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Drugs inside prison walls
Richard Pillajo, a wellness education officer at a Florida state prison, strayed beyond his job description, according to investigators who arrested him last year. He purportedly planned to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and hydrocodone pills to inmates for a payoff of $2,500.
Florida Corrections Secretary Walter A. McNeil praised the investigators from his department who had cracked the case. Yet official annual reports suggest that those investigators, like their counterparts in many states, are playing a frustrating version of Whac-a-Mole as they try to keep illegal drugs out of America’s prisons.
In many large state prison systems, a mix of inmate ingenuity, complicit visitors and corrupt staff has kept the level of inmate drug abuse constant over the past decade despite concerted efforts to reduce it. A recent boom in cell-phone smuggling has complicated matters, with inmates sometimes using phones to arrange drug deliveries.
“The prison wall is not a boundary anymore,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which seized about 5,000 contraband cell phones in 2009 — more than triple the 2007 total.
Roughly 1,000 “drug incidents” — seizures of marijuana, heroin and other drugs — are reported annually at California prisons. Between 2006 and 2008, 44 inmates in the state died of drug overdoses.
Florida has implemented anti-contraband strategies that its legislative watchdog office says match or exceed those in other states, including drug-detecting dog teams, metal detector searches of staff and visitors at all prisons, and even random pat-down searches of staff, rarely done in other states.
Yet, despite these efforts, 1,132 random drug tests of inmates in 2008-09 were positive — the same positive rate of 1.6 percent as 10 years earlier. Even more striking, officers seized 2,832 grams of marijuana and 92 grams of cocaine at the prisons during the year, by far the highest figures of the past decade.
“People are always trying to smuggle drugs in,” said Gretl Plessinger, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections. “Our ultimate goal is to get rid of it, but I’d be a fool to tell you that will ever be realized.”
Canine teams are given partial credit for the surge in marijuana seizures, but there are just nine teams — rotating among 60 prisons.
Drugs reach inmates in numerous ways — via visiting relatives, by mail, through the complicity of prison staff and by inmates who smuggle in drugs dropped off by associates at off-prison work sites.
Josh Gelinas, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, said smuggling tactics shifted after the state installed X-ray machines and metal detectors at all medium- and high-security prisons. Drug packets now are sometimes launched over prison walls by paintball guns and homemade launchers known as “spud guns.”
“The imagination and creativity of people under lock and key boggles the mind,” said Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, who suggested that the cost of creating drug-free prisons nationwide would be prohibitive.
Corrections officials say much of the prison drug trade is controlled by gangs — and one result is sky-high prices. Hawaii’s Deputy Director of Corrections Tommy Johnson says the going price for heroin behind bars is sometimes 10 times the street price.
In California, gang-related drug activity is the No. 1 cause of prison violence, according to Mike Ruff, a corrections department special agent.
“Something that appears to be a riot between different gangs is not necessarily because they’re rivals — it’s more because of a drug deal gone bad,” he said. “All of the gangs are actively involved in narcotics.”
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