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How a ban on visitors impacted the smuggling of drugs into Fla. prisons

A report showed huge increase in drug seizures in 2020, despite lockdowns that allowed only attorneys and prison staff to access the facilities for much of year


Florida inmates take a lunch break during their work shift. A recent report showed an increase in drug seizures in 2020 despite the fact visitors were not allowed the majority of the year. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

Carl Juste/MCT

By Shirsho Dasgupta
McClatchy Washington Bureau

FLORIDA - Prison officials have long said that inmates’ friends and family members bear the most blame for the flow of drugs and other forbidden items into Florida prisons.

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic provided a test of that hypothesis: With visitors barred from visiting Florida state prisons for several months, would the amount of drugs, weapons and other contraband confiscated in seizures decline?

Not exactly.

More drugs were seized in 2020 than in the preceding two years, despite lockdowns that allowed only inmates’ attorneys and prison staff to access the facilities between March and September of 2020, a Miami Herald analysis of contraband seizure data shows.

Overall, the amount of illegal drugs (by weight) seized per 10,000 inmates was more than 40% higher in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018, while the rate of prescription and narcotic pills seized in 2020 was nearly double that of 2019 and around triple the rate of pills seized in 2018.

The rate of drugs seized was higher even in just the months during which the prisons were on lockdown and no visitors were allowed.

The rates of alcohol and weapons seized, however, did go down in 2020.

The families of inmates locked up behind bars, who mostly spoke to the Herald anonymously for fear of retribution, say the sheer volume of drugs entering Florida prisons, which they attribute largely to prison staffers and gangs, makes it difficult for recovering prisoners to stay clean, or to avoid getting hooked on drugs while behind bars.

To combat the proliferation of drugs, the state reportedly began shipping inmates further from their home counties before the pandemic, further from the friends and family that officials said bore some blame for contraband entering prisons. Late last year, the state also banned direct correspondence and began digitizing all mail besides legal and privileged mail and publications, saying that friends and family had been mailing forbidden substances.

It’s difficult to say what impact these policies have had, but the Herald’s analysis of seizure data during the pandemic suggests that they might not be making a dent in the problem. A lack of data also means there is no real accounting for the number of inmates who overdose, the medical conditions they develop as a result or the amount of taxpayer dollars spent treating them.

The partner of an inmate who is serving time at Holmes Correctional Institution in the Panhandle said he has been in prison for 20 years and he told her that the amount of drugs he saw circulating in his unit in 2020 was “more than he’s ever seen before.”

“It is eye-opening: The only people coming in are staff and he’s telling me that it’s harder for him to stay sober during this time,” she said.

The Department of Corrections pushed back on the suggestion that staff are responsible for introducing drugs and other contraband into Florida prisons.

“FDC has zero tolerance for staff who violate the law and our procedures,” said Michelle Glady, spokesperson of the agency, in a statement to the Herald. “FDC and the OIG [the agency’s Office of Inspector General] have a strong record of ensuring individuals who introduce contraband are arrested.”

Staff who bring in contraband represent a very low percentage of the agency’s employees, Glady said, adding that it was the inmates with long sentences and established presences who “are primarily responsible for orchestrating the majority of contraband introduced [to the facilities].”

Forbidden substances such as drugs, alcohol or weapons are introduced into facilities in multiple ways: smuggled inside food or even bodies of visitors or even dropped onto the grounds at night using drones. The partner of one current inmate told the Herald that she has also heard of certain types of paper being sprayed or dipped in drugs that inmates then smoke.

Roughly 6,900 grams of drugs per 10,000 inmates were seized in 2020 — nearly 2,000 grams higher than the rate in the preceding year. Two years before that, in 2018, the rate of drugs seized per 10,000 inmates was 4,700, per the Herald’s analysis of contraband seizures data. This includes heroin, cocaine, opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone, methamphetamine, suboxone and synthetic marijuana.

Around 1,800 illegal prescription and narcotic pills, including opioids, were also seized per 10,000 inmates, in searches in 2020 — double the rate in 2019 and triple the rate in 2018.

