LAND O'LAKES — Got a pen pal in jail?
If so, buy postcards.
April 1, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office is instituting a new set of rules for communicating with inmates.
All incoming mail must be on postcards. Envelopes will no longer be allowed, other than legal communication.
"Some of the prisoners aren't happy about it," said Major Brian Head, director of the jail.
"But it's a safety issue and an economic issue."
On an average day, there are nearly 1,300 inmates at the jail in Land O'Lakes. There is one full-time employee in the mail room, Head said. Inmates are required to get their mail within 24 hours of the jail receiving it. Each piece has to be opened and inspected — not only for content, such as sexually explicit materials or plans for escape, but for contraband hidden inside, such as drugs, weapons, tobacco, even bodily fluids.
Head said that at least three times in the past few years, an envelope has been opened with white powder inside. That means a hazardous materials team had to be brought in, the room sealed, all air conditioning vents shut down and other emergency procedures activated until all is declared safe.
"It's exhaustive on our resources," Head said.
After mail is cleared, envelopes are still used as hiding spots for inmates, Head said. Say an inmate has 25 letters. Every time that cell is searched, a deputy has to go through every envelope to make sure there are no hidden razor blades and the like inside.
Because of the budget crunch, Head said the Sheriff's Office won't be hiring more mail room employees. To cope with the volume recently, volunteers and deputies assigned to other areas of the jail have been assisting.
Dealing with postcards streamlines the process, Head said. Family members and friends can still send inmates photos — but the inmate must get permission first. Envelopes containing funds for inmates will still be accepted — though cash won't be. All funds have to be in money orders or cashier's checks.
Assistant Public Defender Tom Hanlon hadn't heard about the changes and isn't sure where this fits in, legally, with rights of inmates — although he said the sheriff has much leeway in how he decides to run his jail.
"I'm certain the inmates will have an objection to it," he said.
Inmates can send letters in envelopes and those incarcerated now who have many photos and letters inside their cells won't have them taken away, Head said.
"The law says we have to provide them the ability to communicate" with the outside world, Head said. "And we're doing that."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.