USP Canaan incidents spark federal prison security conversation

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 8/28/19

PA lawmakers want federal prisons to adopt the state's new, and controversial, approach to security.

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USP Canaan incidents spark federal prison security conversation

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CANAAN TOWNSHIP, PA — Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are asking the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to impede the flow of illegal drugs into federal prisons by enhancing its security. Specifically, the congressmen want the BOP to adopt a new procedure for processing inmates’ mail, modeled after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PADOC) system.

A number of recent incidents at United States Penitentiary (USP) Canaan, a federal prison in Waymart, sparked the request. In early August, two prison workers came into contact with an unauthorized substance and were hospitalized as a result. Just weeks earlier, the same thing had happened to five corrections officers. In both cases, prison officials believe that the substances arrived through the mail.

In response to the same issue at the state level, PADOC implemented a new mail procedure last year that diverts all mail (except for legal mail) to a separate processing facility in Florida where it is opened, photocopied and emailed to the correctional facility. Inmates in state facilities no longer receive the original contents of their postage.

According to PADOC data, in August 2018, before adoption of the new policy, officers reported 5.9 inmate drug finds per 1,000 inmates. In July 2019, they reported 4.6 inmate drugs finds. The percentage of positive drug tests has stayed relatively equal: .7% in August 2018 and .6% in July 2019.

“PADOC has reported that this new mail system has been extremely effective,” the congressmen’s letter reads. “We urge the BOP to follow Pennsylvania’s lead.”

This system, however, is controversial. Soon after putting the measures into practice, PADOC faced legal action from four different organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) and a person currently incarcerated in a state facility.

Under the new procedure, mail from attorneys, which is considered privileged, continued to be sent directly to the correctional facility itself, but officers made copies for the prisoners and kept the original documents in the facility’s possession. The plaintiffs argued that this violated attorney-client confidentiality. PADOC settled after one day of litigation and has agreed to stop photocopying privileged legal mail.

But the issues with the state system don’t end there, said ACLU-PA senior staff attorney Sara Rose. She said one of her primary concerns is a lack of evidence to justify the procedure.

“In the course of our litigation against the Department of Corrections… we found that the concerns about drug exposure were way overblown,” Rose said. “If your concern is that the guards are getting sick from handling the mail, there’s really no evidence to support that.”

Rose said that general concerns about drugs getting into prisoner populations are more well-founded, but that there isn’t evidence that the mail has been the primary route for drugs.

“The vast majority, at least of the drugs they discovered coming in, were coming in through staff or visitors,” she said, noting that these findings are based on anecdotal evidence.

USP Canaan did not respond to a request for comment regarding the security of its mail procedure.

Rose also called the “heartlessness of the procedure,” noting that under the new policy, pregnant women who leave prison to give birth are not allowed to bring a picture of their newborn children back into prison. Receiving handwritten letters and cards from loved ones, or handmade drawings from children is an important connection to the outside world, Rose said.

“It’s easy to discount the importance of mail for prisoners,” she said. “That communication is so important to preventing recidivism when people get out.”

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