The amount of drugs seized from March to September — the six months in 2020 when Florida’s prisons were locked down — stood at 3,100 grams of powdered drugs and separately 1,000 pills of opioids and unauthorized prescription drugs for every 10,000 inmates. The amounts for the same months in 2019 were roughly 2,700 grams of drugs and 580 pills and the 2018 rates were 2,900 grams and 430 pills per 10,000 inmates.

The data analyzed by the Herald is maintained by the Department of Corrections and was obtained through public records requests. The amount seized is believed to be a fraction of the total contraband circulating in the prison system. The department refused to release facility-specific numbers citing security concerns, meaning there is no way to tell which facilities are the worst offenders when it comes to contraband smuggling.

The agency, Glady said, observed an increase in drug-related contraband incidents outside the secure perimeter — including those involving incoming mail — while the number inside the secured areas decreased during the visitation suspension in 2020. FDC said the breakdown of seizures inside and outside the perimeter has begun to trend back to pre-pandemic levels after the visitation restrictions were lifted.

But there’s no indication of the quantity of drugs seized in these incidents. FDC did not provide the underlying data specifying the quantity of drugs confiscated inside the secured perimeter vs. outside and referred the Herald to the public records department.

James V. Cook, a civil rights attorney, said he receives around 30 to 40 letters every week from clients that mention some sort of smuggling taking place in the prison system.

“Almost without exception they mention that the drugs are brought in by officers and distributed mostly by gang members,” he said.

The currency of exchange: cigarettes, money from the inmates’ prison accounts or even sexual favors.

Of the roughly 60,500 grams — around 135 pounds — of drugs seized in 2020, around a quarter comprised methamphetamine and roughly 30% was weed, the Herald found. But at 36%, the leader by far was the deadly synthetic marijuana, commonly called “K2” or “spice”.

There is no single chemical makeup for K2 and in practice it is made using any available substance. It is sometimes laced with rat poison or bug spray. Inmates on K2 often experience hallucinations and heart attacks. They walk around like zombies. At times they “fall out” and have seizures, with muscles twitching and spasming and foam frothing out of their mouths. Sometimes they die.

A major contributor to the influx of drugs, said Cook, is short-staffing: “The problem is so severe that inmates tell me, and I kind of extrapolate from the general information I get, that many officers … are letting gangs run the dorms.”

Another problem according to Ron McAndrew, a former Florida prison warden who has served as expert witness in hundreds of cases, is the low pay combined with rising rents and costs of living in the state.

Many of the prison guards are young and aiding or ignoring contraband smuggling can help them make quick cash. Gang members both inside and outside prisons are also always on the lookout for staffers who are vulnerable to temptation or blackmail.

Inmates’ loved ones and prison reform advocates acknowledge that family members and visitors sometimes do try to bring in drugs but they say those amounts nowhere near account for the majority of drugs entering the system.

A fifth of the 122 arrests the FDC’s Office of Inspector General made related to smuggling contraband into state prisons from 2019 to today — the period for which the data is readily available — were visitors, a Herald analysis of the arrest reports found. The rest were all prison staff themselves. (This does not include the number of visitors with contraband discovered by agency staff but arrested and jailed by outside law enforcement agencies.)

Less than 2% of the 2.1 million contraband items that were intercepted entering the prison system from January 2019 to April 2021 came through the mail.

Yet the brunt of the measures taken by the FDC to curb contraband smuggling — like the recent mail restrictions — is borne by inmates and their families, reform advocates allege. Punishment ranges from disciplinary citations, stricter confinement or up to five more years in prison for inmates convicted of possessing forbidden substances.

“So where’s the help? In the streets people make mistakes and the treatment is strong but there you just get thrown into a cage,” said Christine, the partner of an Avon Park inmate, Mike.

Mike is fighting addiction — an issue Christine said they have been “dealing with for years” now.

She said Mike went in as a teenager “with no history of drugs apart from some weed here and there and it was only in prison he moved on to stronger drugs.”

He signed up for a drug treatment program in June with sessions twice a week. But Christine said that the sessions keep getting canceled and the proliferation of drugs in the housing units does not help, either.

“He goes back into a dorm where he’s around it all again and if he tests positive he is put into confinement,” she said, referring to a more restrictive form of incarceration.

“Now he’s going to return home as somebody with a drug problem, but he didn’t go in with a drug problem.”