Drugs are getting into Alaska prisons through the mail, officials say. Now they want to give inmates copies, instead.

Goose Creek Prison. Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage.
Goose Creek Prison in the Mat-Su. (Photo by Ellen Lockyer / Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is proposing to stop giving state prisoners their mail — instead providing them with copies to make sure that no “contraband” gets through with the original version, according to budget documents.

The Department of Corrections is asking lawmakers to approve a $400,000 budget boost to hire four employees who would need to copy an estimated 908,645 pages of inmate mail each year, the department said in budget documents released Wednesday.

All inmate mail, with the exception of confidential letters from attorneys, is already opened by prison staff, according to the department. But Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom said that that method of interception is not 100 percent successful — though she declined to provide details of how inmates get around it.

“Let me just say that people can be very, very creative with with mail, and with bringing contraband into the facility,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Dahlstrom acknowledged that their might be sentimental value to allowing inmates to receive original versions of their mail in state prisons.

“But our job is to keep folks safe there,” she said. “I think that communication being copied is sufficient.”

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has adopted the copying practice at certain federal corrections facilities, the Associated Press reported in October. And the state of Pennsylvania adopted a similar policy last year in an effort to block illegal drugs, namely synthetic marijuana, from getting into its prisons.

But Pennsylvania was forced to stop the practice after two federal lawsuits were filed to block it, according to a local newspaper. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups alleged that allowing prison guards to open inmates’ mail failed to guarantee the confidentiality of communications with their attorneys.

Dahlstrom said she was aware of the problems in Pennsylvania, but she added that the department thinks it has a way to avoid them. She declined to explain exactly how, saying that she would share more details if lawmakers approve the request to start the program.

A spokeswoman for the ACLU of Alaska, Megan Edge, said the organization would push lawmakers to reject the proposal.

“This is not only costly but it’s intrusive,” she said. “Given the known legal issues, we are hopeful the Legislature will correct this proposed unconstitutional use of state dollars.”