The state's effort to cut down on drug smuggling in prisons by banning all greeting cards and handmade drawings sent to inmates needlessly hurts families and is unconstitutional, according to a lawsuit filed by civil liberties lawyers.
The American Civil Liberties Union-New Hampshire sued the state's Department of Corrections last week on behalf of an inmate whose 3-year-old son sent a Thanksgiving card to him that included drawings and the handwritten message: "I (heart) U DADDY." The drawings were on coloring paper provided by the prison's Family Connections Center.
Prison officials say inmates have been getting the prescription drug suboxone smuggled into the prison via heavy, card-stock paper, hidden beneath stamps or stickers, or smeared between layers of crayon drawings. The drug is designed to treat heroin addiction but can also give users a high, especially if they don't take it regularly.
It comes in a thin strip and can be turned into a paste that can be licked. In May, the state banned all greeting cards, unusually thick stationery, drawings, stickers and postcards featuring designs or pictures.
ACLU lawyers say the state went too far and that the department's own records show not one instance of suboxone being smuggled via a drawing or message written on regular-stock paper. They say the state should more narrowly tailor the policy and rigorously inspect other methods that have successfully gotten the drug into prison, including through adhesives and seams in card-stock paper.
"With this sweeping policy, the state has eliminated one of the few ways young children can communicate with parents who are in prison," said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU-NH. "This is not only cruel, but also counterproductive for New Hampshire's over 2,300 prisoners and their families waiting for them to come home. Maintaining family bonds is critical for prisoners to successfully reintegrate into society upon release."
The suit said the ban particularly hurts younger children who haven't learned to write yet and rely on drawings or simple messages to communicate with their parent.
For several years, prison officials across the country have tried to cut down on drug smuggling - specifically the smuggling of suboxone - through the mail. Some, like Pennsylvania, have banned colored envelopes. Utah in 2013 prohibited crayon and marker drawings, and other state and county jails have tried - and then mostly backed off - allowing only postcards to inmates. At the Maine Correctional Center, officers won't deliver mail that has crayon drawings or messages, stickers, glitter glue or other foreign substances.
When they announced the ban, prison officials said the department didn't have the staff to manually scan hundreds of pieces of mail each day. A spokesman for the department said Wednesday that it doesn't track how many times an inmate has gotten suboxone via the mail but that they've seen a "significant decline" in the types of correspondence that could contain the drug.
"Anything we can do to help reduce contraband introduction is a good thing," said Jeffrey Lyons.