Despite sophisticated electronic and physical surveillance, armed guards and meticulous designs of modern penal institutions, at least 188 convicts died of drug overdoses in state prisons nationwide during the past decade.
Many of these deaths, and widespread drug trafficking inside the prisons, could have been prevented if state prisons had aggressive drug-screening policies and treatment programs, according to an investigation by Insight magazine, a sister publication of The Washington Times.
Between 1998 and 2001, Maryland had the second-highest number of officially reported fatal overdoses with 15 deaths between California with 31 and Texas with 12, said the report, published in the magazine’s Feb. 25 edition.
“I can’t believe that,” said Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “That’s just unbelievable. It doesn’t make sense for those prisons such as in Texas with a larger prison population not to have more overdose deaths.”
California has the largest inmate population, about 162,000, and Texas is the second biggest with 148,000. Maryland’s inmate population is a relatively small 23,000.
Insight’s nine-month investigation found that many state-prison systems fail to track drug overdoses, confiscations, arrests and convictions. Few rules at the state level, and apparently none at the federal level, require such record collection.
For example, Congress in 1998 provided federal grants to states that dedicated part of their funding to drug-treatment programs in prisons, but demanded little collection or tracking of statistics.
The reality of prison life, said corrections officials, is that dangerous but nonfatal overdoses are so frequent they are not even counted. Untreated addicts who die simply disappear as if their lives never mattered, their deaths opening other beds in an overcrowded prison system.
Karen Freeman-Wilson, chief executive officer for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which oversees about 1,200 of the nation’s state drug courts, said, “It’s a mistake to look at these as isolated incidents. The overdoses show there is clearly a problem. Not only are drugs getting in, but they are getting in at a level that people die from.”
Insight filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with every state correctional agency to obtain the numbers of drug overdoses in their prisons during the past decade.
The agencies stonewalled, obfuscated and resisted. But after more than 300 follow-up telephone calls, 40 of the 50 states ultimately produced figures, previously undisclosed, relating to drug overdoses dating as far back as 1990. Prison officials for the District refused to cooperate, and Virginia did not have the information.
Insight’s investigation also found that the 188 drug-overdose deaths in state prisons from 1990 to 2000 were probably well below the actual figures. More than 50 percent of the states did not have data on prisoner overdoses before 1995.
Maryland, for example, said it could not produce records prior to 1998. Other states classified some prison deaths without explanation. In 1999, for example, Alabama reported 69 deaths, labeling 52 as unexplained.
Who should be held responsible? “The person who overdoses,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the front-runner to become the state’s next governor.
Although inmates are in the care and custody of the state, Maryland is not responsible for their deaths from drugs trafficked in its prisons, she said.
“They know they are not supposed to do drugs in there,” said Mrs. Townsend, whose brother, David Kennedy, died of an overdose in 1984.
Mrs. Townsend said aggressive investigations, shakedowns and drug testing show a 33 percent decline in drug use in Maryland prisons since 1998.
She said Maryland targets for drug rehabilitation mostly those on parole and probation and not inmates.
This is because, she added, studies indicate 50 percent of heroin and cocaine users are on parole or probation and represent three times the population of inmates.
“Our focus is those who are re-entering the community,” she told Insight. “We want to make sure they live a crime-free life. That is critical.”
Barbara A. Boyle, director of social work and addiction services for Maryland, said this approach may not be the best.
“My belief is that treatment could easily work if it begins farther back in incarceration,” Miss Boyle explained. “Problems could be addressed then during a formalized treatment period. I might not begin it right away, but I might begin within two or three years as opposed to a few months before they are released.”
For George Brosan, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, stopping the flow of drugs into the state’s prisons is essential to curbing fatal overdoses. He has hired his own team of 20 detectives a move that is rare among prisons, where most rely on state police to investigate prison incidents.
How did it work? “I found out that we did not have the investigative expertise to do this, or the manpower, so we just brought in a retired IRS agent on a grant to pay him to work on Operation Inside/Out,” he said.
Mr. Brosan, a former New York street cop and retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, said drugs enter prisons primarily through three main sources: visitors, vendors and correctional officials.
He said drugs enter prisons when visitors exchange watches or shoes. Women hide drugs in their bras or stuff them into a baby’s diaper.
The most common method, he said, is mouth-to-mouth by passing a balloon full of heroin with a passionate kiss.
In Maryland, inmates get away with it because, in some cases, as many as 90 prisoners are packed into “secure gymnasiums” where rows of bunks are about a foot apart. One correctional officer is assigned to the catwalk and asked to do the impossible: watch everyone.
Mr. Brosan said it will take more money and resources than Maryland’s current $897 million correctional budget to free the state’s prisons of illegal drugs.
“I spent 10 years in the U.S. Customs Service. You can’t find all the drugs on a ship when it comes in and you can’t find all the drugs in prison. It’s like crabgrass. Do you think you can find all the crabgrass in your lawn? If you think you can, I got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.”
Timothy W. Maier is a writer for Insight magazine.