TAMPA — First came the onslaught of complaints — people saying they didn't like the Hillsborough County jail's new postcard-only policy.
And the jail kept getting hundreds of letters from family members who hadn't heard about the change banning incoming letters.
So the Sheriff's Office sent the letters back with stickers explaining that on Sept. 1, the jail started banning them. They were returned to the sender unless from inmates' attorneys.
In the past couple of months since the ban took effect, complaints have died down. More people are mailing postcards to inmates instead, said Capt. Anne Herman, who manages inmate support. The Sheriff's Office sends back about 50 letters a day.
"It's been going fairly well," she said. "People are adjusting."
Family members are learning how to get photos made into postcards, she said. "Or they're just sending the photos," Herman said, with a stamp and address on the white paper backs.
Because they no longer need to search letters for contraband, the three Falkenburg Road Jail mail room employees' jobs got a little easier. That's a necessity, Herman said, because they are now also sorting mail at the county's second jail on Orient Road.
For more than two years, the Orient Road Jail was closed to almost everyone except just-booked inmates as the majority of the jail underwent renovations. It served as the intake center while inmates stayed at Falkenburg.
That recently changed. As of mid December, Orient Road had about 630 inmates. Falkenburg, still larger, had more than 2,000.
Shortly after the Sheriff's Office announced the postcard-only policy to inmates in August, one Hillsborough inmate sued the agency. A Tampa federal judge dismissed his case, partly because inmate Marcus Harris wouldn't pay the filing fees.
A national organization that follows prison policy says that's common. As more sheriff's offices adopt these policies, lawsuits have popped up across the country. Most federal suits fizzle out for various reasons.
However, earlier this year, a federal judge in Oregon ruled the policy unconstitutional in the Columbia County Jail. He said the practice violates the First Amendment rights of inmates and the people who write to them.
Hillsborough sheriff's officials say it is a matter of security.
Jail officials regularly caught contraband, Herman has said. Jail employees have found lewd photos, drugs hidden under stamps and even bodily fluids. They also sometimes found letters written in code and with gang references.
Books also were banned starting Sept. 1. The jail was getting some Amazon packages sent from individual seller accounts — not Amazon itself — that had contraband in them.
However, packages are still available through iCare, which is run by Aramark Correctional Services, a Philadelphia company that supplies food and other services to correctional facilities.
The company sells packages of salty and sweet prepackaged snacks, as well as some bath products, that families can give as gifts to inmates.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.