By JORDAN NELSON
BECKLEY, W.Va. — Aided by the legal community, West Virginia’s correctional facilities are thwarting yet another scheme for smuggling drugs to inmates: faking or compromising mail from their lawyers.
Known as privileged mail, this correspondence from legal counsel enjoys special protections to preserve attorney-client confidentiality, but prisons and jails across the state have caught multiple attempts to exploit these protections, including hiding drugs within fabricated or stolen law firm stationary.
Acting Corrections Commissioner Mike Coleman said inmates and their co-conspirators, through their attempts to misuse legally privileged mail to traffic in dangerous contraband, compromise the integrity of the attorney-client privilege and the safety of the public, correctional employees and other inmates.
A new, continuously changing alphanumeric code now allows all Division of Corrections (prisons), Regional Jail Authority and Division of Juvenile Services facilities to identify legitimate privileged legal mail and flag contraband.
“Every business day there’s a new code that goes out (to lawyers) and if mail that appears to be legal mail doesn’t have the proper code it’s flagged,” department Deputy Secretary Larry Messina said.
“Stationary was stolen from law offices. Stationary was manufactured by using a computer and a printer. The names of law firms were invented,” he said.
Secretary Jeff Sandy of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said no one, especially himself, wants to see an inmate die from illegal drugs.
“This is yet another example of the Justice administration accomplishing something that many said could not be done,” Sandy said.
The state’s Public Defender Services, part of the Department of Administration, developed the coding system.
Public Defender Services provides for indigent defense in the state, including in criminal proceedings, by funding both court-appointed private attorneys and full-time public defenders.
Executive Director Dana Eddy said she was extremely impressed the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety reached out to their agency due to their concern that the constitutional rights of people within their custody needed to be considered in the effort to stop the flow of drugs into the correctional facilities.
“This sensitivity to maintaining the confidentiality of the communications to and from legal counsel made the final solution a collaborative and holistic effort,” she said. “The department could very easily have been heavy-handed and hard-hearted, but, instead, they solicited and accepted an approach that ensures that those within their custody have the effective assistance of counsel as is every citizen’s right under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
The coding system debuted earlier this month and follows up on an earlier crackdown on non-privileged (personal of business) mail. Only photocopies of these letters, pictures and other mailings are provided to the intended inmate recipients.
According to a press release from West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, mail is a significant potential route for smuggling, and the 10 regional jails alone received and screened 300,000 pieces of mail in 2016.
Various drugs can be reduced to liquid form and then applied to letters, envelopes, pictures and photographs. Corrections officials had even found cases where drugs were melted in with crayons that were then used for drawings and were mailed to inmates.
“We are fighting the war on drugs and we are not going to give up our fight to reduce illegal drugs coming into our correction facilities,” Sandy said. ““This new project is also beneficial for the West Virginia Bar, because no law firm wants their firm’s letterhead, envelopes, return address labels, or logo used or counterfeited to introduce illegal drugs into West Virginia correctional facilities.”
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