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The First Amendment Deemed a Threat to Security
The latest in a series of Orwellian decisions made by New Mexico DOC to keep street drugs away from inmates has people scratching their heads.
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Here is something that all correctional department, state and federal, have in common: keeping inmates safe as they rehabilitate them for successful reentry into society. So it stands to reason that certain security precautions have to be taken in order to keep street drugs, weapons and other forms of contraband away from inmates.
Which is why we expect mail and packages to be inspected, and likewise understand the need to subject visitors to a certain level of screening.
Phone calls are monitored, photos are reviewed for appropriateness, letters (incoming and outgoing) are read and potentially copied. Inmates, after a visit, are subjected to strip searches.
We may not like these measures but it's easy enough to understand why they exist. But recently, New Mexico's DOC, under the leadership of Cabinet Secretary Alisha Tafoya-Lucero, has made a decision regarding inmate mail that has many wondering whether she believes herself above the Constitution, in particular, the First Amendment.
First Amendment protections for inmates are broad as they extend to association rights, religious freedoms, expression, and the right to receive publications – to include magazines, newspapers, legal journals, catalogs, books, and even bulk mail in some instances.
Certain restrictions have been upheld by federal courts, but only as they relate to certain kinds of content related to nudity, gangs, weapons, or other such content that is contrary to the rehabilitative efforts of correctional departments. The idea, however, of blocking all publications has never been upheld by any federal court. Yet, this is precisely what is taking place under Governor Lujan-Grisham’s watch in New Mexico.
Burning Books: Source Istockphoto.com
On or around December 29, 2021, inmates in at least 8 of New Mexico's 10 correctional facilities were issued a memorandum similar to the one presented below. The violation to the First Amendment appears precisely where it says, “magazines will not be accepted.”
This restriction includes newspapers, legal journals, and catalogs. Basically, as the memo states, “[m]ail will no longer be accepted that is comprised of cardboard or other rigid parchment in capable of running through a scanner.
To: Offender Families
From: New Mexico Corrections Department Date: 12/29/2021
Re: Inmate Mail Changes
Beginning February 1st 2022, personal mail will no longer be accepted at state-run prison facilities. All personal mail for inmates at these facilities should be addressed to the following for processing:
Inmate name and NMCD #
C/O Securus Digital Mail Center - NMCD PO BOX 25397
Tampa, FL 33622
Lea County Correctional Facility and Otero County Prison Facility, the two privately operated facilities, will continue to accept personal mail. Any personal mail for individual’s at state-run facilities that is not sent the above address after January 31, 2022 will be returned to sender.
At all private and state-run facilities moving forward, mail will no longer be accepted that is comprised of cardboard or other rigid parchment incapable of running through the scanner. For example, USPS postal rigid express envelopes that lay flat but do not bend without creasing would not be accepted and magazines will not be accepted.
All mail must be properly addressed with identification information to clearly identify the inmate in custody. Mail will be returned to sender if information is insufficient to reasonably determine the identity of the inmate for whom it is intended.
Cash and personal checks will not be accepted through the mail and any mail containing cash or personal checks will be returned to sender. Packages mailed to inmates will not be accepted, but will be returned to sender unopened.
Items that are impossible to inspect without destruction will be returned to sender such as glued items, greeting cards. An items that are not accepted will be returned in their entirety to the original sender.
Privileged mail (legal mail) must come from the following persons: licensed attorney, judges and clerks of any federal, state or local court and must have official markings on the outside of the envelope and will be opened in the presence of the inmate and checked for contraband. Any mail otherwise designated “privileged” loses the status if it arrives via an intermediary.
All legal mail, cashier's checks and money orders will still be sent to the applicable facility address.
State-operated prison facility mailing addresses (For legal mail and money orders ONLY)
Central New Mexico Correctional Facility P.O. Drawer 1328
1525 Morris Road,
Los Lunas, New Mexico 87031-1328
Guadalupe County Correctional Facility 1039 Agua Negra Road
Santa Rosa, New Mexico 88435
Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility 185 Dr. Michael Jenkins Road
Clayton, New Mexico 88415
Penitentiary of New Mexico
P.O. Box 1059
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504-1059
Roswell Correctional Center 578 W. Chickasaw Road Hagerman, New Mexico 88232
Springer Correctional Center P.O. Box 10
Springer, New Mexico 87747
Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility P.O. Box 639
1983 Joe R. Silva Boulevard
Las Cruces, New Mexico 88004-0639
Western New Mexico Correctional Facility P.O. Drawer 250
Grants, New Mexico 87020
Privately-operated prison facility mailing addresses (For all personal mail, legal mail and money orders)
Lea County Correctional Facility 6900 West Millen
Hobbs, New Mexico 88244
Otero County Prison Facility 10 McGregor Range Road Chaparral NM 88081
The task set for any DOC is to rehabilitate offenders. A goal aggravated by the challenge, at least in New Mexico, of having drug addiction as a contributing factor in 90 percent of the cases. To understand this is to appreciate why every attempt by the DOC to combat drugs has failed.
Here's the rundown:
• In 2016, then-Cabinet Secretary Gregg Mercantel did away with family visitations, in large part, to help stop the flow of street drugs through the facilities.
Result: inmates had less incentive to participate in programming or maintain clear conduct. And despite the restrictions, drugs continued to flow through the facilities and family visitation was never resumed.
• In 2017, the DOC decided to no longer permit inmates to receive any kind of card stock through the mail – greeting cards, postcards, prayer cards, etc. The justification being that certain illegal substances like THC, spice, methamphetamines, and Suboxone were being liquefied, applied to card stock and sent into the facilities through the inmate mail.
