On March 17, 2022, a Bureau of Prisons employee was diligently inspecting the day’s deliveries in the mailroom of USP Thomson, a federal prison in Illinois. As the officer sorted through hundreds of packages and letters addressed to inmates, he began sweating and feeling short of breath. Soon, he was vomiting and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. Tests revealed the officer had unknowingly come into contact with 19 pieces of mail saturated in a potent amphetamine.

The postal system is the central battleground in the forever war between drug dealers and corrections officials. Recently, the tide has turned in favor of traffickers, who have innovated new ways of infusing dangerous narcotics directly into everything from children’s drawings to love letters. Paper, ink, and stamps are all vehicles for contraband. There have even been reports of inmates rolling joints with family photos laced with fentanyl. 

new bill introduced by Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) proposes new procedures for handling mail that have the potential to disrupt the flow of drugs into federal correctional institutions. It requires the director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to come up with a strategy to achieve three basic goals. These include scanning 100 percent of all incoming mail at federal correctional facilities, providing inmates an electronic copy of their mail within 24 hours of its reception, and delivering the original mail within 30 days if it’s drug-free. 

Bacon is building off an interdiction pilot program launched in 2020 at a pair of federal institutions to scan all incoming mail. According to the BOP, “the mail scanning program reduced the number of synthetic drug introductions via general postal mail to effectively zero over the pilot project period.”

One problem with the pilot is that the original letters were destroyed after inspection. Importantly, the proposed bill protects the right of incarcerated people to receive physical mail. This is a huge improvement over the increasingly common practice of banning physical mail entirely in prisons. A greeting card or piece of artwork from a loved one provides a lifeline for people behind bars. Taking away the tactile experience of touching a handwritten letter, or smelling perfume on an envelope would likely have a negative impact on prisoner well-being, which can increase recidivism and antisocial behavior. 

At the same time, correctional officers — who have some of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the public sector — deserve a safe work environment. USP Thomson, the same facility in Illinois where the mailroom worker was hospitalized, reported nearly 300 sexual assaults on staff last year. Unsafe conditions are one of the primary reasons correctional facilities and law enforcement are in the midst of a recruitment and retention emergency. The least we can do is to try and keep them from being poisoned on the job

Last month Texas implemented mandatory mail scanning after the state was forced to implement an emergency six-week lockdown because of synthetic drugs. In addition to Texas, at least 14 other states have banned physical mail to stem the flow of controlled substances into prisons. One of those is Pennsylvania, which relies on a Florida-based company called Smart Communications to do the job — the same company the Bureau of Prisons contracted for the federal pilot. Scanning all prison mail into a government database could have potential civil liberty implications, so officials may want to consider a record retention policy down the line. 

Five years ago, a colleague and I created a report chronicling the opioid epidemic when there were about 47,500 overdose deaths per year in the United States. What was a then crisis has metastasized into a full-blown calamity, with over 80,000 annual fatalities caused by opioids. Overdose deaths in prisons and jails have been climbing even faster. From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons rose more than 600 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. We owe it to people in prison, many of whom struggle with drug abuse, to create an environment conducive to addiction treatment.

The good news is that Bacon’s bill isn’t one of those federal projects that will take years to get off the ground. The legislation only gives the Bureau of Prisons 270 days to come up with a strategy. It’s a constructive first step toward stemming the flood of drugs into U.S. prisons and ensuring a safe environment for workers and prisoners alike.