Just what is acceptable to put in writing to an inmate at the Carroll County Detention Center? Stacy Maczis of Westminster thought she knew.
“You could write anything, as long as it didn’t have to do with violence, direct threats, criminal activity, drugs or any of that type of thing,” she said.
At least, that’s what she says she was told by a corrections officer she spoke with by phone prior to writing a particularly intimate letter to her boyfriend, a current inmate, in late September. She recognized — correctly — that the jail had the right to monitor incoming mail, but she wanted to know how far she could go with sexual content.
As far as racy content, Maczis said the officer told her, “We’ve had stuff that would make your hair curl, but we send it through, it’s fine.”
“He said, and this is the exact quote, ‘No nips or lips, other than that we’ll send it through,' which meant pictures,” Maczis said. “I said, OK, I’m not going to send that anyway.”
So she wrote a letter of an admittedly adult nature to her boyfriend and he received it. But a second letter was flagged as “sexually explicit," she said. Her boyfriend had to sign for the letter, which he never received, but Maczis would not receive the returned letter until Oct. 24, a delay that disturbed her greatly.
“Apparently it was floating around in the jail for a month,” she said.
But more importantly for Maczis, she wanted to know why her letter had been flagged at all, as were several subsequent letters she tried to send — especially after she had tried to ascertain the detention center policies ahead of time.
“I asked, ‘Can you please send me the policy for what is allowed to be written?’ ” Maczis said. “If you just send me the policy, I will follow it.
“I know you are allowed to read my letters. That’s fine. Read them. But I’m 47, he’s 35. If I want to have sex with this man, why is it your business?”
To Maczis, this is a question of her, and her boyfriend’s, rights to free speech.
What the law allows
When it comes to First Amendment rights to free speech and correctional institutions, the courts have recognized officials may place greater restrictions than in everyday life, according to Jose Anderson, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore.
“Correctional officials have a broad range of discretion regarding the interception and confiscation of correspondence coming to the institution,” Anderson said. "One narrow exception is legal mail, and correspondences between the inmate and the attorney require special care, usually only to be opened in the presence of an inmate and not to be subject to seizure if they are truly legal papers regarding the inmate’s case.”
And that’s been Carroll County Detention Center Warden George Hardinger’s understanding of the jurisprudence as well.
“It has been tested in the courts about what we can block and deny,” he said. “They said we need to articulate a reason, and they use the term ‘obscene,’ which our materials use. We need to articulate some reason and we are fully in compliance.”
All incoming mail to the detention center, other than legal letters, is reviewed by correctional officers, Hardinger said, although their primary concern is contraband, and drugs like the addiction treatment medication Suboxone specifically. Photographs and even drawings are prohibited.
“Inmates have gotten pretty creative and they will smuggle in drugs by concealing them in crayons,” Hardinger said. “They are able to melt it and seal it as water marks and other things. So we open it up, we look for anything that might be suspicious.”
In terms of written content, he said, they are looking for threats or criminal activity, but the jail is not particularly interested in policing conversations between adults unless it gets overly explicit.
“We’re not trying to stop people from having some discussion. But if it’s a bit much, then, yeah, send it back. We have a form that we fill out,” Hardinger said. “We check a block that says, ‘This is why your mail is being returned.’ ”
This could be one reason Maczis had a hard time getting a clear explanation of detention center policy, as Hardinger notes that the only printed material noting the “sexually explicit” restriction is the form sent back with a rejected letter, and the return to sender process can take up to several weeks, longer than he even realized before inquiring about Maczis’ missing letter.
The other reason is that the standard — being based on individual correctional officer assessments — is admittedly subjective.
“You know the old, ‘I don’t know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it?’ ” Hardinger said. “It is somewhat subjective.”
That might have been compounded by the fact that in recent weeks, beginning around the time Maczis’ first letter letter was rejected, a single female corrections officer had begun reviewing all incoming mail, Hardinger said, a role that has previously been a shifting one.
“It could happen on occasion where someone is a little more sensitive, and that could be contributing to this particular incident,” he said.
Times change — policies could too
But that’s not to say that the warden believes everything is functioning as it should or always will. Things do change in corrections, Hardinger said, noting that at one time, it was not acceptable for a corrections officer to have visible tattoos.
“Now, everybody — well, not the warden — but everyone else has tattoos," he said. “Years ago, law enforcement was held to a different standard, and corrections — people didn’t want us to look like sailors. Now, as long as it’s not offensive, you can have whatever tattoos you choose to.”
In this case, the detention center is now moving to post the guidelines for letters online, so that anyone wishing to write an inmate will be able to read ahead of time what restrictions fall on the content of their missives without needing the feedback of a rejected letter to fill them in.
And moreover, the warden has brought up the question of whether it’s in the jail’s institutional interest to reject written sexual content in letters at all with his command staff.
“We all agreed there are some [sexually explicit] letters that have gotten [delivered]. So, excepting that, do we really want to be in a position where we are editing people’s mail and saying you really can’t have this discussion?” Hardinger said. “I don’t know that we came down on a clear, ‘Everyone is on the same page,’ but it certainly led to an interesting discussion. It’s something that’s not over yet.”
Maczis, for one, hopes that discussion ends in a less restrictive standard for future letters.
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“People have rights,” she said. “Whether they are inmates or not, they have rights.”