North Carolina print media are essentially ignoring a new ban barring prisoners from receiving original hard copies of their mail, and while broadcast media are doing a comparatively better job, their coverage lacks depth.
As of October 18, North Carolina prisons no longer allow incarcerated people to receive original physical mail, including greeting cards, photos, and extra paper and stamps to write back. Instead, the state is partnering with a company called TextBehind, which will scan mail sent to inmates and print out a copy to be handed to them. People can also download the TextBehind app and upload scans of their mail directly, which will be printed out and handed to the recipient in prison. This policy further cuts off incarcerated people from their loved ones, especially when visitation can be limited due to the pandemic.
Media Matters reviewed local print and broadcast coverage of the mail ban in North Carolina between September 15, when the policy was announced, and October 25 and found almost no print reporting on the topic. There was only one original news article and one opinion piece. There were 21 instances of broadcast coverage. However, the broadcast coverage lacked depth, as 17 of these instances were just headline reports, and no outlet talked to any currently or formerly incarcerated person or any of their loved ones on how this policy will impact them.
Mail is incredibly important to those in prison. In 2020, the Brennan Center for Justice interviewed Tami Eldrige, a woman who at the time had been incarcerated for over 20 years, on what physical mail means to those behind bars:
Throughout 19 years of my now 21 years of incarceration, my children’s lives have become tangible with every piece of mail that I have received. We have become emotionally connected through letters, cards, schoolwork, and artistic efforts. We were able to touch, hug, kiss, and cry together through letters. My children invited me into their lives every day through their letters, and I constantly reminded them of my love through mine.
The North Carolina program replaces mail that holds such meaning to incarcerated people with scanned printouts. Similar programs in other states have shown that those scans may not even come through clearly, creating an even bigger gulf between the lives of those behind bars and their loved ones.
TextBehind was apparently founded to make communication between incarcerated people and their families and loved ones easier and quicker. But North Carolina is now using it to replace all mail to inmates. The system was also rolled out in a county in Illinois last year and has been tested in a few women’s prisons in North Carolina since February 2020.
The state claims it is banning direct mail to reduce contraband drugs in prisons because “smugglers have learned to make the mail itself into a drug.” Some mail had been found to be coated in controlled substances including fentanyl, Suboxone, and K2. However, contraband is generally still most often brought into prisons by staff, a detail both the state and media ignored.
A Media Matters review of North Carolina print newspapers found only five print articles published on this topic between September 15 and October 25. Three of those five were simply reprints of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety press release. The Wilson Times, Spring Hope Enterprise, and The Caswell Messenger all published the same press release with no commentary providing additional perspective or asking important questions around how this would impact incarcerated people or their families.
Of the other two articles, one was a straightforward news piece and the other an opinion piece. The news article – in The Robesonian – did not mention that the mail policy will negatively impact those in prison, nor did it include a perspective of someone incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. Instead, the paper spoke with a NCDPS communications officer:
“It is unfortunate that the actions of a relative few have created a situation in which offenders will no longer be able to touch the original of a paper letter, a handwritten greeting card or their kids’ artwork. But it is a step Prisons had to take so that our facilities remain safe and secure environments for our staff, for the offenders in our custody and for the general public,” said Brad Deen, communications officer for Prisons at NCDPS.
The editorial piece published in the News and Observer is the only print piece in our review that reflected how the new mail ban will hurt incarcerated people or their families:
Presumably the vast majority of these letters aren’t laced with fentanyl, LSD, or K2. They’re most likely from friends and family members on the outside, from children whose parents will cherish those drawings. They could be love letters from someone waiting for them, or birthday cards from a parent. Instead of a phone call, these letters stay with the person serving prison time, to remind them that they have a life outside. That’s what we want, right? We want inmates to be reacclimated into society, which they must do with the help of their loved ones.
The letters already were being inspected twice: the U.S. Postal Inspection Service already inspects mail for narcotics, and each of the 51 prisons has mailroom staff that open and inspect their letters before giving them to their intended recipient. They say the paper may be coated with fentanyl, the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States, but also other drugs far less likely to be lethal (but still risky), like LSD or synthetic cannabinoids. While DPS is wringing their hands at the possibility of contamination for mail room attendants, it’s hard to believe that they’d ingest the drugs coated on the paper without intent. Wouldn’t extra attentiveness and safety equipment accomplish the same thing?
