Like most lockups, mail sent to inmates of the Harford County Detention Center has to be checked for contraband, which typically involves drugs, those charged with screening the jail's mail say.
Two inmates and a former inmate at Harford County Detention Center were arrested earlier this year for allegedly smuggling drugs into the detention facility through the mail, according to the Harford County Sheriff's Office.
Although those charges were later dropped, the case is an example of what jail officials face daily when mail arrives for its inmates. The detention center had an average daily census of 387 inmates in March.
The detention center receives 80 pieces of mail a day, about 400 a week, each of which is inspected thoroughly Monday through Friday before being distributed to inmates, Sgt. Christopher Jerousek, who's in charge of gang intelligence at the jail, said. No mail is received on the weekends.
Jerousek is responsible for inspecting the mail to prevent contraband of any type, but primarily drugs, from getting into the detention center, he said.
"There's a need for drugs, there will always be a need. Being in here does not stop that," Jerousek said. "We want to ensure that flow of contraband stops. We try to do our best to keep it to a minimum, but it's a never-ending battle, people are always trying to find ways to get around the system."
Three inmates were charged in February with conspiracy to distribute narcotics, possession of a drug other than marijuana and processing and receiving drugs while in confinement, according to the Sheriff's Office and online court records.
Charges against all three were dropped Monday, according to online records. State's Attorney Joe Cassilly said more investigation needs to be done on the case before moving forward with prosecution, though he declined to elaborate on what kind of investigation is needed.
"I just felt there needs to be other things happening to proceed," Cassilly said, adding charges could be re-filed depending on the outcome of further investigation.
The Maryland General Assembly's response to record violence in Baltimore, given final approval Monday, has raised deep-seated questions about forgiveness and justice. Lawmakers reached compromises on expungements and harsher sentences as it works to stem a surge in homicides.
The Suboxone, which fluctuates in price, is sold in the jail and money is put toward an inmates' commissary or phone accounts, Jerousek said.
Commissary items, include clothing, shampoo, shoes, thermal underwear, hygiene items, candy, food, etc.
"Basically, the money can make their lives easier while they're in jail," he said. "It's just like on the street, anything with a dollar value has appeal here, too."
In the suboxone case, Jerousek and Cole began an investigation and monitored conversations between inmates, who were communicating with people outside to have the strips sent to the jail via postcard, according to information in court records.
On three occasions, Nov. 17, 28 and 30, Jerousek and Cole intercepted postcards on which they found the strips using equipment at the detention center to look for such contraband.
On the Nov. 17 postcard, there was a heavily shaded heart and in the middle was a small rectangle, detected when placed on a light box, according to charging documents.
"Something wasn't right when we searched it, an area was bubbled up," Jerousek said.
That's when they found the strip, and started monitoring the inmate's mail more closely.
On Nov. 28 and 30, postcards sent to the inmates had raised spots on them. Orange strips with "N8" on them were found when the postcards were put on top of the light box, according to the court records.
The strips were also sent to a lab to be tested, Jerousek said.
In each case, the strip was photographed and turned over to Harford County Sheriff's Office deputies to assume an investigation into the outside senders, the civilian side, Jerousek said.
"When they find something coming in they can charge the person receiving it," Cristie Kahler, director of media and public relations for the Sheriff's Office, said. "Then the deputies step backward to find the supplier outside."
In monitoring the three inmates' conversations, Jerousek and Cole learned "all three covertly discussed packaging methods, prices and quantities to be sent into the detention center," according to charging documents.
Once the Suboxone got to the inmate, he "distributed it amongst several inmates in the housing area," according to documents.
The Harford County Detention Center receives about 400 pieces of mail a week, though that number fluctuates around holidays, Jerousek said.
The mail is delivered to the detention center by a county employee, who leaves it on a table in a room in the administration area of the jail, Jerousek said. There, multiple devices are used to screen the incoming mail, looking for contraband. In the room is an emergency switch that notifies the control room operator if a toxic substance were to be found on a postcard. Narcan doses, used to reverse the effects of an opioid, also sit nearby.
So far this year there have been 102 heroin overdoses in Harford County, 25 of them fatal, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office, which includes two suspected opioid-related fatal overdoses Monday.
The mail is sorted by housing area, put into a bin and then distributed to the housing areas, Jerousek said.
Depending on the volume of mail, processing can take 1 ½ or two hours up to 4 to 5 hours, he said.
Legal mail, letters from lawyers to their clients, or from courts or an agency like Child Protective Services, is not subject to as strict an examination. If something doesn't look right about it, however, detention center staff will call the sender to confirm the letter, Jerousek said.
It is distributed to inmates by detention center officers on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift and inmates must open the mail in front of the officer "to make sure nothing is detrimental to the facility," Jerousek said.
"It doesn't take anything for a family member to grab a stack of envelopes off an attorney's desk," Cole said.
The only packages that can be received at the jail are books, which must come directly from the publisher, Amazon or Barnes and Noble, Jerousek said.
Color pictures can be sent on photo paper — five per envelope to limit bulkiness, Cole said. Senders, however, can send as many envelopes as they want.
"We want to inspect the five pictures. When you have more, it might take longer," Cole said.
The staff at the detention center carefully checks the mail, she said.
"We're diligent, not overwhelmed with drugs into the facility," Cole said, pointing to the two investigations involving five people in 2017.
In the other investigation, an inmate serving a six-month sentence met another inmate. When one was released, he and the inmate started talking on the phone and arranged to have drugs come into the jail through a church publication. Both of them entered guilty pleas — one was sentenced to six months, the other to two years, Jerousek said.
The detention center staff works closely with the Harford County State's Attorney's Office to prosecute these cases, Jerousek said.
"We work very hard to make sure this doesn't happen," he said.
About 10 percent of the mail received at the detention center is rejected — about 40 pieces per week, Jerousek said.
Reasons for rejection include improper form (a cut up greeting card, for example), marks or imperfections, written in marker, crayon or gel pen or stains or discolorations.
Rejected pieces are stamped as such and returned to the sender with the reason for return written on it, along with a copy of the mail policy.
Two letters threatening to kill the president of the United States and sent earlier this year to Harford County District Court originated at the detention center, Bel Air Police Department Deputy Chief Richard Peschek said.
"We don't think there's much validity to it," Pescheck said at the end of March, but said the department notified the Secret Service, which he said is familiar with the inmate.
While the letters was sent anonymously, it was tracked back to the inmate, whom Peschek said will not be charged.
Last year, about 35 pieces of mail were sent from the detention center, Jerousek said. Each piece is marked with a stamp indicating that it's from the Harford County Detention Center and that it's "not liable for contents," Jerousek said.
Outgoing mail isn't subject to the same level of scrutiny, Kahler said.
"Screening for contraband within incoming mail is our highest priority, as it jeopardizes the safety of the facility, inmates and deputies," she said. "But given cause, may be subject to additional inspection."
Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.