This week, North Carolina’s prison system adopted new rules that change how thousands of people incarcerated in its 55 state prisons are allowed to receive handwritten mail—that is, they won’t anymore.

Prisoners will no longer receive cards, photos, artwork, or handwritten letters. Instead, they’ll receive printed out versions of digital scans processed by a private company, TextBehind, that’s already been providing the same service to the state’s incarcerated women since February of last year.

The changes were made ostensibly to protect the safety of prison mailroom staffers who are exposed to drugs and other contraband when scanning mail. Last year, prison staff confiscated 568 items of contraband and drugs for a prison population of more than 26,000 men incarcerated across the state, DPS reports.

Now, anyone who wants to send handwritten mail to someone incarcerated in North Carolina will have to send the mail to TextBehind’s processing facility in Maryland. They can also download TextBehind’s app and upload scans for 49 cents apiece, which the company then prints and delivers.

“Keeping suspect mail out of prison, yet still providing the contents, should reduce the contraband smuggled into prisons,” a statement from the Department of Public Safety reads. “The result is a safer and more secure prison environment, reducing drug use and risk of overdose. Violence among offenders fighting over the contraband trade should also decline.

The new mail process will also prevent drugs from entering the prisons in the form of paper coated in fentanyl, K2, Suboxone or other dangerous drugs. These are hazardous to breathe or even to touch.”

The move to deny prisoners handwritten mail follows changes that limit visitation following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prison advocates also point to reports that have found that most prison contraband comes in from prison staff rather than from mail or from inmates themselves. It’s also not clear that prison staff can actually be harmed by contact exposure to fentanyl and other drugs, despite widespread misinformation claiming the contrary. 

Advocates for incarcerated people also have concerns about the new system in regards to the mental health of inmates.

As Mike Wessler, the communications director for Prison Policy Initiative told CBS17, handwritten correspondence, such as cards from family members, is essential to prisoners’ well-being and to their success once they’re released.

“It’s also gonna harm them when they’re behind bars,” Wessler said. “We know that social connection impacts the mental health of people who are incarcerated and people who don’t have strong social connections, and strong social support, their mental health suffers, and it creates significant problems behind bars.”

And former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti, a prison advocate who taught creative writing in prisons, emphasized the importance of physically holding on to a card, photograph, piece of artwork, or a letter.

“You see the penmanship, and you smell the ink, and perhaps you even smell the scent of the person who wrote it, and your return address at your home that you aspire to return to someday is up in that left-hand corner,” Bathanti said.

The magazine Scalawag has a good thread on more reasons why the new change is problematic, including the costs to those sending mail, and extra costs incurred if they want to get original mail back or prevent it from being destroyed by TextBehind.

There’s also the worry that this is a first step in blocking other materials in prisons, such as books and magazines, and access to higher education in general. North Carolina already bans a number of books and magazines in its prison facilities.

As Bathanti, the Poet Laureate says in the CBS piece,

“It’s another way of feeling dehumanized and disconnected from a community that often prisoners feel dramatically disconnected from already.”

This story has been updated from an original version. 

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