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Mail to anyone in North Carolina prisons will now be scanned and reprinted before delivery

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Any letter, birthday card or photo sent to someone in a North Carolina prison will now be scanned and reprinted before being delivered. The department of public safety says it's to reduce contraband items, like papers laced with drugs, from coming into prisons. The policy is similar to one instituted in Pennsylvania three years ago.

Samantha Melamed of the Philadelphia Inquirer covered that policy and its effects. She joins us from Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

SAMANTHA MELAMED: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SIMON: I know from experience letters and cards are important to people who are incarcerated. People - they want to touch letters and photos from loved ones, don't they?

MELAMED: Yeah. I mean, people tell me all the time how, you know, they want those hand-drawn drawings from their kids or the birthday cards from their family members. They want to be able to smell the perfume from their girlfriend or see the lipstick on the card. And all of that's kind of lost when you get a photocopy.

SIMON: Does scanning the letters make them more difficult to read and make photos harder to see?

MELAMED: So what I've heard from people is that the problems are both with the quality of the copies that they receive - sometimes they're not legible - but also that sometimes they'll get mail that was supposed to be addressed to someone else. In terms of photos, the quality of those was so poor that they ended up offering an opportunity for people to purchase photo books through an online photo servicing site.

SIMON: Why was this policy devised? I mean, drugs coming into prisons are obviously a problem. But how often was that happening with letters?

MELAMED: So what happened in Pennsylvania in 2018 was that there was a problem with K2, which is a synthetic cannabinoid that has pretty unpredictable effects on people, including, you know, sometimes violent behavior. But what the corrections department was saying was that staff were actually falling ill from exposure or needing to be rushed to the emergency room. A medical toxicologist I spoke with said that that's not possible, and they attribute it to something that they called mass psychogenic illness, which is sort of akin to a panic attack. But, you know, in any case, what happened was that the Department of Corrections responded by saying that mail was being soaked in the substance and that that's why it needed to be clamped down on.

SIMON: North Carolina Department of Public Safety says when they tested this program in four women's facilities, they saw contraband reduced by 50%. Been similar in the cases you've been covering in Pennsylvania?

MELAMED: For the second half of 2020, there were anywhere between 60 and 100 drug fines reported by the Department of Corrections per month. You know, and that wasn't so different from the numbers that we saw before they cut off the mail. So, you know, however it was coming in, it's clear that there are many other ways the contraband could come into the prison. And outsourcing mail at a cost of, in Pennsylvania's case, a $15 million contract over three years isn't necessarily solving the problem.

SIMON: And are these letters and photos stored in a database?

MELAMED: They are. They're scanned and stored in what's been advertised as a searchable database. Of course, for the families of incarcerated people, that's obviously pretty upsetting. What I'm hearing from some people is that they - their family members don't want to send photos or don't want to send letters because they don't want to be caught up in the surveillance net.

SIMON: Yeah. Samantha Melamed of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thank you so much for being with us.

MELAMED: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN SHELLEY'S "OVER AND EVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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