FARGO — The envelopes can contain love letters sprayed with perfume or marked with a lipstick kiss. They may hold a colorful picture from a child, drawn in crayon.
Or they may hold a simple handwritten letter, accidentally stained, perhaps by a coffee spill.
All are examples of incoming mail that's not allowed into the inmate population of the Cass County Jail here.
Jail Administrator Capt. Andrew Frobig said attempts to smuggle drugs and other contraband through the mail have brought increasing restrictions on what inmates can receive. “Every rule we have is because it became necessary,” Frobig said.
Sheriff's Deputy Sam Fetting inspects all incoming and some outgoing mail daily, in addition to assisting jail visitors.
What looks like a smudge or blurred ink on a letter could be nothing at all, or it might be methamphetamine soaked into the paper, she said. Drugs can also be transferred to paper by mixing them with the wax of a crayon or lipstick, and an inmate who ingests the paper could get a high from it, she said.
For such restricted mail, Fetting makes a copy for the inmate and puts the original in property storage for when they’re released.
She also removes all postage stamps and stickers, and tears off areas of envelopes that contain adhesives. Sticky areas could conceal a strip of Suboxone, an opioid replacement therapy. In fact, an inmate was caught doing that in 2013, Forum archives show.
The scrutiny means inmates get cut or torn envelopes, but it’s done in the name of safety.
“If something went back into the facility and I knew it came through the mail and someone got hurt, that would be the worst,” Fetting said.
Gloves and Narcan
Fetting protects herself by wearing gloves when she handles the jail mail. They keep her from coming into contact with any bodily fluids, including feces or blood, which have come through the facility in the mail before, Frobig said.
Another concern is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be deadly in tiny doses. Even skin exposure can be life-threatening. A supply of the opioid antidote Narcan is stored next to Fetting’s desk, in case she or someone else were exposed.
If she comes across something that raises suspicion, she calls in a detective at the jail. In some cases, the substance can be tested right there. Other times, substances are sent to the state crime lab for testing.
One thing gloves won’t protect against are the nude pictures and explicit language that come through regularly. “There are some things I can’t unread or unsee,” Fetting said.
Explicit photos and mail that's racially charged or gang related are put in storage for when inmates are released.
Tax forms and artwork
Fetting sorts through 100 to 200 pieces of jail mail a day — and much more around holidays.
Most of what comes and goes is harmless, and points to people trying to turn their lives around or live as normal a life as they can from inside the jail.
Several inmates are having tax forms sent to them, so they can complete their tax returns.
One woman sent a pamphlet containing relationship advice to her loved one who’s incarcerated. Inmates send artwork to loved ones Fetting described as "phenomenal."
There are letters from husbands and boyfriends to wives and girlfriends or significant others, and letters from parents to their children. “They’ll say, ‘Mommy misses you and I love you,’ so it’s really cool that they’re still trying to keep that relationship,” Fetting said.
Some inmates write of being lonely — one even wrote, “I don’t feel like anyone loves me.”
Frobig said he wishes there didn’t have to be restrictions on mail, because most of what comes in for inmates is harmless.
“It’s just the reality of our world,” he said.