Prisons in Minnesota are racing to keep up with a new chapter in contraband smuggling: mail soaked with synthetic and liquid narcotics in a bid to evade detection.
State and federal corrections officials, both here and nationally, are considering new technologies and prison policies to counter what they say is a trend that has emerged in the past year. Federal prosecutors are meanwhile increasingly building cases against people caught trying to mail meth or other drugs laced into the ink and paper of the mail itself — all while trying to prosecute more traditional means of drug smuggling.
"It's a bit of a game of Whac-a-Mole where we're trying to always keep up with this," said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.
The state's prison system is now midway through a six-month pilot program to test new measures aimed at stopping drugs sent through the mail. At one of the state's largest prisons in Stillwater, which typically houses more than 1,100 adult inmates, that pilot means photocopying nearly every piece of mail that comes through.
"I've made about 10,000 to 11,000 copies per month," said Leigh McCoy, a prison employee who's handled mail for more than four decades.
Many of those years have been spent in Stillwater, where McCoy's routine has had an added layer of complexity necessitated by an urgent push from the Minnesota Corrections Department. It is testing other methods of curbing drug smuggling at different prisons — with more of a focus on education and intervention — while exploring whether passing along color copies of mail is the right approach.
In Stillwater, this test is adding hours of work for McCoy while creating an extra, even if temporary, barrier for inmates relying on photos, greeting cards and letters to stay tethered to loved ones in the outside world.
"It depersonalizes," said Michele Livingston, whose son, Jeffrey Young, is serving a life sentence for murder in Stillwater. "Already there is no contact, and mail is actually one of the best ways to communicate with someone incarcerated. It tells them it took effort and time to say something to them. Now when you get photocopies, it takes it away."
Prison officials have since adopted new scanning technology on par with what is used in airports to try to detect narcotics in items mailed to state facilities.
Officials say the consequences can be harmful and even deadly in the case of overdoses. Drug-soaked mail can further provide a lucrative product to offer on the black market inside.
"Prison is a compressed environment, so it in many ways magnifies the effects that you would otherwise see on the outside," said Melinda Williams, the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of leading the Minnesota office's criminal division. "I think one of our top priorities both in and outside prisons is overdoses."
Walter Davis, 40, of St. Paul, received a 20-year prison sentence last month after mailing letters soaked in methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids to four state prisons.
Prosecutors billed it as an example of the "true lifeblood of prison contraband schemes." The letters were intended to be torn up and sold behind prison walls and could either be smoked or eaten.
Before Davis pleaded guilty days into a bench trial, Assistant Corrections Director Mark Koderick testified that contraband smuggling represented one of the biggest threats to prison security. He said he had watched inmates faint, have seizures or harm themselves after ingesting smuggled narcotics.
Last year, Nickolas Mihelic pleaded guilty to attempting to obtain contraband and admitted to conspiring to have pieces of paper saturated with liquid methamphetamine mailed to him at Sandstone federal prison. The Bureau of Prisons seized six pieces of meth-soaked paper before Mihelic was indicted.
Curtis Carico, a Tennessee man sent to Sandstone to serve a federal sentence on marijuana charges, later received and pleaded guilty to additional federal charges after being caught conspiring with a former bunkmate at a previous prison to have children's magazines with pages infused with synthetic cannabinoids sent to him in Sandstone. According to court filings, Carico reached out to the man because the drugs were harder to come by in Sandstone prison than they were at his previous prison in Texas.
Donald Murphy, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said the federal prison system does not elaborate on specific security procedures for safety and security reasons. But, he said, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) uses a multifaceted approach."
"The BOP continually evaluates and deploys as appropriate, contraband-detecting technologies, including walk-through metal detectors and whole-body imaging devices," Murphy said. "In addition, we have employed enhanced staffing patterns in high security prisons as well as strengthened internal security procedures."
But drugs still are making their way into state and federal prisons through more traditional means, according to court records and interviews. Faith Gratz, a former Stillwater prison guard, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in September to conspiracy charges for helping smuggle in meth for an inmate with whom she had a romantic relationship.
Gratz helped smuggle in wholesale quantities of prepackaged methamphetamine for Axel Kramer to distribute in the prison on at least six occasions. She also brought him multiple cellphones and exchanged hundreds of text messages about drug trafficking and their relationship, according to charges. Kramer was sentenced in June 2010 for the killing of 20-year-old Alberto Samilpa Jr., of Mankato. Kramer and Gratz, who is still awaiting trial, had discussed plans to marry once Kramer was scheduled for release in March 2024.
Authorities caught Kramer and Gratz in April 2022. Six months later, Schnell adopted the ongoing pilot to confront drugs coming through the mail amid a new surge in that strategy.
Livingston, who said she also keeps up with prison policies around the country, acknowledged that she is "two-minded" about the Correction Department's pilot testing photocopying of mail. While she fears the possibility of removing a link to the outside for incarcerated loved ones, she recognizes the dangers of potentially deadly doses finding their way into prisons.
"I truly understand that the contraband that gives them the most concern is fentanyl, and we are watching it kill people left and right here," Livingston said.
Schnell said in a recent interview that he wanted to test the new methods on a pilot basis — set to end in April — so as not to adopt a new policy outright that might have to be walked back if not effective.
"Nobody wants to overrespond," Schnell said. "But when we're talking about life and death, nobody wants to underrespond."