Advocates for prisoners says Iowa’s new system of screening mail that’s sent to inmates is confusing and hard to navigate. All non-legal mail is sent to a third-party company to be opened, screened and scanned, then a color copy is sent to the inmate.

Professor Alison Guernsey, in the University of Iowa College of Law, says communication between inmates and people on the outside is valuable in maintaining strong connections.

Guernsey says, “I think taking that away from people really contributes to the overall dehumanization that prison inflicts and makes it harder for people to feel like they are still members of their families, still members of their community.”

The new policy was instituted after it was found people were soaking letters in drugs and sending them to inmates who could chew the paper to ingest the drugs. Guernsey, who’s director of the UI’s Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, worries about whether the policy could have negative effects for inmates.

“My first gut instinct, when I heard that Iowa DOC was transitioning to a photocopy mail system,” Guernsey says, “was that it was yet another way in which we deny people that we incarcerate a bit of their humanity.”

Guernsey says communication between inmates and people on the outside is valuable in maintaining good relationships and she says this new policy chips away at that.

“There is value and humanity in the physical mail that people receive,” she says, “from the smells of their house, to the ability to touch the words on the page and maybe feel the cursive of their husband or wife, or to be able to see the crayon drawing that their seven-year-old child made for them.”

Nancy O’Geary Smith has a son in an Iowa prison and used to send him mail frequently, but she says the new system is confusing and made it difficult to communicate in a system that already has a lot of rules and policies.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Geary Smith says. “They say they want interaction with loved ones, but what they are doing is a contradiction. It is the definite opposite.”

The policy was instituted in July over concern about drugs, particularly a synthetic drug known as K-2, getting into prisons through the mail. The Iowa Department of Corrections says people can continue to send mail to inmates through the postal service, as long as the senders are properly addressing the envelopes with the right information and the mail meets guidelines.

(Catherine Wheeler, Iowa Public Radio)