Add pictures made with crayons and markers, and envelopes adorned with decorative stickers, to the list of banned items at state prisons in Utah.
Starting Friday, the Utah Department of Corrections no longer will allow inmates at the Utah State Prison in Draper or Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison to receive those items because of concerns that they may conceal illegal drugs — primarily Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction that comes in a thin strip and can be turned into a paste.
Kerry Galetka, mail unit tech supervisor at the Utah State Prison, said mail room staff have found the orange-tinted strips in some incoming letters recently. And, while it hasn’t happened here yet, in some parts of the country inmates have received children’s drawings coated with the paste.
Numerous correctional facilities in other states have taken steps in recent years to block efforts to sneak the drug to inmates, such as banning letters containing crayon drawings, stickers and glitter glue, according to a New York Times story.
Utah inmates were informed about the new practice regarding markers, crayons and decorative stickers at the end of September.
Galetka called the ban a precautionary measure after learning of other prison facilities’ discovery of tainted artwork. The department had already barred watercolor artwork and stickers pasted to letters for the same reason.
Eight employees work in the prison mail room and process approximately 8,500 to 10,000 pieces of inmate mail per week, both incoming and outgoing. They also handle up to 1,000 pieces of inter-facility mail (inmate-to-staff and staff-to-inmate) and incoming/outgoing staff mail per week.
Galetka said the mail totals change according to the time of year, with the highest volume occurring around Christmas.
Outgoing mail is randomly screened and inmates must have a release to send property — such as handicrafts they’ve made — to someone outside the prison. Galetka said every piece of incoming mail is opened and inspected in the mail room unless it is privileged legal communication, which is opened in the presence of an inmate.
The mail room staff looks for contraband, as well as concerning communication. While most letters are scanned, some are read word for word when they are found to contain certain words or staff names, Galetka said. Letters exchanged between inmates also are read in their entirety.
Galetka, who has worked in the mail room for 26 years, said smuggled drugs are the biggest problem. Another icky find: body fluids, which have been found on both incoming and outgoing mail.
"We don’t want to handle that nonsense," she said.
On a typical day, about 20 letters are rejected for one reason or another. During the holiday season, more than 100 pieces of mail get denied — many because they are multilayered greeting cards, Galetka said.
Those cards are prohibited because they can be used to hide drugs or other banned items. People sometimes slip drugs or nude photos in between the card pages and then glue the pages together, Galetka said.
Prison investigators aggressively pursue charges against individuals who attempt to mail contraband to an inmate, said Steve Gehrke, corrections spokesman.
So what’s left? Pencil, pens and colored pencils are still fine for now, as are letters printed from a computer.
"But if they fill in [a design] where there is a possibility they are covering something up by doing so, that’s not going to fly," Galetka said. "We’ve got to begin somewhere to curb contraband coming in. We may have to add more to it as time goes on. It’s hard to pinpoint every little thing."
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