US prisons to photocopy inmate mail to curb drug smuggling

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has started photocopying inmate letters and other mail at some federal correctional facilities across the U.S. instead of delivering the original parcels, in an attempt to combat the smuggling of synthetic narcotics like K-2, officials told The Associated Press on Monday.

The program is being implemented at a "number of Bureau facilities impacted by the increased introduction of synthetic drugs," the agency said in a statement to the AP. At those jails and prisons, Bureau of Prisons employees are currently copying incoming mail and then distributing the copies to inmates, the agency said.

Officials would not say how many staff members are being assigned to make photocopies or whether they are removing correction officers to perform the task. The initiative raises questions about whether the agency, which has been plagued by chronic staffing shortages and violence, is reassigning staff members to spend time making photocopies instead of watching inmates.

The Bureau of Prisons has faced increased scrutiny since billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein was able to take his own life behind bars at a federal facility in New York in August. Across the board, the agency has been down 4,000 jobs since 2017. Staffing shortages are so severe that guards routinely work overtime shifts day after day, sometimes being forced to work mandatory overtime.

In the wake of Epstein's death, Attorney General William Barr removed the agency's acting director and named Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the prison agency's director from 1992 until 2003, to replace him.

Officials did not provide details on the specific jails and prisons where the program is being implemented, but a person familiar with the matter told AP that one of the facilities is USP Canaan, a high-security penitentiary for male inmates in Pennsylvania. The person spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss jail operations.

Officials say wardens at each of the facilities have discretion under current policy to order the photocopying because they "may establish controls to protect staff, inmates, and the security, discipline, and good order of the institution."

The agency is also exploring the possibility of using an off-site vendor to scan general correspondence and then send it as electronic files to kiosks in the correctional facilities where inmates would be able to view and print the letters.

The choice to have mail photocopied depends on the size and security level of the correctional facility, as well as the "degree of sophistication of the inmates confined, staff availability, and other variables," the statement said.

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Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.

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