Return to sender: Sisolak declines NDOC’s proposal to crack down on mail, greeting cards

By: - August 31, 2022 5:30 am

Return Strong Founder Jodi Hocking speaks during the Board of Prison Commissioners meeting.

A Nevada Department of Corrections proposal to prohibit certain mail, including greeting cards and colored drawings being sent to people who are incarcerated, was temporarily shot down by Gov. Steve Sisolak at Tuesday’s Board of Prison Commissioners meeting.

Sisolak didn’t completely shut the door on the proposal adding that “I’m not saying no not ever.” 

Prison officials said the administrative regulation, which would restrict sending any mail that wasn’t in blue or black ink, was intended to prevent contraband from entering facilities, but offered no data during their presentation to support the need for the policy change.  

Jodi Hocking, the founder of the prison advocacy group Return Strong, urged Sisolak to look into facilities that might have implemented the policy ahead of its formal approval. 

“There are families who have been getting mail sent back already,” she said. “We weren’t even notified of the change and spent money on cards and mail and mail got sent back. We want to make sure while (the regulation) is on hold that mail isn’t being returned to people.”

Sisolak worried the current policy would punish “the two or three who might break the rules”  at the expense of the thousands of others who can’t send mail. 

“I agree we need to support our workers at the facilities and protect the inmates that are there against the unfortunate actions of a few,” Sisolak said. “I just question if this policy is going to achieve that goal.” 

Nevada Current asked prison officials to provide data on how much contraband enters facilities each year and how much of it comes through the mail, but they didn’t respond at the time of publication.  

Prison Director Charles Daniels told the board there are three main ways narcotics enter prison facilities – through staff, in visitation rooms and through mail.

“We have procedures to address each one of these methods of introducing contraband,” he said. “At the end of the day, we can’t do nothing because some things get through. We have to improve. We have to evolve.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, at least 17 states have adopted similar regulations on mail and greeting cards, although it far from clear that they have the desired effect. 

In a March 2022 article, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that “In Florida, for example, of the 3.1 million contraband items that entered the prison system from January 2019 to April 2021, only about 1 percent came in through mail.”

“Prisons already charge incarcerated people an arm and a leg for phone calls, video calls and emails,” said Wanda Bertram with Prison Policy Initiative. “Mail is the most reliable, and for many people the most affordable, means of staying in touch with their families. The Board of Prison Commissioners did the right thing in choosing not to take letters and greeting cards away.”

Hocking urged the board to request data to justify any changes being proposed – even beyond the mail regulation.  

“We want data,” Hocking said. “Not who are the bad players but what percentage.” 

In addition to restricting greeting cards or anything not in blue or black ink, the regulation would have prohibited “anything copied off the  internet” with the exceptions of pamphlets received through religious services. 

“All incoming mail must be in a 4 x o.5 white envelope written in black or blue ink only,” according to the draft regulation. “If the mail received is not written in black or blue ink on the envelope, the mail will be returned unopened to the sender.”

‘Cartoons on an envelope’

Numerous members of Return Strong along with families of the incarcerated spoke during public comment and warned of the impact of a drastic change to mail delivery policies. 

Denise Bolanos, a member of Return Strong and spouse of an individual incarcerated in Nevada, said it’s not mere mail, but a lifeline. 

“What is simply a mail revision to you is one more thing lost for us,” she said. “When I asked my husband what his thoughts were on the revision, he let out a long defeated sigh and said, ‘They take everything. They always take everything that makes us feel human.’ ” 

Sisolak asked officials to explain the various parts of the proposal including why they were restricting certain colors being used in the mail. 

Officials said colored fonts and prints made it easy to hide stains containing methamphetamine or fentanyl. 

Bill Gittere, the deputy director of operations, said families could still send photographs of children’s artwork under the proposed regulations. 

“The bad actors know the weak spots and if they mimic a child’s colored drawing on an envelope or any other piece of mail, they know we are more apt to let it pass and not look at it too hard,” he said. “They manipulate that, they count on that, they have done that. We need to eliminate that.” 

However, Sisolak worried restricting communication between families would cause mental health issues for those incarcerated and their children. 

“My heart really goes out to the kids who are drawing pictures and sending it to their father, or grandfather or mother,” he said. “I don’t think that (sending a photograph) is quite the same as having a kid draw little cartoons on an envelope of a little smiley face.”

Sisolak and Secretary of State Barbara Cegasvke, two members of the board, mulled bringing the proposal back at another meeting with Attorney General Aaron Ford, the other board member who was absent Tuesday. 

While Cegavske supported the board not taking action on the matter during the meeting, she said the policy should be revisited and the board should take some action. 

Commissary markup

Many speaking public comments also asked the board to take action to address a 40% markup on commissary items sold at prisons. 

An audit from fiscal year 2020-2021 found the state earned more than $5.2 million in profit from commissary items and visiting room vending machines.

Hocking said there is proposed legislation being considered by the interim Legislative Judiciary Committee to address the markups, but families couldn’t afford to wait for legislative action, which could come months down the road.  

“We are asking for relief in the meantime ,” Hocking said. “The audit came out in February and nothing has happened. We are all still drowning.” 

The board didn’t take any action on the markups at Tuesday’s meeting.  

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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