A Media Matters review of local broadcast coverage found a little more coverage: The mail policy was mentioned on air at least 21 times between September 15 and October 25. However, while anchors and reporters sometimes spoke to advocates for those behind bars, no piece quoted anyone incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, or a friend or family member whose letters will no longer reach their loved ones.
Additionally, seven of the 21 instances of broadcast coverage did not mention the negative impacts this policy will have on incarcerated people. There were 17 headline reports in which the anchors read the basics of the story, and there were three other headline reports in which the anchors aired a short clip of an advocate for incarcerated people. Media Matters found only one instance of a full correspondent report, from Raleigh-Durham CBS station WNCN, whose report included an interview with an advocate for prisoners.
North Carolina local media, especially print media, have failed to cover the scope of the impact of the state banning mail to prisoners. Scans of cards and photos are not a replacement for the real artifact and contraband is largely not sent through the mail. And yet, those are details that almost every North Carolina outlet ignored.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database from local newspapers in North Carolina for any of the terms "text behind” or “textbehind” or any variation of any of the terms “prison,” “inmate,” or “incarcerate” within 10 words of “mail,” “letter,” “card,” “photo,” or “artwork” from September 15 through October 25, 2021.
We included the following newspapers: The Anson Record, Asheville Citizen-Times, The Biltmore Beacon, Bladen Journal, The Blowing Rocket, The Blue Banner, The Brunswick Beacon, Business-North Carolina, Carteret County News-Times, The Caswell Messenger, Charlotte Business Journal, The Charlotte Jewish News, The Charlotte Observer, The Charlotte Post, Cherokee Scout, Clay County Progress, The Clemmons Courier, The Chronicle, The Courier-Times, The Courier-Tribune, Crossroads Chronicle, The Daily Advance, The Daily Courier, The Daily Dispatch, The Daily Herald, The Daily News, The Daily Reflector, The Daily Tar Heel, The Dispatch, Duplin Times, The Enquirer-Journal, The Fayetteville Observer, The Franklin Press, The Franklin Times, The Free Press, The Gaston Gazette, The Graham Star, Greensboro News & Record, Hickory Daily Record, High Point Enterprise, The Highlander, Independent Tribune, Lake Gaston Gazette-Observer, The Laurinburg Exchange, The McDowell News, Mebane Enterprise, The Mecklenburg Times, Mitchell News-Journal, Montgomery Herald, Mooresville Tribune, Mount Olive Tribune, The Mountain Times, The Mountaineer, The Mt. Airy News, The Nashville Graphic, The News & Observer, The News Herald, The News of Orange County, The News Reporter, News-Topic, North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, The Pilot, Richmond County Daily Journal, Roanoke-Chowan News Herald, The Robesonian, RockinghamNow, Salisbury Post, The Sampson Independent, The Sanford Herald, Smoky Mountain Times, The Enterprise, The Stanly News and Press, The Star, Statesville Record & Landmark, The Stokes News, Sun Journal, The Sun-News, The Sylva Herald and Ruralite, Tabor-Loris Tribune, Technician, Tideland News, The Times-News, Triad Business Journal, Triad Business Journal Online, Triangle Business Journal, The Triangle Tribune, The Tryon Daily Bulletin, The Warren Record, Washington Daily News, Watauga Democrat, The Wilson Times, The Yadkin Ripple, or Yes! Weekly.
We included all articles about the ban, which we defined as instances when the ban was mentioned in the headline or lead paragraph of the article. We included news articles, which we defined as articles printed in the news section of the paper, and opinion, which we defined as editorials, op-eds, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor.
We also searched transcripts in the Kinetiq database for local broadcast television in the Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham (Fayetteville), Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville-Anderson, Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News, Greensboro–High Point–Winston-Salem, Chattanooga, Myrtle Beach-Florence, Greenville-New Bern-Washington, or Wilmington markets for either of the terms “text behind” or “textbehind” or any of the terms “prison,” “prisoner,” “inmate,” or “incarcerated” within 20 words of any of the terms “mail,” “letter,” “card,” “photo,” or “artwork” from September 15 through October 25, 2021.
We included all segments about the ban, which we defined as instances when the ban was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion about the ban. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the ban with one another. We included headline reports, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host reported the news without turning to a correspondent, and correspondent reports, which we defined as instances when a reporter or correspondent filed a report with the anchor or host.
We then reviewed all identified articles and segments for whether they included perspective from a person who is currently or formerly incarcerated or someone close to a currently or formerly incarcerated person or mentioned that the ban could negatively impact inmates’ mental health.