Legal advocacy organizations and the families of incarcerated people in Massachusetts want the state's Department of Correction to stop photocopying mail sent to inmates. They made their case in a public meeting with DOC officials on Wednesday.

Prisoners currently receive photocopies of their mail instead of the originals. The DOC adopted this standard practice in 2018 in an effort to minimize the distribution of contraband, namely synthetic cannabinoids known as K2, that were increasingly found on some letters. The policy officially rolled out in 2021 to significant pushback from legal advocacy groups and the families of incarcerated people. It also led to a reported uptick in drugs detected on mail labeled as “privileged” — ostensibly, mail sent from lawyers to their incarcerated clients that is protected under attorney-client privilege.

Changes up for discussion Wednesday would explicitly allow the DOC to photocopy privileged mail and send off the originals for drug testing, but legal advocates said that is an expensive and misguided effort to address substance abuse in prisons.

“Just the administrative costs and personnel costs involved are like, truly, nonsensical when the answer to the problem that people have been asking for for decades has been access to mental health and substance use treatment,” Elizabeth Matos, the executive director of the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, told GBH News Wednesday.

Several organizations argued that expanding the current policy would create significant privacy concerns about privileged correspondence being stored on DOC photocopiers, add to weekslong delays in receiving mail due to a backlog of photocopying, and fears that the policy will further deter inmates from reporting abuses and civil rights violations.

“We think you need to balance the extremely low risk that an attorney will mail drugs to a client, with the state’s obligation to safeguard the constitutional right of incarcerated people to have confidential communication with their attorneys,” Joshua Dohan, then-deputy chief counsel at CPCS, said when the broader photocopying regulations were proposed in 2021.

The families and loved ones of people who are imprisoned also spoke emotionally about the impact of the current policy. Women like Jonni Whitford gave emotional testimony about those struggling in prison. She said handwritten cards provide people with some dignity while incarcerated.

“That's the last little bit of normalcy that these guys can get, and we're still barring them as if they are animals,” Whitford said. “I understand that there are other people in there who are abusing the mail situation, but to penalize everyone in there, it's so unfair.”

According to Prisoners’ Legal Services, 49 incidents of contraband sent through the mail were reported in 2018.

“Give them one little grain of hope,” Whitford added. “It’s not fair for our loved one — all of them — to be penalized because of a couple of people. They tell us not to judge one another, but yet you guys judge the whole facility. It's not right.”

Laura Walsh, who is involved with the Massachusetts-based organization Family and Friends of Individuals with Mental Illness, said the photocopying procedure also meant that the copies getting to her son were often incomplete, with issues like the second half of a double-sided letter being left off.

“When our son was first incarcerated, being able to receive handwritten notes, cards, letters, etc., was just hugely meaningful to him and helpful during the darkest of days,” Walsh said. “And when the regulations changed to mail being photocopied, that was definitely difficult in that not only was it untimely in getting to him, at times, but oftentimes sloppily done.

“It really does make a difference in just the ability of that person to feel warmly connected to those on the outside that really, truly love him and want to support him,” she added. “So it's to me, in my mind, a real step backwards in that key support system that we all know — and studies show — make a huge difference on the well-being of incarcerated individuals.”

Under additional proposed changes up for discussion Wednesday, the DOC would keep a logbook of privileged mail and eliminate a third-party vendor for photocopying.

Matos said it could take months before the final changes to the regulations are rolled out.

The DOC did not respond to questions about the concern that attorney-client privilege could be violated by the policy, and a spokesperson said it would be reviewing all comments. The DOC is accepting further public comment on the proposed regulations until Sept. 24, 2022.