Mail Policy Means No Christmas Cards This Year at N.H. Prisons

Dec 23, 2015

Credit Photo by Jackie Finn-Irwin via Flickr Creative Commons

Men and women incarcerated at New Hampshire state prisons won’t be getting Christmas cards this year.

That’s because of a new mail policy the Department of Corrections implemented. Some call it the harshest mail policy of any prison system in the US. Now one New Hampshire boy and his grandmother, with the help of the ACLU, are suing the state’s Department of Corrections. 

The 3-year-old boy at the center of the lawsuit wrote a note, in crayon, last Thanksgiving that said “I love you daddy.” His grandma folded it up, put it in a store-bought greeting card, and sent it to her son—the boy’s dad— who’s currently incarcerated at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord.

But the card never made it there.

That’s because since May, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections has a new mail policy for all 2,756 of its inmates: no drawings, and no greeting cards or postcards with any design or pictures on them.

"The ban would include a Christmas card with any pre-printed image on it," said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at New Hampshire’s American Civil Liberties Union.  "It would include as well a prayer card with preprinted images that are often sent to individual prisoners by religious organizations." 

Bissonnette said inmates all over the state were reaching out to him to say they weren’t getting mail their families were sending because of the DOC’s new policy.

Visits to prison are difficult for families to manage. Prison phone calls are expensive. So mail is one of the most relied on forms of communication for inmates and their families. And drawings, Bissonnette said, are one of the only ways kids can share something with their mom or dad in prison.

“And that’s why we thought we needed to take action because the policy is just so sweeping and bans innocent forms of speech that are so meaningful this time of year,” Bissonnette said.

Now the ACLU, on behalf of that three year old and his grandma, are challenging the constitutionality of the DOC’s policy.

When the Department of Corrections announced the new policy in April, Commissioner William Wrenn said he needed to ban greeting cards, postcards, drawings or other depictions to stop an influx of drugs getting through the walls. 

"People were using that as a method to deliver contraband, specifically suboxone, to the prison," said Jeff Lyons, a DOC spokesman.

Suboxone—a drug used for opioid withdrawal, which also provides a high—typically comes in the form of a film, as thin as scotch tape, making it one of the easier drugs to hide. Lyons said for a few months, prison officials were finding suboxone every other day, hidden in envelopes or colored over with markers or crayons. Peter Wagner, who directs the Prison Policy Initiative, a research group that tracks the effects of mass incarceration, said New Hampshire's policy goes farther than any other state's. 

He said restrictive mail policies like this have been popping up at local jails around the country. Some of those were reversed or dialed back after people sued or complained. Wagner said New Hampshire’s justification for their new, system-wide policy doesn’t make sense.

What the Department of Corrections will say is that this policy is part of a long struggle to block drugs from getting smuggled in. The DOC recently changed the dress code for visitors. They also started taking mail out of its envelopes before delivering it to inmates.

"And since then our mail room tells me they have not seen any problems, so the policy change appears to be working on, our end," Lyons said.

But it’s not working for inmates, says the ACLU’s Gilles Bissonnette. He says even tighter inspections of mail would be better than banning what he calls “all innocent speech.”

Bissonette says his 3-year-old client doesn’t plan to send a card this Christmas.