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New prison mail policy costly to families – emotionally and financially

State could pay private company more than $300,000 to make photocopies
Various cards and images sent between JoeRay Barela and his fiancee, Amy Gonzales (Courtesy of Amy Gonzales, via Source NM)

The feeling of holding a physical piece of mail created by a loved one is “like no other,” said Joe Barela, a father of three from Albuquerque.

His family has always supported him with visits, mail and phone calls during his time in and out of prison since 1996.

In his 13-by-7-foot cell at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, Barela hangs pictures on a wall, but only within the designated spot the guards allow him.

Prayers, drawings and other small messages from his three children surround a large drawing of Azrael, the cat owned by the evil wizard Gargamel in the 1980s television show “The Smurfs.”

The drawing was by his fiancee, Amy Gonzales. He proposed six months ago.

“I tell her that I put it on my fridge,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t have a fridge, but that’s where I would put it, if I did have a fridge.”

The New Mexico Corrections Department on Dec. 29 told prisoners’ families that it will be banning physical mail in prisons, and directed them to send their letters to a private company, Securus, in Florida that creates photocopies and sends them to the prisons. Securus is the same company that operates phones in the state’s prisons and developed a voice recognition program that extracts “voice prints” from prisoners’ calls.

The department said the change is because of incidents where contraband material was smuggled in through the mail. Department spokesman Eric Harrison said the contractor processing the mail will charge the state $3.50 for each prisoner in the state’s prisons, at the beginning of every month. There is no other payment required by the company, Harrison said.

There were 5,588 people in state prisons as of Wednesday, according to the department. That means Securus would make $27,940 this month.

If the prison population in New Mexico stayed the same over the course of the next year, Securus would make $335,280 photocopying mail.

A card JoeRay Barela made in prison and sent to his fiance, Amy Gonzales. (Courtesy of Amy Gonzales, via Source NM)

But the new policy creates new problems for loved ones sending mail. Gonzales said she tries to send Barela at least two pictures per month, and sometimes they require a larger, more expensive envelope. One of her recent envelopes was returned because there’s now a prohibition on mail consisting of cardboard or rigid parchment that can’t run through the scanner used by Securus.

Barela said he filed an informal complaint about the mail. He said prisoners shouldn’t be subject to collective punishment because of the actions of a few.

“If somebody wants to mess it up, ... take their mail,” Barela said. “Why are you going to take my mail when I’m not doing such a thing, you know?”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico opposes the policy because it violates people’s basic humanity, said Denali Wilson, a staff attorney.

Wilson pointed out that people in the free world are able to keep in touch in many ways, and some might even ask, “Who uses the mail anyway?”

The answer, she said, is prisoners.

“Baked into the design of prison is isolating people from their supports, which means that mail has been and continues to be one of the few remaining lifelines that people in prison have,” Wilson said. “And now, with this policy, that’s even being chipped away.”

Barela said he is one of the lucky prisoners able to keep in touch with family. Others in the prison, he said, often are not even aware they are receiving letters from family because prison officials do not tell them when mail addressed to them gets rejected.

“I cherish those – everybody does,” he said. “It’s not only me, it’s everybody in here.”

To read more stories from Source NM, visit www.sourcenm.com.