The Maine State Prison in Warren. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

New restrictions on types of mail that can be received by Maine State Prison inmates has left some, along with their families, frustrated as hundreds of pieces of mail have been returned to sender.

The Maine Department of Corrections has placed new requirements on what mail can be sent to its facilities in an attempt to stem the flow of drugs into the state’s prisons. Some inmates say the change has resulted in them not getting mail and having no idea why, despite it being a department policy to notify inmates if mail addressed to them has been returned because it does not comply with requirements.

The restrictions come at a time when Maine’s incarcerated population has been further isolated from their outside connections, as the COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed most in-person visits. However, prison officials say the change is necessary to prevent inmates and staff from potentially coming in contact with illicit substances that have been increasingly making their way into correctional facilities through the mail.

“I haven’t received a letter in more than a month,” Maine State Prison inmate Dennis Dechaine said. “We’ve suffered tremendously [by] not being able to hang out with our loved ones. To add this insult to an already festering injury is beyond the pale.”

Last month, the Department of Corrections amended its mail policy to include a requirement that all letters and other pieces of general correspondence must be sent on 8.5-by-11-inch white lined paper. The preprinted lines must be either blue or black, and the ink used to write or print the letter must also be blue or black.

The new requirements are intended to make it easier for prison staff to determine if the paper has been tainted with liquified drugs. Maine State Prison officials say there has been “a dramatic increase” in this practice as a way to smuggle drugs into the facility in recent years.

“What happens is if someone soaks paper in the substance and it comes into the facility, it gets cut up into little pieces and it can either be injected, smoked or eaten. It can become very dangerous,” Maine State Prison Warden Matthew Magnusson said. “When you use lined paper, it’s easy to detect if a substance is soaked into the paper. However, computer paper, construction paper, and other types of paper, it’s very hard to detect if that paper is soaked.”

Even with the changes, Maine State Prison inmates aren’t receiving the original mail. They are receiving photocopies of it.

While inmates feel the new restrictions are frivolous since they’re only receiving photocopies, prison officials say it’s to cut down on the risk that staff will come in contact with potentially dangerous substances when handling and reviewing the mail.

At the Warren-based Maine State Prison, mail addressed to inmates goes through the prison’s mail room, which sorts between 50 and 250 pieces of mail daily. Each piece is opened and inspected to make sure it meets mail standards and to detect contraband.

If the mail does not meet the requirements, the envelope is resealed and returned to the sender.

Under the new directive, about 20 to 30 pieces of mail are being returned each day because they do not meet the requirements, according to James Hancox, the prison’s administrative coordinator. That’s up from only five or 10 pieces of mail per day prior to the new directive taking effect on Feb. 24.

It is department policy to notify inmates when mail addressed to them has been returned. But numerous inmates say under the new mail directive, they have not been notified when their mail has been returned.

“The complaints are widespread,” according to Joe Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “They didn’t even know that someone had written to them and it was being returned.”

Hancox said “it is certainly a possibility” that some notifications did not happen when the directive was first implemented. However, he said he is working to ensure that the notification process is followed by mail room staff.

Without knowing that they were receiving mail that was being returned, Dechaine said it put a strain on relationships.

“People automatically assumed I was sending the mail back because I was upset and didn’t want anything to do with them, which is the farthest thing from the truth,” Dechaine said. “It ticks me off that they’re undermining my relationships with people.”

In some instances, returned mail had been stamped with an indicator that the intended recipient no longer resided at the prison.

“We got a guy in here with a girlfriend in the Philippines and the poor girl got three returned letters saying he wasn’t here anymore,” Maine State Prison inmate Doug Gilding said. Gilding’s own girlfriend has received returned mail with a similar stamp.

Hancox said it is not policy to put a stamp indicating that a resident doesn’t live at the facility when they in fact do. He did not know why an inmates’ friends and families might be receiving returned mail with this message on them.

For Dechaine’s brother, Frank, it was frustrating when he printed and sent his brother an article about a prison mentorship program only to have the piece of mail returned with no indication as to why.

Inmates were informed about the mail policy change about a month before it went into effect. To reach people outside the prison, a post on the department of corrections’ website indicates that the mail policy was changed, but many people sending mail to the prison were not aware of the change.

“The fact that it came back and not knowing why it was sent back, just, ‘Here it is,’ that was irritating,” Frank Dechaine said. “Worse comes to worst, if we write him, we will do it on lined paper. That’s not a problem. But if they would at least let you know.”

Prison officials acknowledge that — especially during the pandemic — it’s crucial for inmates to have contact with their loved ones. However, Magnusson said they also have to take safety into account. Since implementing the new changes, Magnusson said they have seen a decrease in drug use within the prison.

“Sometimes there is going to be the need for some minor inconveniences when we look at how to best protect everyone in our care and custody,” Magnusson said.

To make up for the lack of in-person visits, the prison has been allowing inmates to send an additional amount of mail for free each week, along with a certain number of free text messages they can send through their tablets. Case workers are also facilitating video visits through Zoom.

Having a support system to return to when an individual is released is a key factor in a successful reintegration into society. Being able to maintain those connections while a person is incarcerated is crucial, Jackson said, so he said it’s worrisome that the prison is placing further restrictions on mail.

“It is absolutely vital that during these times we try to strengthen the ability for folks to maintain contact with their family,” Jackson said. “For the 95 percent who are going to return to our community, they’re going to need those supports.”

BDN reporter Callie Ferguson contributed to this report.