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New Mexico plans to create searchable logs of prison mail

A New Mexico Department of Corrections official walks toward the front entrance of the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants in November 2021. (Austin Fisher/Source New Mexico)
Lawmakers question costs and need for prison mail policy

Letters written and received by people incarcerated in New Mexico prisons will soon be part of a database expanding mail surveillance in the state’s correctional facilities.

The New Mexico Corrections Department is buying equipment from Florida-based company Securus Technologies and installing it at each prison.

Adult Prisons Division Director Gary Marciel told legislators the computer software will monitor the mail coming in, scanning every letter for certain words or names to help build a searchable log of the communication incarcerated people have with people outside.

Prison guards already monitor mail sent to incarcerated people but the new technology would make it easier for them to investigate alleged gang activity.

Some state lawmakers questioned the costs of hiring a private tech surveillance company to create a history of mail communication, and the need for the Corrections Department’s recent ban on personal mail for people inside state prisons.

Since Feb. 1, personal mail to any New Mexico prison must be sent to Securus in Florida. Any mail sent directly to the prison is returned back to the sender unopened. Medical, legal and other confidential mail still goes directly to incarcerated people.

Even though state prison officials said the new policy was meant to prevent drugs from getting inside, it has not had any effect on drug use, according to legislative analysts. Advocates and some lawmakers say what it really does is isolate and exercise power over incarcerated people, and that it has the effect of violating their privacy and harming their mental well-being.

The policy also has direct costs to the state budget. NM Corrections Department officials previously said at the beginning of every month Securus will charge the state $3.50 for each incarcerated person in the state’s prisons.

As of Tuesday, there were 5,508 held in New Mexico prisons, according to the department.

If the prison population has stayed the same since the department hired Securus, then the state has paid the company an estimated $154,000 so far processing mail.

“It’s troubling from a taxpayer money perspective,” Rep. Antonio Maestas (D-Albuquerque) said in an interview.

The prison industrial complex is a profitable industry, he said, and their business is an expense to taxpayers in two ways, “One is you’re not promoting public safety, and two, you’re spending tax dollars willy nilly.”

In-person visitation, mail, phone calls, and other ways that incarcerated people stay in touch with their families have positive effects on health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school, according to decades of empirical research.

“They sell wonderful things to the prisons to modernize the prisons,” Maestas said. “It then becomes the norm, it becomes the budget, and it just stays there.”

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) is a co-chair of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee. She said during a committee meeting on July 27 she is also worried about the fact that there are so many ways to make money off of incarcerated people.

“I want to know more about this whole mail issue because it seems so draconian to suddenly find that inmates could no longer get drawings from their kids,” Chasey said. “I’m sure this isn’t a public service by the Florida company, and I would like to know more in the future about exactly how this plays out.”

She wanted to know, prior to the mail policy change, what the risk was to staff or incarcerated people, and whether this is the only way to address that risk.

“Is there another way that’s maybe even more cost effective that might be more humane, in terms of contact with families at home?” she asked. “Is there some other kind of screening that could be done locally that would prevent the need for that?”

Chasey also asked Legislative Finance Committee Senior Fiscal Analyst Ellen Rabin if the LFC knows how much the Corrections Department spent on the mail program. Rabin said she has only been able to find one purchase order so far.

“It didn’t seem like that was enough to account for the entire term of the contract,” Rabin said. “So it’s something I’ll continue to look into.”

As of Tuesday, the company had not billed the state for the new technology, the department spokesperson said.

Maciel did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking follow-up comment for this story.

‘Let’s check all of this person’s mail’

New Mexico prison officials already have “a special team” whose job is to “flag certain inmates to know that, ‘Hey, let’s check all of this person’s mail,’” Marciel told the committee.

That team is called the Security Threat Intelligence Unit, a Corrections spokesperson confirmed on Monday. Their mission is “the identification, monitoring, and management” of incarcerated people and people on parole who are believed to be members of gangs. The spokesperson declined to comment on how many people are assigned to the unit or in which prisons they work.

The prison staff in this team, Marciel said, work with confidential informants or just go through the mail “hoping to catch something.”

The technology is called Digital Mail Center and was created by a Securus subsidiary company called Guarded Exchange, a spokesperson for the department said Tuesday. The company is figuring out what equipment will be needed to handle the mail in each state prison in New Mexico, the department spokesperson said.

Marciel said the new system would get mail to people faster and make the monitoring happen more quickly “because then we can go back and look at like, say we hear about something later, we can go back and look in the letter that someone got, you know, last week or two weeks ago, or something like that.”

The software “can flag certain letters, or certain inmates that we know are involved in certain things,” Marciel said.

“Obviously, there’s thousands of pieces of mail that come through, so a lot of it would make it through with this new software, if it works as intended,” Marciel said. “It’s a whole like, computer software program that is actually very high tech and very advanced.”

Read more New Mexico news at SourceNM.com.