In the forums for Prison Talk Online, a resource for friends and family of inmates, a woman posts that she is worried her boyfriend will find a way to do drugs while incarcerated. The responses are sympathetic, but loud and clear: drugs are easier to get in prison than on the street. According to a Washington Times article, around 1,000 drug seizures occur each year in California prisons, and in random inmate drug tests, Florida prisons found 1,132 positives one year.
These statistics are par for the course in most prisons across the country. Prison officials have worked to implement strategies for blocking the inflow of drugs, but admit that there are still many weak points in the system and progress is slow. Despite aggressively fighting the prison drug trade, New York State Department of Corrections reports an annual positive test rate of between 2.9 and 3.8 percent for the past ten years. In some states, the number is even higher.
So, how do the drugs get inside the joint? Officials blame visitors for the majority of drug deliveries in prisons. A visitor who brings drugs, known as a “mule,” will smuggle it in inside a body cavity. Because studies show that prisoners with access to loved ones have a better chance of staying clean and crime-free when released, security and screening of visitors is relatively relaxed. Some prisons have installed X-ray machines, drug-sniffing dogs, and metal detectors, but there are still ways to get drugs in – hidden in food, for example. One inmate’s girlfriend replaced olive pimentos with red balloons of heroin, and another hid drugs inside a re-sealed jar of peanut butter. Drugs have even been found secreted under the cheese on a pizza.
Because drugs in prison can bring up to ten times as much as street value, the motivation to deal is extremely high. One official in East Jersey State Prison estimates an inmate can earn as much as $7,000 per week dealing heroin inside. An ex-con who sold drugs in federal prisons for ten years blames corrupt guards for most of the smuggling. Even a portion of that kind of money is more than what a corrections officer can earn honestly, which is why prison staff members are busted for drug-related offenses fairly regularly.
The prison drug trade is controlled by gangs, who benefit from complex networks on the outside. In fact, drug-related activity gone bad is the primary cause of prison violence in penitentiaries across the country. Gangs have made an art of smuggling drugs inside, using tactics like hurling packets over prison walls with paintball guns or hiding them inside legal documents, which are exempt from all but the most cursory security checks. The gangs prey on weaker and addicted inmates, guaranteeing demand. Because they hold the power, they set the prices, trapping addicts in a perpetual cycle of debt and need that’s even greater than on the street.
The Addict/Treatment Paradox
Not all prison inmates have a drug addiction. However, many who enter the prison system clean develop a habit once inside. Prison life is grim, and drugs provide hours of escape. Other inmates are already addicted when they enter the system. While the federal prison system provides treatment for addicted inmates, the wait for admission is long. Meanwhile, in prisons such as those in New York, the punishment for prisoners caught using is months or years in solitary confinement, which disqualifies them for treatment. The prisoners most in need of treatment are the most likely to relapse, especially in the easy-access prison environment. The punishment, which effectively denies them what they need most, creates an endless cycle of failure. Even worse, the cost of a year of treatment is $20,000 per year, compared to $30,000 per year for regular incarceration. From a financial standpoint, not treating imprisoned drug addicts is like throwing money into a black hole.
A lack of access to treatment, combined with a large percentage of addicts and a highly lucrative supply business, means that prisons will continue to teem with illegal drug use for the foreseeable future. The answer isn’t clear, but in the War on Drugs, federal prisons are on the front lines – perhaps focusing there should be a bigger priority.