RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina has new rules on how people in its 55 state prisons receive mail.

Offenders will no longer get physical cards, photos, artwork, or handwritten letters, instead, they will receive a printed-out version of a digital scan.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety said this will make prisons safer, but advocates are concerned.

Mike Wessler, communications director for Prison Policy Initiative, said connections like cards from loved ones while in prison are essential for a successful life after prison.

“It’s also gonna harm them when they’re behind bars,” Wessler said. “We know that social connection impacts the mental health of people who are incarcerated and people who don’t have strong social connections, and strong social support, their mental health suffers, and it creates significant problems behind bars.”

The Department of Public Safety said mailroom staffers confiscated 568 items of contraband and drugs in a year. There are more than 26,000 men in state prisons.

A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety said he understands that offenders will be missing out, but that the actions of a few made the change necessary.

Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons, said processing mail away from prison staffers eliminates the risk of staff and offenders accidentally being exposed to things like paper coated in liquid fentanyl.

“The safety and security of our prisons are always foremost,” Ishee said in a news release. “Reducing the volume of drugs and other contraband entering our prisons will help us protect our staff, the offenders in our custody and the general public. This new system will be faster and safer.”

People sending mail to prisons need to download the app TextBehind and upload the scans. Each scan starts at 49 cents. Mail can also be sent to the Maryland based company like this:

Offender Name and Opus Number
Name of Prison (do not abbreviate)
P.O. Box 247
Phoenix, MD 21131

Mail cannot be sent directly to the prison.

Wessler said he’s heard concerns regarding the quality of scans from similar programs.

Former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti is a prison advocate and spent decades teaching creative writing classes in prison. He understands the need for safety but said the new mail program concerns him.

“It’s another way of feeling dehumanized and disconnected from a community that often prisoners feel dramatically disconnected from already,” Bathanti said.

A state spokesperson said offenders still receive the content. Bathanti said the original form is something offenders can hold on to.

“You see the penmanship, and you smell the ink, and perhaps you even smell the scent of the person who wrote it, and your return address at your home that you aspire to return to someday is up in that left-hand corner,” Bathanti said.

The rule change went into effect at men’s prisons on Monday.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety piloted the program in four women’s prisons starting in Feb. 2020 and said disciplinary infractions for drug possessions dropped 50 percent.