Under pressure from civil rights advocates, Maryland corrections officials withdrew Wednesday a proposal that would have barred inmates from receiving personal letters in the mail.
State officials said the plan to restrict incoming prison mail to postcards was meant to cut down on contraband arriving in prisons through mail, especially Suboxone, a form of buprenorphine used to treat addiction to heroin and other opiates.
The drug, a film that comes in the form of a small strip, can be hidden under stamps, stickers and envelope seals. It is sought after in prison because it offers relief from drug cravings, though not the euphoric high associated with other opiates.
"We're really relieved that the department is withdrawing the regulation and think it should not have been on the table in the first place," said Sonia Kumar, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
The ACLU of Maryland sharply criticized the plan, saying it would violate the constitutional rights of inmates' families, friends and advocates. The group called the idea "inhumane, unconstitutional and wrong-headed."
The Maryland proposal would have been unprecedented, ACLU officials said. No other statewide prison system has established such a ban. The organization warned the state in a letter Tuesday that "such an extreme policy would invite litigation."
State officials declined to comment directly on the reasons for the reversal, but in a statement announcing the withdrawal of the proposal, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said Secretary Stephen Moyer would form a focus group "to determine the best options for eliminating contraband coming into our facilities through the mail."
The rules proposed last month would have banned personal letters in envelopes; only postcards to inmates would have been allowed. Legal correspondence to inmates, however, would have been exempt from the policy.
The proposal was scheduled to be published in the Maryland Register on Aug. 5, which would have triggered a 30-day public comment period, said Gerry Shields, a department spokesman.
State corrections officials cited rising incidents of Suboxone smuggling as the reason for the proposal. They said last year, workers found nearly 3,700 "hits" of Suboxone in their facilities. Of those, 44 percent were discovered in inmate mail, according to the corrections department.
This month, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene took Suboxone film off its list of drugs preferred to treat opioid addiction under Medicaid, a move that officials acknowledged was made largely to combat smuggling of the film into correctional facilities.
Officials said more needs to be done to stop the smuggling of drugs into prisons, but Kumar contends that the number of discoveries show that prisons' current mail screening process is working.
"If you're intercepting it, your inspection practices are working," Kumar said.
Groups that include the ACLU and Prison Legal News have successfully challenged postcard-only policies at local jails in other states. In recent years, San Diego County, Calif., and Flagler County, Fla., dropped such rules after lawsuits.
In its letter to Moyer, the ACLU of Maryland expressed "grave concerns about the constitutionality of the DPSCS proposal."
"Under the proposed regulation, these men and women could never again receive another letter from their mothers, children, fathers, or others," the ACLU wrote. "Instead, their families would be forced to try to put heartfelt messages into what is, essentially, the paper equivalent of a tweet that can be read by anybody."
The organization said the proposed ban was especially concerning "at a time when there is more evidence than ever that preserving family and community ties is critical to both institutional and public safety, to say nothing of prisoner health and well being."
Martina Simms, a Washington resident whose fiance is incarcerated at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, said she was relieved to hear officials withdrew the policy, which she called "a knee-jerk reaction" to the drug problem.
She said she tries to send him a letter once a week, sometimes including poems. She feels a postcard would be too impersonal.
"You just aren't going to be able to convey the same type of emotion," she said.
Simms said she believes mail is an important way for inmates to stay connected with loved ones. Her fiance has saved his letters from his mother, who died years ago, she said.
"I know of people who have small children. They might outline their child's hand on a piece of paper and send that to their father or their uncle," she said. "That's a note from a child."