(WBIR-Maynardville) Writing letters is a dying practice, but it still thrives among a certain group--prisoners.
Sometimes, mail is the only interaction inmates have with loved ones while behind bars. But often it becomes a way to try to feed an addiction.
The Union County Jail in Maynardville houses, on average, 80-100 inmates at a time. With that, there is the possibility that each of those inmates could receive mail, every day.
Officer Tracy Collins showed 10News the process behind inspecting the inmates' letters; it's a process that can take one to two hours to complete.
"They've got 24 hours a day to come up with a way to get stuff into the jail," Collins said.
Jail Administrator Rodney Minor said SUBOXONE has become common contraband. SUBOXONE is a prescription medication used to reduce drug withdrawal symptoms. SUBOXONE Sublingual Film is thin enough that it can be hidden underneath a postage stamp.
"When I first started, we tore the stamps off. You didn't see SUBOXONE film. And now, if you don't tear the stamp off and tear almost a third of the envelope away, you have SUBOXONE floating around," Minor said.
Union County Jail staff check underneath all stamps, stickers, and/or seals. According to Collins, letters cannot be written in gel pens or crayons; she said drugs can be melted down to be disguised as either.
Some people who write to inmates at the jail, spray their letters with perfume or cologne. The jail bans this practice, as well.
"There's no telling what it is and they can't have that," Collins said.
Staff will photocopy any letters that contain things like stickers or fragrances; inmates receive the duplicate.
The Union County Jail switched to video visitation in December 2013.
"They don't get to actually touch them or smell them. Maybe that's something you miss… I guess we take for granted," Collins said.
The women inmates have no way to communicate with the male inmates, and vice versa, except through letters. According to Collins, about half of the mail that comes into the Union County Jail is from other inmates who are also staying there.
"This is a male to a female and they're actually husband and wife," said Collins while reading one of the letters.
As of April 24, there were also two sets of mothers and daughters at the jail. Federal prisoners also write to inmates at the Union County Jail.
"He was talking about how his cellmate was a lifetime inmate so he didn't have to worry about anything that happened in the cell, that his celly would take the blame for it," Collins described.
Minor added, "It's simply not a job anybody can do because you are babysitting grown people every day."
Collins has worked at the Union County Jail for six years. By now, she can call each inmate by name and predict the ones who will stay here. When we shadowed Collins, she noticed a man writing to one of the inmates who has a warrant against him.
"I'll copy this address because he's a prisoner somewhere. I'll place a hold on him," she said.
According to Minor, nearly 90% of the time, the inmates at Union County end up here because of an addiction. He showed 10News a Bible someone tried to smuggle in that had SUBOXONE hidden between the pages.
"They'll have their wives, daughters, mothers, sons, I mean just everyone, send in narcotics," Minor said.
Introducing contraband into a jail in Tennessee is a Class C felony. Those convicted could face up to 15 years in prison, with fines up to $10,000.
Some of the larger jails in East Tennessee, including Knox and Blount Counties, have switched from letters to postcards. The Knox County Sheriff's Detention Facility also allows email.