Screening inmate mail for threatening or dangerous materials.

AuthorBrinkley, Tripp

"Governor's mail booby-trapped!" So began one of the hundreds of newspaper headlines that appeared after apparent letter bombs were sent to numerous state governors. The letters were indeed booby-trapped; they contained incendiary devices rigged with matches set to ignite when the contents were removed. What was surprising was that the letters came from a correctional facility in Nevada. The details of the case are still under investigation, but the question that lingers, regardless of the outcome, is how to prevent similar dangerous mail from ever leaving the walls of a correctional facility.


Another version of a threatening letter came from an inmate in North Dakota. His letter began, "I am hereby making a formal declaration of war on the city of Fargo, because of the numerous violations of my constitutional rights." He went on to threaten the people of the city and make demands, including $40 million in perceived damages. Instead, he was convicted of mailing threatening communications and now faces a sentence of 30 years to life. What this inmate received is likely what he wanted all along--to stay in prison. The start date of his self-declared war was the day he was originally scheduled to be released from prison.

Past Danger

Threats, devices and suspicious materials are not uncommon to inmates' mail. Inmates seeking revenge often mail threatening letters with powders or other suspicious substances to prosecutors, witnesses and others they blame for their incarceration. Some inmates approaching release dates have been known to mail threats to the president or other prominent public figures in an effort to remain in prison. There are even inmates of state prisons who mail threats in the hope of being prosecuted federally so they can move to a federal facility, which may be more comfortable than their current surroundings. Besides creating panic and prompting emergency responses by local first-responders or other emergency personnel, these kinds of threats and suspicious substances drain the resources of the federal law enforcement agency responsible for investigating threatening or dangerous mail--the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

For more than 200 years, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has been entrusted with safeguarding the U.S. mail and postal system from all criminal attack. Since the tragic anthrax mailings of 2001, threatening or dangerous mail has been an almost overwhelming problem for this relatively...

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