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.”
Mr. Ruff cited some of the gangs’ favored smuggling tactics — drugs passed from a visiting wife or girlfriend via a seemingly passionate kiss and drugs secreted in legal documents that are supposed to be exempt from thorough searches in prison mailrooms.
Some states have had far more success than others in ridding their prisons of illegal drugs.
Pennsylvania, widely credited as a leader, instituted a zero-tolerance policy in 1995, at a time when 6 percent of inmate drug tests were positive. The state Corrections Department began using canine detection teams, installed X-ray machines in prison mailrooms, stepped up drug testing, expanded search policies affecting prisoners and staff, and punished violators with loss of visiting privileges.
The positive drug-test rate is negligible now, according to department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton, who said the result is greater safety for staff and inmates.
The policy has attracted interest in other states. In California, for example, corrections officials have suggested adopting Pennsylvania’s vulnerability analysis program — in which specially trained staff from one prison test security systems at another prison.
Experts who work with ex-offenders in Pennsylvania agree that the anti-drug efforts have been effective inside the prisons but say problems elsewhere limit the benefits to society.
Ray Jones of the Philadelphia-based Impact Services Corp. said many inmates who underwent effective treatment programs in prison are released into community corrections programs where supervision is less rigorous and relapses into drug abuse are commonplace. He also said the anti-drug strategies in the state prisons are not replicated in county jails — which house prisoners awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than two years.
Federal prisons haven’t been spared from the drug blight. A 2003 report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General said the Bureau of Prisons was falling short in efforts to address “a continuing problem with inmate drug use and drug smuggling in almost every institution.”
Since then, the Bureau of Prisons has expanded use of ion spectrometry devices, which detect trace amounts of drugs, and has begun searches of staff members — who are required to walk through a metal detector and have their property X-rayed before entering prisons’ secure areas.
Bryan Lowry, president of a union group representing many federal prison officers, said his Council of Prison Locals 33 supports tougher interdiction efforts, even when staff are affected. But he added that corrupt employees are apt to find cracks in almost any system.
“We have a lot of manipulative inmates — they didn’t get in there by going to church on Sunday, and some of them have money,” he said. “We have a lot of staff who do get caught — it happens.”
Erik Kriss, spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections, said just two correctional officers had been arrested for drug smuggling in the past two years. However, he confirmed that illegal drug use by inmates persists despite extensive countermeasures, with positive test rates hovering between 2.9 and 3.8 percent since 2001.
One reason for the steady inflow of drugs, Mr. Kriss said, is a relatively accommodating visiting policy — aimed at sustaining inmates’ family ties to maximize their chances of post-prison success.
“If you have a liberal visiting policy,” he said, “the attempt to smuggle drugs in is always going to be there.”