Beginning October 18, 2021, if you want to send a handwritten letter to an inmate in North Carolina, you won't be sending it direct to the prison where they're housed. The state contends the reason behind this change is an effort to reduce contraband entering the prisons. According to NCDPS, this program has been in effect for female inmates since 2020 and has allegedly curbed contraband by 40 percent.
While keeping down the amount of contraband in prisons isn't a bad thing, this new service isn't all good. The company processing letters, TextBehind, scans everything received into their system, where it is forwarded to the appropriate prison, then printed and given to the inmate. Instead of 55 individual prisons receiving their mail, one company in Maryland gets it all. It's taking longer for inmates to get their mail, scans are in black and white (so if your child sends a hand drawn picture it won't be in color), pictures are scanned in black and white as well and printed on regular paper. While none of this may seem like a big deal to those on the outside, try imagining it from the perspective of the inmates.
Inmates report receiving mail from home is one of the best ways for them to feel a connection to their loved ones on the outside. Being able to feel the words written on a page, even faint scents of something comforting, are all important when you're locked away from the world. The change is another step in dehumanizing inmates, according to activists. It's also a new way for the state to keep an eye on anything you say or do within your letters, as copies are now kept on servers for seven years. While correspondence could be saved in the past, if they thought it would aid in an investigation, now, everything is.
Prison officials state they went to this system to slow down the drug trade within prison walls. They note, since the process was implemented in 2020 for the four women's facilities in North Carolina, contraband is down 50 percent. However, if you talk to those close to prisons, former inmates especially, they'll tell you the majority of drugs coming into the prisons are brought in by employees of the prison itself. This new system may slow things down, but it won't stop the problem.
Then there are reports of missing chunks of letters, illegible scanning, and photos where you can't see the faces of your loved ones. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an inmate at Craven Correctional told me he dealt with a similar system on the county jail level. His wife mailed a letter, which was then scanned by the jail. In the county jails, your letter is not printed and given to you, it's scanned into a kiosk where you can log into your account to view it. He stated, "I never could understand why the letter didn't make sense, until I was transferred to a different facility, and given the handwritten letter. They didn't scan front and back of the pages, only the front. So I was missing half the letter. The scans were crooked and missing large pieces of information."
What is the answer for keeping drugs out of the prison system and allowing the inmates that touch of humanity they get from letters from home? In North Carolina, the answer seems to be clear, the prison system doesn't care about what their policies do to the mental health of the inmates, they're only interested in putting on a front of reducing drugs and contraband. While they don't make money from using this service, it's most assuredly cut down on the amount they expend in the mail room. But at what human cost?