Staff Writer

MIDDLETON — Family and friends who want to mail a letter to a person who is incarcerated at Middleton Jail should henceforth send it to ... Missouri?

The Essex County Sheriff’s Department announced Tuesday that it will no longer be accepting personal mail for inmates. Instead, letters must be sent to a company in Missouri that will open and scan the letters into a computer file. The sheriff’s department will then print out the letters and deliver them to the inmates.

Sheriff Kevin Coppinger said the change is needed to prevent people from sending paper letters and cards that are soaked with drugs and ingested by people in jail.

“They eat it or smoke it,” Coppinger said. “They’re very ingenious when they put their minds to it.”

The ban on direct personal mail applies to the three facilities run by the Essex County Sheriff’s Department — the jail in Middleton, the pre-release and re-entry center in Lawrence, and the Women-In-Transition pre-release facility in Salisbury. The change takes effect as of Thursday.

Coppinger said there have been several incidents of inmates overdosing on drugs that were smuggled into the jail through the mail. He said four people were taken to a medical facility in August for a suspected overdose, and there were three more cases this past weekend.

Coppinger said it’s “not uncommon” for inmates to receive mail that has been sprayed with a liquid synthetic marijuana called K2. Personal mail sent to the jail is subject to inspection, but Coppinger said it’s difficult to detect the drug on the paper.

“It’s pretty sophisticated,” he said. “You really can’t tell just by touching it.”

Suboxone is another drug that is smuggled into jail in the same way, he said.

Coppinger said the ban applies only to personal mail, not legal correspondence, which inmates will still receive directly in paper form. Items such as money orders and publications sent directly from a publisher or authorized retailers will still be accepted. Coppinger said he expects people to try to get around the ban by trying to disguise their drug-soaked mail as legal correspondence, such as by putting a fake lawyer’s name on it. Jail officials are not allowed to examine legal mail.

“We do expect an increase in counterfeit legal mail,” Coppinger said. “We will be on the lookout for that.”

Coppinger said more jails and prisons around the country have been banning personal paper mail. In Massachusetts, the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department banned personal mail in 2019.

The new digital mail program for Essex County will be run by a company called Securus Technologies. Anyone wishing to send mail to someone in the Middleton, Lawrence and Salisbury facilities will have to address it to the inmate in care of Securus Digital Mail Center/Essex County, PO Box 995, Lebanon, Mo., 65536. If a sender wants the original paper letter back, they can include a self-addressed stamped envelope and Securus will mail it back to them, according to the sheriff’s department.

Coppinger said all inmates will eventually be given tablets so that the company can email the scanned letters to them directly.

Coppinger noted that Middleton jail has just over 1,000 inmates and gets about 400 pieces of mail per day.

“As sheriff I have to do everything possible to make sure it’s a safe and secure facility,” he said.

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides legal representation for people unable to afford an attorney, said the organization had no comment at this time on the new mail policy.

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