The Maine State Prison in Warren. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

The Maine Department of Corrections has rescinded a recent directive that placed new restrictions on the types of mail prisoners can receive, which was resulting in hundreds of pieces of mail being returned to sender.

The directive was intended to stem the flow of drugs into Maine prisons by requiring that letters and other pieces of general correspondence be printed or written only on lined paper. While it’s easier for corrections officials to detect the presence of drugs on this type of paper, prisoners and their families said they were frustrated by the implementation of the policy change.

Prisoners, their families and prisoner advocates say the reversal will help incarcerated people to maintain consistent communication with the outside world.

“Every form of communication is vital and we need to maintain that communication and not put up barriers in between people who are incarcerated and folks that are on the outside,” Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition coordinator Joe Jackson said. “Any time we see a barrier come up we want to knock on that door and say ‘this is not appropriate.’”

The department made the decision to remove the lined paper requirement after hearing the concerns of prisoners and talking with staff, Maine Department of Corrections spokesperson Anna Black said.

The directive, which required that all general correspondence be sent on 8.5-by-11-inch white lined paper with only blue or black ink, went into effect on Feb. 24. The department of corrections officially removed the lined paper requirement as of April 7, about a week after the Bangor Daily News first reported on the concerns. Letters can now be on 8.5-by-11-inch wide blank white paper, though they must still be printed or written in blue or black ink.

In recent years, officials at the Maine State Prison ― the state’s largest correctional facility ― say they have seen a drastic increase in mail that has been tainted with liquified drugs. If this mail makes it to a prisoner, it can then be cut up and ingested.

Implementing a requirement that only lined paper would be accepted was intended to make it easier for mail staff to determine if the paper had been soaked in illegal substances. Black said she could not comment on how the department will try to further counter the drug flow into facilities now that the lined paper requirement has been lifted.

The lined paper requirement resulted in an uptick of mail being returned at the Maine State Prison, where officials said between 20 to 30 pieces of mail were being rejected each day. This was up from about five to 10 pieces of mail prior to the requirement.

Numerous inmates said they were not being notified when mail addressed to them was being returned, which is against department policy. Additionally, the people sending the mail were not being notified as to why it was being returned.

“We had concerns [about the requirements] immediately,” Jackson said.

The Maine State Prison will continue to provide only photocopies of mail to residents, even if the mail meets the current requirements. This is another way the department is trying to stem the flow of illegal substances into its facilities, officials have said.

Even though prisoners have only been receiving photocopies of their mail since early this year, prison officials justified the lined paper requirement because they felt it would cut down on the risk that staff could come in contact with dangerous substances while handling the mail.

When the department updated mail requirements on April 7, it also instituted a “grace period,” during which residents will receive photocopies of letters and other pieces of general correspondence even if they do not meet the standards, Black said. This would include letters written on incorrectly sized paper or with an ink other than blue or black. Items like greeting cards, photographs and newspapers fall under separate guidelines within the department’s mail policy, which were not impacted by the Feb. 24 change.

This grace period will last until June 5, after which all mail that does not meet standards will be returned to the sender at the department of corrections’ cost.