Byko: When it comes to mail, state prisons have a color bias

It's not easy for mail to penetrate the walls of Graterford Prison.

Here's a problem I hope you never have, because having the problem means a loved one is a "guest" of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

I have several pen pals (pun intended) at locations around the state, but the one I am closest to is Marcus Perez, who wound up with a wrongful life sentence. I have written several columns hoping to get him the justice he deserves.

It was to meet Perez that I made my first visit inside the buff walls of Graterford. In later communications I learned about some rules that seem bizarre and baffling.

One year on his birthday, I sent Perez a card that was returned - eventually - with a blood-red stamp that said "unacceptable mail." The card was Hallmark. Should I have sent American Greetings?

No, Perez informed me, I should have mailed it in a white envelope. The dwindling number of people who still buy greeting cards know that almost no birthday cards come in white envelopes. They are blue, green, pink, yellow, rose - all the pretty colors.

OK. I dig up a white envelope and mail off the card again.

Three weeks later, it's back - "unacceptable mail," the blood-red stamp says again.

What now?

You know the return address stickers you get in the mail from many charities? They are prohibited by the Department of Corrections. You must hand write your address in the upper left corner. If you don't use a return address, that'll get the letter rejected, too.

As a matter of fact, DOC is monitoring greeting cards closely and might wind up banning them, regardless of the envelope color.

I'll explain why in a minute, but here are some other rules that seem to be in place just to harass inmates and their loved ones, but that have reasons. These are prisons, not resorts.

Inmates like to have reading material and easily can get newspapers. That's why female newspaper columnists have so many fans behind bars. Male columnists, less so.

Inmates can subscribe to magazines, which are reviewed on an issue-by-issue basis. "A magazine may be permitted one month but not the next," an online listing of rules explains, depending on content.

Nude pictures, for instance, are not permitted.

Books? Don't even think about sending a book. I made the mistake of mailing one, which was returned to me as - go ahead and guess - "unacceptable mail."

The only way you can send a book into the Graybar Hotel is to have it shipped from a publisher, distributor or department store with a packing slip identifying it as an original source.

Seems pretty heavy-handed. Just what is the DOC afraid of?

Lots of things, explains press secretary Amy Worden.

Let's start with the ban on color envelopes.

That began on Oct. 29, 2015, to thwart "the introduction of suboxone and other drugs," says Worden. DOC noticed a "significant increase" on envelope flaps, and colored stock makes detection difficult. Since the ban, the number of cases has decreased, she says.

Address stickers are banned for the same reason. "They are prime locations" for concealing drugs, she says. DOC can't prohibit postage stamps, but they are "generally removed and inspected carefully," says Worden, adding that mail is inspected but not read.

The people on the outside can be very creative.

Thick greeting cards can conceal banned substances, but they still are permitted - for now.

Books must come from an original source because "it is extremely easy to hide cellphones, weapons, razors, and drugs in bindings and cut-out pages," Worden says.

For security reasons, she declined to discuss individual cases displaying unusual creativity, but says DOC works "aggressively" to monitor contraband and makes changes to meet new challenges.

It's too bad that the vast majority of innocent inmates have to pay the penalty because of the rule-breakers, but that's also true outside prison walls.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

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