Drugs in Prison

Buckingham Correctional Center

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) finds itself in a classic dammed-if-you-do, damned –if-you-don’t situation. On the one hand, it is facing a surge in illegal drugs coming into its prisons, enabled by drugs that are increasingly difficult to detect. On the other hand, it is facing popular and legislative outrage at some of the steps it has taken to stanch the contraband coming into prisons.

Tampons. There is a history of prison visitors bringing in contraband, including illegal drugs, concealed in their body cavities. DOC has body scanners in many prisons, but these devices cannot distinguish between a tampon and a cache of drugs inside a body cavity.

To enable it to reduce the volume of drugs coming into its prisons without having to strip search every female visitor for which a scanner showed a mass, DOC instituted a policy in the fall of 2018 prohibiting any visitor from using a tampon or menstrual cup inside a prison. The department said that it would provide a feminine hygiene pad for use during visits.

There was an immediate outcry from the public and the ACLU. Eventually, the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, rather than back his agency, ordered the policy suspended.

Not to be left out, the 2018 General Assembly weighed in on the issue, enacting legislation directing DOC to “review” its policies on visitors’ wearing of tampons and menstrual cups and “revise such policies to permit” the use of such products and to report back to the legislature. (It is not clear why DOC had to review the policies if the legislature had already determined the outcome.) In its report to the General Assembly, DOC gave up, saying it would not regulate the use of these products by visitors.

Strip searches. Inmates and substance abusers can be very ingenious. Aiding this ingenuity is the increased difficulty of detecting illegal substances. For example, suboxone can be delivered on thin, almost transparent film strips. Fentanyl can be dropped onto blotter paper.

Inmates and visitors are known to use children to smuggle illegal drugs into prison. Corrections officials have told me that they have found illegal drugs hidden in a baby’s diaper.

DOC policy allows prison officials to strip search any visitor whom they have reason to believe is carrying contraband. Their basis for the strip search can be canine alerts, body scan findings, or intelligence received by prison officials.

Last fall, a drug dog alerted on a woman, accompanied by an 8-year old girl, who had come to visit an inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center. The girl was the daughter of the inmate and the woman was his girlfriend. The woman was told that, unless she and the girl were strip searched, they could not see the inmate. Furthermore, they were told that, if she refused to consent to a strip search, visitation privileges would be permanently suspended. Faced with this choice, the woman complied and both she and the child were strip searched. No contraband was found.

This incident also generated much negative publicity for DOC. The Virginian Pilot ran an initial story and, then, earlier this year, a follow-up story, setting out the experiences of another visitor who was strip searched. This time it was the Governor who stepped in, ordering the suspension of the policy that allowed a strip search of minors. That move made the New York Times.

During this controversy, DOC did not help its cause. First of all, officials repeatedly denied it was department policy to ban permanently future visitation upon the refusal to submit to a strip search. However, the press found at least five DOC documents that referred to a permanent ban. Earlier this year, DOC’s chief of operations stated that, if a person refuses to undergo a strip search when requested,  the current policy calls for an indefinite suspension of visiting privileges that can be reviewed after two years. Technically, that is not “permanent,” but, in effect, it can be permanent at the discretion of DOC.

A spokesman for DOC was quoted by both the New York Times and the Virginian-Pilot as saying that strip searching a minor was “extremely rare.”   However, data later provided to the Pilot revealed that 16 minors had been strip searched since 2017.  That is about 2.6 % of all strip searches performed during that period. Although the data on the total number of children visitors is not available, the percentage who were strip searched would undoubtedly be much lower.

DOC officials pointed out that departmental policy prohibited the strip search of a minor without the permission of a parent or legal guardian. In the case of the 8-year old girl, that policy was violated by the officials at the prison because the adult accompanying the child was not a parent or legal guardian. Disciplinary action was promised.

Finally, although these reported strip searches failed to turn up any contraband, the visitors were still restricted to non-contact visits. A contact visit was denied, a department official explained, because the strip search had only been visual and there was the possibility that contraband could be hidden in a body cavity in such a manner that it would not be visible.

Again, the General Assembly feels that it needs to tell DOC how to manage security in its prisons. SB 1089 is now in conference. Both houses would ban strip searches of minors, but they differ on the age for a complete ban. Also, the Senate version of the bill would prohibit DOC from denying visitation for any person on the basis of a prior refusal to consent to a strip search.

