Why Easter cards were rejected in Indiana prisons this year.

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Original: Indy Star (Evansville Courier adn Press) on 05/02/2017 by Ryan Martin , ryan.martin@indystar.com

Indiana offenders have found some unusual ways to get their hands on drugs while in prison.

Heads of lettuce have been hollowed and filled with drugs, and tennis balls have been thrown over fences into the yards. All have led to new procedures or inspections for the Indiana Department of Correction.

A recent trend of lacing mail with liquid K2, a synthetic drug that can be smoked, though, has led to a fairly dramatic new reality in Indiana prisons: no greeting cards, no birthday cards, no Christmas cards.

No colored paper of any kind may be sent to offenders. Not even photocopies of white paper are permissible.

While it doesn’t affect legal mail, only lined white paper with white envelopes can be mailed to inmates.

The change, effective April 1, has not been well received by families and friends.

“I’ve not been a very popular guy in Indiana the last few weeks,” said James Basinger, the deputy commissioner who oversees IDOC operations. “I’m trying to do what’s best for the offenders.”

Basinger said the measure is necessary to prevent liquid K2 from entering the prison system.

K2 is a mix of chemicals that, when applied to a substance like tobacco, potpourri or paper, becomes a synthetic cannabinoid. Users can become aggressive and violent.

In almost every Indiana prison, Basinger said, K2 has been smuggled in through greeting cards and other mail. The paper, soaked in K2 liquid, would be torn apart and smoked by offenders.

It’s a hard drug to stop, he said, because it’s almost impossible to detect. Drug-sniffing dogs don’t catch it. And drug tests aren’t effective, Basinger said, because one tweak to the chemical make-up will prevent the drug from registering. He said a drug-testing vendor even asked for a lab analysis of some of the confiscated paper so the vendor could adjust its testing.

That’s why IDOC is allowing only white paper. It’s easier to see if it’s been tampered with, Basinger said.

“Unless there’s a visible stain on the paper, or the paper seems to be unusually wrinkled or crisp, there’s not a whole lot of telltale signs that a paper has been altered,” Basinger said.

The change came as a shock to Chicago-based St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church, where parishioners participate in an outreach ministry to prisoners by sending cards around the holidays. A team of about 10 write letters and cards to prisoners, five of whom are in Indiana. The group also buys Christmas gifts for children of inmates.

“A lot of prisoners have said to us in their letters if it weren’t for us, no one would be corresponding,” said Pat Cole, who co-coordinates the ministry with her husband, Steve. “We’re reaching into the darkness. The letters really are a lifeline.”

Easter cards sent in April were recently sent back, parishioners said, with a brief note about IDOC’s new policy. One card had included a little cross made out of a palm leaf, which is a custom within the church. That card — and the cross — were returned.

“It’s ridiculous,” Steve Cole said. “What more can they do to dehumanize the prisoners?”

Basinger acknowledged the policy as controversial, but necessary.

“I’m more concerned about their well-being then somebody being upset with me,” he said.

The policy will be reviewed in October, he said, to determine its effectiveness.

He is looking for other ways to keep K2 out of prisons without restricting mail. For example, IDOC might consider scanning all mail and then delivering printed copies to offenders, but that would come with higher costs. IDOC also has considered sending electronic copies of all mail to each inmate through kiosks in each facility, or individual tablets.

In the meantime, offenders can be sent online greeting cards, Basinger said.