Virginia, also operates the system allowing inmates to make phone and video calls.

Legal mail to and from inmates and their attorneys will be exempted from being digitized.

Inmates already have access to portable tablets and wall-mounted kiosks which they use to do everything from read electronic messages to conduct video calls. The digitized mail will be delivered to those same devices.

Scanned mail “provides a safeguard to your facilities against illegal drugs and contraband entering your facility through physical mail,” the GTL contract says.

It also notes another benefit to the prison administrators: “In addition, digital mail becomes another source of actionable intelligence for investigators.”

Inmates whose mail is rejected for security reasons will receive a message explaining why they aren’t getting a scanned copy, the contract says. The digitized mail will be searchable, although results will vary depending on the quality of the original letter.

In the interim, the agency is photocopying incoming mail, a process involving hundreds to thousands of pages of mail a month, with legal mail also exempted, said JoEllen Smith, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Inmate Peter Kenney says photocopied or scanned mail is a poor substitute for reading a handwritten letter, which he calls “priceless.”

“It takes all the sentiment out of it,” Kenney, serving a 36-year sentence in Trumbull Correctional Institution for kidnapping and aggravated murder, said Thursday. Kenney, 37, and his wife, Jeanna, once exchanged real letters, but communicate these days mainly through an electronic messaging system similar to email, video chats or phone calls.

Jeanna Kenney also says photocopying mail has done little to address the drug issue.

“It’s easier for them on the inside to get it than we would if we had to call a drug dealer,” said Jeanna Kenney, who runs a statewide prisoner advocacy program.

Multiple states including Maine, Michigan, Nebraska and Pennsylvania photocopy incoming mail to prevent drugs from being delivered to inmates. The federal Bureau of Prisons started a similar measure in 2019.

The Florida prisons agency has also proposed digitizing inmate mail. More than 35,000 pieces of contraband were discovered from January to April, spokesperson Molly Best said.

“Extremely dangerous substances such as liquid chemicals used to lace synthetic marijuana can be soaked into paper and dried, making detection very difficult,” she said.

In Ohio, photocopying or digitizing mail is meant to intercept paper soaked with drugs including marijuana, synthetic narcotics like K2, opioids, and surprisingly, bug spray. A common ingestion method is letting the paper dissolve on the tongue.

“There was a scent of some type of Wasp/Bug spray,” a mail screener at Dayton Correctional Institution reported Jan. 26 after intercepting a three-page letter with an “oily presence” and ink that had bled, according to an internal security report.

“The card inside was wet and soggy,” a screener at Grafton Correctional noted on July 6, 2020. “The card was sent into the investigator, where it was found to be saturated in Raid bug spray.”

The bug spray has toxicologists puzzled, since its effect on users is both unstudied and questionable.

“The way these chemicals affect the human body, it really doesn’t make sense to me,” said Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and professor at Case Western University medical school. “But these reports do keep coming out.”

Anecdotal reports vary on bug spray’s effect on people, from acting as a stimulant to acting as a depressant, Marino said. Pesticides are generally not toxic to humans, and their effect on users could well be an urban legend, he said.

Under the new mail scanning system, any suspicious mail can be sent to a secure area for analysis, according to the GTL contract. All mail is digitally archived and staff can review it later if needed.

While helping inmates beat addiction, “it is also important that we put in place practical security measures to help keep people who work and live in our prisons safe,” Chambers-Smith said.


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