This article was co-published with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
Every February 9, Joseph Mallonee sends his mother a handmade birthday card, with pastel hearts and roses sketched inside a Texas prison. Three weeks later, his mother returns the favor, buying a card or two from the local dollar store and mailing it to Huntsville in time for her son’s February 20 birthday. But not any more. As of Sunday, Texas prisons have basically banned greeting cards.
“It makes me real sad, and him too,” said Margie Stone, whose son is incarcerated in Huntsville. “He spends a lot of his day alone in his cell, so books and letters and cards are all he has.”
Texas is imposing restrictive new policies it says will cut down on contraband inside its 104 prisons. That means more drug-sniffing dogs, less mail for prisoners. No more store-bought or homemade greeting cards. No more colored paper, no postcards, no artwork using paint or glue, no glitter. No more than ten photographs per envelope.
Officials say the measures are necessary to keep would-be smugglers from dousing paper in drugs—like suboxone or liquid meth—and mailing it to people inside prison, the illicit substances obscured by paint or the thickness of a greeting card.
“We’ve got to keep people safe,” Lorie Davis, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said in January while announcing the new policy at a conference in Houston. “When offenders are harming themselves, they’re harming each other, they’re harming the staff, they’re creating a toxic environment that makes it hard for the people who are trying to do the right thing.”
Texas is not the first state to crack down on mail in an effort to stop drug smuggling. Prisons in Indiana, Michigan, and Utah have all instituted bans on the types of paper, cards, or drawings inmates can receive. The Colorado prison system banned greeting cards in early 2018—but walked back the policy after inmates sued.
There’s little data showing that such policies are effective, according to Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Most of the time they just institute the policy and that’s that,” she said. “They don’t feel the need to back it up with any further study.”
Of the more than 7.5 million pieces of mail that Texas prisoners received in 2019, the state says that 3,500 letters per month—just over half of one percent—were flagged for a suspicious substance. It’s not clear how many times officials actually found drugs in the mail, since perfume and stickers count as suspicious.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel said he could not provide data showing how often drugs were found, but insisted that it happens frequently. “If it happens once, it is preventable,” he added.
It’s hard to quantify the value of a silly birthday card, or a hand-painted sunset when you’re far from home and doing time, but they are the little things that help keep relationships together.
During the 21 months I spent behind bars for a drug charge, the person I was dating sent me drawings and paintings, on oversized art paper, of all the places we would go when I got out. Islands, hillside sunsets, starry skies over country fields.
Through those letters, we built our relationship—and through our relationship I was better able to rebuild my life afterward. Our correspondence gave me support to stay sober, a place to live after prison, and stability at a time when I didn’t have much in life.
That was all in New York—but here in Texas, people inside think the new restrictions are pointless because mail is not where most of the drugs are coming from.
“The majority of the K2 is coming in through the guards,” one prisoner wrote to me last year.
Several others offered similar accounts. One, video-chatting on a contraband cellphone he said was smuggled in by an officer, told me that’s also the way he got the drugs he used and sold. He conceded that some drugs come through the mail but said cards and colored paper are not a primary route for smuggling.
“Nobody is gonna buy a greeting card if you can come up in here and buy the real shards” of meth, he said, holding up a bag of what he said were other drugs that guards smuggled in.
The agency spokesman said that guards are not a major conduit for smuggling, pointing out that only 53 of the agency’s more than 21,000 officers were caught with contraband in 2019, while 300 visitors were flagged for contraband over the same period.
To some seasoned employees, those numbers raised new questions. “If we only caught 53 officers in 2019, we suck,” said one former warden, questioning the accuracy of the data. “We have a distinct inability statewide to catch contraband.”
State senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who oversees the Texas Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, told me he’d pushed the agency to find a better way, and questioned whether prisoners’ loved ones were really a main source of contraband. Drugs are getting in, he said, “but from my experience it’s not going to be primarily the families.” In addition to prison employees, he pointed to trusties, inmate workers with privileges and freedom of movement.
A coalition of more than three dozen advocates and organizations—including the ACLU of Texas, the nonprofit Just Liberty, and the Texas Inmate Families Association—laid out some concerns in an open letter asking the state’s prison board to delay implementing the measures.
“Greeting cards are one of the few sources of cheer and color in an otherwise dull and depressing atmosphere,” the organizations wrote, pointing to studies showing that people in jail and prison are less likely to end up behind bars again if they maintain close contact with their families on the outside.
Instead of a blanket ban on greeting cards, the groups suggested imposing the new restrictions only on people caught receiving contraband through the mail.
The Texas prison board last week approved the new mail and visitation policies with a few modifications. Glitter, paint, glue, stickers, card stock, and colored paper are prohibited. Store-bought and handmade cards are still banned. But officials say that soon families have the option to buy cards from a third-party vendor, which would send them directly to prisoners.
That won’t satisfy Stone. “We can’t add a personal touch,” she said. “I can’t put hearts and a smiley face and and write, ‘I love you’ in my own handwriting.”