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Prison looking at mail options

County may hire management firm to run fee-based email service for inmates

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Blair County Prison Board is asking commissioners to consider contracting with a mail management company to examine mail for contraband and to introduce a fee-based email service for inmates.

Options are available through a company called TextBehind, headquartered in Phoenix, Md., which is now serving the Centre and York county prisons.

“It’s something we need to look into for the safety of the staff and the inmates,” Warden Abbie Tate advised the prison board on Thursday during its monthly meeting.

The prison board, in response, voted to recommend commissioners review the options. While all three commissioners have seats on the prison board, only commissioner Bruce Erb was at Thursday’s meeting and he voted in favor of the motion.

Erb also asked Tate about charges associated with services.

Tate said the company charges fees to those using its website to create messages and to send photos, greeting cards and drawings to inmates.

Based on a company brochure, the sender of a text message of 5,000 characters and up to four photos would pay 99 cents. A personalized greeting card with 1,500 characters and up to four color photos also costs 99 cents.

After such items are entered into the company’s website, the company prints the messages, photos, cards and/or drawings.

The printed items are then delivered to the prison for distribution to inmates, according to the company’s promotional materials.

Another option would allow an inmate, depending on available technology, to access the TextBehind website and see his or her mail. In response, the inmate could make an immediate reply at no charge.

Tate said she sees the company’s program as one way to answer inmate mail-related complaints that have been common for years. Looking for contraband takes time and damages items, she said.

That’s one reason why the prison banned tri-fold greeting cards that had be sliced open to see if anything was inside.

“We were taping them back together and then saying here’s your card,” the warden said.

TextBehind also emphasizes that its services will remove the risk associated with contraband on mail that’s not easily recognized.

A year ago, the state prisons went into a 12-day lockdown after several inmates and staff became ill from synthetic drugs that were sprayed on paper and distributed inside prisons. The state subsequently introduced a new policy requiring inmate mail to be routed through a Smart Communications facility located in Florida.

Centre County’s prison in Bellefonte has eliminated contraband since starting to use TextBehind’s services, Deputy Warden Glenn Irwin advised TextBehind in a thank you letter.

Centre County, according to its website, made TextBehind effective April 8, when mail to inmates either had to be submitted through TextBehind’s website or mailed to its facility in Maryland.

All mail sent to the Maryland facility is photocopied, with photocopies then delivered to the inmates.

York County has also indicated that it’s happy with TextBehind’s services.

“Thanks to TextBehind … we have eliminated hard contraband such as drugs, weapons, etc., from non-privileged mail,” Warden Clair Doll said in a letter to the company. “This has increased the safety of our mailroom staff by reducing potential exposure to hazardous substances and decreased staffing costs for the mailroom.”

The Blair County Prison doesn’t have a mailroom, Tate said, nor does the facility have the space to create one.

Tate said the prison’s mail is opened and sorted on a table.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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