The Problem. DOC is fighting a battle against drugs in its prisons and it has been losing recently. It issued a report early this year documenting this battle.  Among the findings:

  • The percentage of offenders testing positive for illicit drugs steadily increased from 2015 to 2019, from about 6.5% of those tested in 2015 to 10.6% in 2019 (2,207 individuals).
  • The number of drug overdoses increased from 41 in 2016 to 80 in 2019. There were a total of 238 drug overdoses over the period 2016-2019.
  • During 2016-2019, there were 222 emergency medical transports due to suspected use of drugs or alcohol. (A medical transport is a trip to a hospital and is expensive. It also ties up two correctional officers for most of a day, at least.)
  • There were 12 inmate deaths from overdose from the years 2016-2019.
  • In the most recent 12-month period covered by the report (December 2018 to November 2019), there were 88 incidents in which visitors were caught attempting to bring drugs into prison. Of this group:
    • 10 had been strip searched.
    • 3 females had illicit drugs hidden in their genitals.
  • During 2019, 17 staff members were caught attempting to bring illicit drugs into a prison.

Illicit drugs are not the only contraband with which corrections officials have to cope. Cell phones smuggled to inmates have long been a problem.The recent availability of tiny, cheap ($40 on Amazon) devices has made detection harder for all prisons. A DOC official told B.R. that the agency found 26 mini-cell phones in prisons in 2019. Of course, they do not know how many they did not find.

From my soapbox. Maintaining connections with family is important for the successful re-entry of an inmate into society  In its 2019 report to the General Assembly, DOC emphasized the role of visitation and stated its continuing support of contact visits.

At the same time, the motto on the agency seal is “Public Safety First.” Drugs in prison pose a danger not only to inmates; prison staff are also at risk. For example, in 2018, 27 corrections staff members in Ohio became ill due to exposure to a combination of heroin and fentanyl while treating an offender who had overdosed.

With the pending passage of legislation prohibiting the strip search of minors, the General Assembly will make it easier for inmates and their collaborators to make unwitting mules of children to bring drugs into prison.  If the administration and the legislature continue to thwart DOC efforts to reduce the influx of drugs into prisons, the agency, despite is commitment to visitation, may be forced to allow only non-contact visits. Then, everybody would lose.

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7 responses to “Drugs in Prison

  1. I think with prisons and to a certain extent schools, and other functions and agencies there sometimes is an attitude of ” You don’t know what it’s like in here” so don’t screw us up.

    And that works until something blows up and then the flood gates open and everyone and their dog is a critic and an expert.

    I also consider prisons just awful places that take people who have made terrible mistakes – and make them into even worse people – less and less fit to be trusted or be a normal person ever again.

    It’s not only drugs… it other stuff like cell phones and weapons and the ugly truth is – that people WILL smuggle this stuff in – and we need to find a way to ensure that they cannot do so easily or often and so I do support the policy although I think it could be done in a more humane way than treating visitors essentially as if they were inmates.

    my 2 cents as usual.. but I think Dick again – in part, because Dick writes about things that few folks think about and he does it in a way so that even folks who are not familiar with the issue – become so from his ability to “explain”. Not everyone has that talent. Thanks!

  2. Excellent story. Have read that hobby drones are making deliveries.

    • Yep. There have been some incidents with drones. However, I don’t think they pose as much of a problem as other means of getting stuff into prison. The drones usually drop stuff onto the rec yard and staff can usually spot it.

  3. If a prison cannot be secure, both to protect those inside and the public, we truly all need to be armed to the teeth. While the Woke don’t understand it or accept it, people who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison don’t have the same rights as the rest of us. Similarly, all those entering the prison, be they guards, other employees and visitors, must expect to be searched. I would hope strip searches can be minimized but do we want drugs in prison?

  4. Dick, Thanks for the balanced and nuanced description of the problem — a problem, by the way, that I haven’t seen any other media cover.

    I understand the outrage at the necessity of strip-searching minors. But, as you made very clear, there are countervailing considerations. More drugs in prisons means more overdoses, more overdose fatalities, and more collateral damage to prison employees. I wonder if legislators took those factors into account when they banned strip searches.

    Now that minors are off limits, you can be sure the prisoners will, as you suggested, turn their children into mules.

  5. If an adult places drugs in a child’s orifice, why isn’t that sexual assault and abuse of a minor? Shouldn’t adults who do that be prosecuted and punished? I doubt our woke state government gives a rat’s %%% about this.

    • “If an adult places drugs in a child’s orifice, why isn’t that sexual assault and abuse of a minor?”

      A brilliant observation highlighting inverse relation between virtue signalers and virtue.

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