December 17. 2013 9:08PM

Corrections officials may delay mail restrictions

New Hampshire Union Leader

State corrections officials are slowing down a policy, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, that allows high-security inmates to receive personal mail only as postcards.

The policy, which was posted on Nov. 27, would prevent inmates from receiving forms, checks and cash from the outside, as they do now, a Corrections Department spokesman said Tuesday. And the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union has said it believes the policy violates First Amendment rights of prisoners.

Corrections Department spokesman Jeff Lyons said the policy change is under review.

"It may not go into effect (as planned)," he said. Implementation will likely be delayed until February, he said.

The new policy says inmates in the two highest security classifications — maximum (C5) and close custody (C4) — can only receive mail as postcards. An exception is privileged communication from a lawyer or court. Inmates on suicide watch would have no access to mail.

"The biggest concern is the mailroom is one of the avenues where people get contraband into prison," Lyons said. That includes the drug suboxone, a drug that Lyons said can be hidden in seams of paper and behind postage stamps.As of Tuesday, 278 inmates were classified C4 or C5. Most are there for breaking prison rules, Lyons said. But he acknowledged that people who commit serious crimes such as murder are initially housed in the restrictive classifications. And state law requires that death row inmates be classified as C5.

Cop-killer Michael Addison is the only New Hampshire resident facing the death penalty. A high-security inmate gets out of his cell one or two hours a day, and human contact is limited to prison officers and counselors, Lyons said.

The NHCLU said law is clear that inmates have a First Amendment right to send and receive mail, and some courts have struck down postcard-only restrictions.

A postcard provides a single 4-by-6-inch space to write a message. But for a single stamp, a friend or relative can send eight sheets of paper, which amounts to 16 written pages, said Gilles Bissonnette, staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

"For many inmates, including C4 and C5 inmates, letters are the only form of meaningful communication with the outside world," Bissonnette said.

He said the NHCLU plans to meet with the Corrections Department about the matter after Jan. 1., and officials appear to be taking comments and criticisms seriously.

The policy says all incoming mail will be opened in front of a corrections officer. Contents will be removed and the officer will immediately discard all envelopes and packaging material.

Meanwhile, prisoner email rules are scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1.

Under the policy, inmates can send and receive email — at a cost ranging from 40 to 44 cents — from special MP3 players they can buy from a company that works with the prison.

However, Lyons said Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn and wardens are still working out security concerns over the email, including what key words will flag an email for review by prison security. He said C4 and C5 inmates will not have access to email.