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Prisoners in Virginia only get photocopies of incoming mail

A side-by-side comparison of a couple embracing: The photo on the left is from when the couple were teenagers. And the photo on the right is from from when they're adults.
In the photo on the left, Santia Nance and Quadaire Patterson embrace when the two were teenagers. And in the photo on the right, the two pose as adults. (Photos: Courtesy Santia Nance)

Many people who are incarcerated at Virginia prisons and jails won’t get the cards, drawings and photos they’re sent in the mail this holiday season. Instead, they’ll get black-and-white photocopies. 

That’s because the Virginia Department of Corrections only delivers scans of incoming mail to people inside prison facilities and shreds the original copies. Virginia prison officials said the policy began in 2017 to stop the flow of drugs into their facilities. But the strategy is not unique to Virginia. The Prison Policy Initiative said it’s a growing trend among jails and prisons nationwide.  

Santia Nance’s fiancé is incarcerated at Lawrenceville Correctional Center. Now in their 30s, Nance said they’ve known each other since they were teenagers and only reconnected a few years ago. 

“I do think that during the holidays especially, it can be a drag,” she said about trying to maintain their relationship.   

Her fiancé, Quadaire Patterson, whom she calls "Q," has about 3-and-a-half years left in prison, after having already served 14 years for robbery — a crime that makes him ineligible for early release on good behavior. 

The couple has occasional video visits and phone calls, but mail gets complicated.  

“Handwritten mail is very special to us,” said Nance, who is co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, a criminal justice reform organization. “We both are very creative individuals and we like to make things for each other.” 

But she said the scans of their correspondence are dark and spotty, and it’s often difficult to make out detailed drawings, pictures and handwriting. The department also limits the number of pages it scans and delivers to three pages, front and back, including the envelope.  

‘I’m not saying it’s not worth it’

Nance got Q on the phone on a cold day while sitting outside of a Richmond library. He talked about how he never cared much about the holidays, until he began his relationship with her. Now, Christmas means dealing with the limitations they face together and jumping through hoops to celebrate in a meaningful way.  

“I’m not saying it’s not worth it, but it’s definitely harder,” Patterson said.  

He also said that it’s jarring to have his family and friends send him photos, only to have the originals destroyed. 

"The thing they do with the photographs is just horrible. Because you can barely see them,” Patterson said about the copies he’s received. “Sometimes, they’re halfway off the page.” 

Shawn Weneta is a policy strategist for ACLU of Virginia. He was sentenced to 30 years in state prison for embezzlement and served 16 years before Gov. Ralph Northam pardoned him in 2020.  

He called the VADOC photo policy a knee-jerk response to overdoses.  

“The agency really needed to have a scapegoat and really be able to point to where the drugs were coming from,” Weneta said. “So, what they did is, they pointed to mail and they made this policy change.” 

VADOC didn’t respond to specific questions regarding the mail policy but confirmed that it was implemented to deal with illicit substances being brought into its facilities. 

But Weneta said he doesn’t think mail is the primary source of drugs inside jails and prisons.  

“It is and always has been — and I expect it will continue to be — through staff, where the majority of contraband comes through these facilities.” 

Weneta pointed out that in 2020, visitations stopped because of the pandemic. And what they found is after two years without visitation and the mail copying policy still in place, positive drug screens increased. Despite overdoses dipping significantly for a year of the pandemic, there was a slight increase between 2020 and 2021. 

Federal prisons adopted the photo-copying practice in 2019. Local jails in Virginia, which are not run by the state, have also started delivering copies of mail to prisoners. New River Regional Jail implemented the policy, according to The Roanoke Times, largely in response to an influx of letters written on paper soaked in the synthetic marijuana substitute Spice. 

The U.S. Department of Justice released a report last year showing drug overdose deaths inside prisons and jails across the country increased significantly from 2001 to 2018. County jails saw a 200% increase, but the rise at state-run prisons is even more dramatic at 600%. Virginia falls near the middle of the pack with its overdose rates. 

So far, Virginia, unlike some other states, has only scanned incoming mail in-house. Other states have hired outside companies to do the work.  

“It’s a very harmful policy, even when there’s no money involved or no one is making money,” said Wanda Bertram, of Prison Policy Initiative. “People who are relatives of folks in prison have talked about how much work they put into writing letters and cards to their loved ones. ... [E]ven crying on letters or putting their perfume on letters, so that people inside can get that sense of connection with their family.”  

Nance and Weneta said they’ll be working this year to convince members of the Virginia General Assembly to lower the cost of phone calls and other means of communication with those who are incarcerated — which often vary from facility to facility. They said the mail policy has just become too arduous.  

Patterson agreed with that sentiment. And as his limited 20-minute phone call with Nance came to an end, he said he wants people to know how important it is for him to have a connection to the life he's looking forward to when he’s released.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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