WA Prisons to Ban Greeting Cards and Postcards, Presuming Synthetic Drugs

    The Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) will ban people in its custody from receiving greeting cards and postcards after June 15. It will instead deliver photocopies, and destroy the originals, in a crackdown on what the department characterizes as a dangerous increase in synthetic drugs entering facilities through those forms of mail.

    At Washington Corrections Center (Shelton), where Jonathan is currently incarcerated, the news is spreading slowly. Policy changes are supposed to be shared with prisoners at least 30 days in advance of implementation, and usually they’re physically printed out and posted on the wall. Electronic versions are also uploaded to the communal kiosks—each general population living unit has one in the foyer, where people mostly use it to check their account balances.

    Usually the updates are in the Notification section, which pops up automatically when you log in. This update was added to the kiosks on May 20, but buried in the Announcements section, which does not appear automatically and which no one ever really checks. A printout was not put up on the wall until the graveyard shift between May 21 and 22, which is also unusual. It reads as follows:

    The message is being sent on behalf of Melissa Andrewjeski, Assistant Secretary of the Women’s Prisons Division, and Don Holbrook, Assistant Secretary of the Men’s Prisons Division. Effective June 15, 2024, greeting cards and postcards sent to incarcerated individuals inside Washington State Department of Corrections facilities will be photocopied when received by the mailroom, and the copies only will be issued to the incarcerated individuals. The original content and the envelope will be disposed of following mailroom procedures. The reason for this change is because we are discovering a number of unsafe greeting cards and postcards that contain synthetic drugs on the specific type of paper used for greeting cards and postcards. Introducing drugs into the prison system is illegal and extremely dangerous. This method of introducing drugs is of particular concern in prisons nationwide because they are less predictable and even more dangerous. The increase in drug traffickers using this and other methods to introduce dangerous drugs has resulted in an increase of violence and drug-related medical emergencies. By photocopying greeting cards and postcards as permitted by DOC policy 450.100 it is our intent to increase safety and reduce the risk of introducing dangerous contraband.


    In response to Filter‘s May 22 inquiries into various aspects of the announcement and their implications, WDOC Media Relations Manager Tobby Hatley said that subject matter experts were not available that day. The questions included whether the synthetic drugs are being discovered through the same presumptive drug-testing practices described in a class-action lawsuit filed against the department in September 2023. [Update: On May 28, WDOC confirmed to Filter that those same practices were behind the impending ban.]

    Presumptive drug-testing relies on colorimetric reagent kits that are notorious for false positives, particularly with synthetic cannabinoids, and not intended to be used as evidence without followup confirmatory testing at a lab. As a result of the lawsuit, WDOC updated its policy so that it could no longer sanction prisoners based on those results alone. In December, Filter reported that the department was still doing so.

    Synthetic cannabinoids are known as “Spice” in WDOC facilities, where they’re widely used. Though it’s safe to assume these are what the department is referring to, “synthetic drugs” and other non-specific language in the announcement allows more leeway for cards to be disposed of without necessarily confirming what was on them.

    Though prisoners sanctioned based on presumptive testing results, even after the practice was supposed to end, have often faced harsh punishments, it hasn’t really been something they’ve experienced en masse. If there was solid evidence that cards containing synthetic drugs were pouring into WDOC facilities on a scale that justified categorically banning them across the state, a lot more people inside would be getting infracted and a lot more people outside would be getting arrested.

    WDOC joins prison and jail systems across the country that have in recent years implemented the same change, or a similar version, and justified it with the same reason. Photocopied mail has so far failed to reduce the supply of contraband drugs, but has prompted such an outpouring of lawsuits that some states have reverted to their original mailroom policies.

    Cards have a special importance in prisons that’s distinct from letters written on regular paper.

    In addition to anything with extra-festive elements like stickers, current WDOC policy already rejects cards for being too small, too big, written on using “excessive” ink or not written on at all. Color envelopes are confiscated, their contents delivered inside a black-and-white photocopy of the envelope that’s been folded in half. But color is allowed on the cards themselves. Along with the individual cards, WDOC is banning the only real source of color inside facilities that are otherwise beige or gray.

    Greeting cards and postcards both have a special importance in prisons that’s distinct from letters written on regular paper. In WDOC facilities, photographs were commonly displayed in cells, until a few years back when the first tablets arrived. Once people started sending digital images, a lot of them stopped mailing photographs. Cards are the memories that get displayed now.

    The holiday season is a particularly difficult time in prisons, for reasons that would be compounded by receiving a grainy black-and-white photocopy of what used to be a card.

    Greeting cards and postcards don’t all use one “specific type of paper”—but using this language in the announcement allows mailroom staff to apply it however is convenient. It’s likely that the ban will affect more than just greeting cards and postcards, because cardstock-like paper is used to announce most of life’s big rites of passage: births, coming-of-age celebrations, graduations, weddings, funerals.

    Of all the methods by which we’re allowed to communicate, greeting cards are most fun, and funny.

    The department heavily emphasizes “maintaining and strengthening family ties” as a vital part of preparation for re-entry, and it’s not clear how that’s being reconciled with the impending ban.

    The two of us have a personal stake in the matter, because in late 2023 we got married. Of all the methods by which we’re allowed to communicate, greeting cards are the most fun, and funny. It’s evolved to the point where a pretty steady stream of holiday cards arrives at Shelton off-season with Boggle games drawn on the inside, which are then either taped up on the wall or mailed back with the next part of the conversation. Which will continue past June 15, but with photographs of the cards—since color photographs are still permitted if they’re on photo paper—rather than ever mailing the real thing.

    There are currently over 14,700 people incarcerated in WDOC facilities. About half of them are parents, who are already unable to receive any crayon or gel pen drawings from their children. In grouping the entire state prison population’s families and friends outside with “drug traffickers,” the department is effectively sanctioning tens of thousands of people, including children, for actions taken by the significantly smaller number of adults linked to contraband mail—a number which almost certainly will include people falsely accused, if the results aren’t all sent out for confirmatory testing.



    Update, May 22: This article has been edited to include Washington State Department of Corrections’ response to Filter‘s short-notice request for comment.

    Correction, May 29: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the number of incarcerated people who will be affected by the ban. The previous figure included state-wide emergency beds which are not necessarily occupied.

    Photograph via Wake County Sheriff’s Office

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”


      Kastalia is Filter‘s deputy editor. She previously worked at a number of other media outlets and wouldn’t recommend the drug coverage at any of them. When not at Filter, she works with drug users in NYC and drug checkers in North Carolina to track hyperlocal supply changes, and cohosts a national stimulant users call with Isaac Jackson. 

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