Result: instead of the illicit substances being applied to card stock it was applied to regular paper and sent in as handwritten letters. (Interesting side note: When restrictions on greeting cards began inmates requested that their cards be photocopied and given to them that way, but were told that it would be too expensive and labor-intensive to do so.
It is important to mention that in 2010, the DOC began a program with the commissary vendor Access Corrections to offer media players to inmates who chose to buy them. Early devices permitted inmates to purchase music, guided meditations, and inspirational media tracks.
More importantly, inmates were permitted to receive digital photos, and send and receive email through their devices. Families were charged a small fee for the services, and obviously all correspondence and photos had to be screened by correctional staff. And, to the surprise of nobody, no contraband or drugs were ever introduced through these devices.
Later devices turned to a small tablet, about the size of current smartphones. These offered puzzle games and self-help podcasts instructing inmates on topics like résumé building, dressing and preparing for job interviews, communication skills, instruction on how to perform Internet searches, and many other necessary skills.
Then, in November, 2021, the DOC issued a similar memo to the one above indicating that in a matter of weeks the tablets and supporting media services (media catalog, email, and digital photos) would no longer be offered. One would think that inmates sending and receiving messages or photos electronically is safer, cheaper, and less labor intensive than snail mail and actual photos. But the DOC in all its wisdom decided otherwise.
Let's be clear on something: keeping dangerous and illegal substances away from inmates is a good thing, as previously mentioned. The DOC should create and enforce protocols with this objective in mind, but a stratagem that dismisses the Constitution and prohibits access to knowledge and information isn't one that serves anyone's interests. Except for maybe the bottom line profits of Securus.
Monkey with money: Source I.Stock
Is routing all inmate mail through a third-party, private vendor in Florida going to prevent contraband from entering correctional facilities in New Mexico through the mail? Yes, absolutely.
But, will it stop dangerous and illegal substances from being introduced to the same facilities, anyway? Absolutely not.
The fallacy of thought here is to believe that mail is the only entry point for drugs. This ignores the fact that the majority of contraband in all facilities has always come from the staff.
For introducing contraband the size of a candy bar, staff is compensated as much as $5,000 in cash. It's a difficult temptation for anyone earning just above minimum wage to resist. And after 17 years of vigilant observation I've never been in a facility where this was not happening.
And the obvious collateral damages of these policies begins and ends with injury to the family unit. Family visits, gone. Email and photos, gone. All publication, gone. And will the drugs stop? No.
For years I have enjoyed reading publications like National Geographic, The New Yorker, the Guardian, New York Times, the Albuquerque Journal, Wired, legal journals from Columbia and Georgetown Law, not to mention Criminal Legal News and its sister publication Prisoner Legal News. But suddenly these publications are all now considered a threat to security as potential drug traffickers.
In recent years, families have likewise been prevented from ordering books for their loved ones on Amazon, because apparently Amazon is also suspect. The DOC says that Amazon isn't an approved vendor.
The only approved vendors are Hamilton Books, and BooksNThings. What security standards do these vendors meet that Amazon doesn't? Aside from the fact that their catalogs are very limited, they don't sell new releases. Or, should we believe that Jeff Bezos, one of the wealthiest men in the world, has a side hustle of introducing contraband into prisons?
Then there's the issue of cost to the taxpayer. The ACLU recently reported that this attempt to outsource the DOC's responsibilities will cost taxpayers $160,000, annually. A lot of money being sent to a private company across the country for a service that could and should be provided by the DOC and New Mexican workers. How is this any different from the US Postal Service hypothetically deciding to delegate its mail delivering responsibilities to a third-party vendor? Do families suddenly have no privacy issues that their mail can now be opened and reviewed by non-correctional staff in another state? For how long is Governor Lujan-Grisham going to permit Cabinet Secretary Alisha Tafoya-Lucero to mismanage DOC funding? These are questions that demand answers.
Recently, the Albuquerque Journal published a congratulatory piece on the DOC's educational reform efforts for women offenders in Grants, New Mexico. Did the journal know then that in a matter of months those same inmates would soon be prevented from subscribing to its publication?
Many families have written to the Governor's office on this issue, only to receive a canned response that goes something like, blah blah blah…preventing contraband is important…blah blah blah… families can still send newspaper clippings.
Yes, You read that right, “newspaper clippings.” I had to have this re-read to me, too. It's hard to believe that inmates are now expected to ask their friends and family to go through all their favorite books and publications, clip the articles, then mail them to Florida to be scanned by Securus.
Here's an even better idea, why not ask families to transcribe all the news into correspondence and send it that way? Instead of photographs they can send stick figure imitations of what the pictures represent. Or maybe put it all into Morse code, or encourage families to take classes on how to communicate with their loved ones through dreams.
Personally, I read over 3,000 pages of pure media, not including books, every month. To make this work I would need at least one full-time employee and $300 in postage to have all my desired publications clipped, sorted, and mailed to Florida.
Then, when those files get emailed back to the DOC it's safe to assume that the taxpayer is going to pay for six reams of paper, the necessary ink, and the labor cost of printing and delivering this to me.
Wouldn’t digital access to publications make more sense? It feels like we're trying to pay someone to walk a glass of water across the desert to a thirsty someone, when that someone lives in a house with perfectly good drinking water running from the faucet. I hate to belittle someone's intelligence but this decision seems like a joke without a punchline and a testament to public education in New Mexico.