We have to be very careful when we open envelopes because we never know what we're going to find. —Petty Schwimmer

UTAH STATE PRISON — For 22 years, Petty Schwimmer has been ripping open envelopes just to peek at what’s inside.

"You can't see if you just go like this,” said Schwimmer, holding the envelope down on her desk. “Sometimes you can see like that,” she said as she held the envelope up to a light.

Normally, opening mail that doesn’t belong to you would be considered illegal, however, Schwimmer is doing it because the person named on the front of the envelope already has broken the law.

Schwimmer is one of eight mail workers at the Utah State Prison in Draper. Their job is to go through each of the estimated 10,000 pieces of mail arriving every week for the roughly 4,000 inmates. They look for drugs that people on the outside sometimes try to get to people on the inside.

“They try to put the drugs in any place they can — on, in or outside the envelopes," Schwimmer said. “I know what I’m looking for. We've been trained real well.”

Some people try to hide drugs in the seam of an envelope, and others try to hide them behind stamps, she said. A few will even try to slice a thick page of a card in half to hide drugs in there.

Workers say they find something at least every couple of days.

"We have to be very careful when we open envelopes because we never know what we're going to find,” Schwimmer said.

Sometimes workers find bodily fluids, though they didn’t want to elaborate on what that meant.

"Body fluids on the envelope coming in and out. Yeah. You can't even imagine what they have to deal with each and every day," said Lt. Ericson Smith, who oversees the mail facility at the prison.

Starting Nov. 1, crayon colorings mailed to inmates will no longer be allowed. Workers say some people will melt a drug into a paste and mix it with water, and then they will take that substance and mix it with crayon wax.

An inmate can then lick the coloring to get a quick drug fix.

“So now it affects the kids not being able to color their little picture for daddy,” Smith said. “It’s sad. We have inmates’ family and friends sending them narcotics and substances, and we’re trying to change their behavior down inside the prison so when they do get out, they’ll be able to be good citizens in society.”

Workers also read letters, looking for words and phrases that could be a sign something illegal is being planned.

“We have to look for escape plans. We have to look for executions, which have happened in the past,” Schwimmer said.

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They also watch for words "promoting gang affiliation or gang activity going on out on the street to the inside,” Smith said.

Last week, the Utah State Prison mail workers received the Unit Award of Excellence from the Department of Corrections. It’s a trophy they will get to keep for the quarter.

"We feel very privileged to receive this award and be recognized,” Schwimmer said. “I mean, they pay us to do our job. They pay us to find these things, but to have recognition? We all feel like we’re doing a good job, at least.”

Email: acabrero@deseretnews.com