Sept. 6 (UPI) -- The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced Wednesday it would be suspending visitation "until further notice" at prisons in the state while staff focuses on other measures to curb alleged contraband.
"Due to the fact staff will be concentrating on these search efforts, visitation will be canceled until further notice. Inmates will still have access to the phone system and tablets," the TDCJ said in a statement.
"Once these comprehensive searches are complete, normal operations will resume."
Prison officials said that the volume of narcotics entering the prison system has "substantially increased" in the last five years and that the rate of homicides in Texas prisons has risen this year.
The statement did not include precise figures but KFDM reported that there have been at least 16 inmate-on-inmate homicides so far this year.
"It is believed that the majority of the incidents are tied back to illegal drugs," prison officials said in the statement. It was not immediately clear how many instances of contraband have occurred.
Measures being taken during the lockdown include "intensified searches" of both inmates and prison staff "to intercept and confiscate contraband," officials said.
Prison officials will also roll out a digital mail program in which mail sent to prisoners, with the exceptions of legal and media mail, will be sent to a facility to be scanned and converted into a digital format that can be viewed by prisoners on tablet devices.
"These messages and photos will be scanned in color and can be saved to the tablet to be permanently available for the inmate to enjoy," officials said in an announcement of the program. "Inmates who do not have a tablet will receive black and white printed copies of their correspondence."
The physical copies of the mail will only be stored for 30 days before they will be thrown away by prison officials, unable to be kept by the prisoners.
"Over the last few years, there has been a significant increase in paper soaked in K2 or methamphetamines coming into our facilities," prison officials claimed. "The digital mail program will halt this contraband being sent through traditional mail."
Prison officials will also increase searches with drug-sniffing dogs and other technology at all facilities.