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6 things prisons can learn in the battle against fentanyl

Correctional facilities are on the front lines of the battle against fentanyl, yet they often fall behind in adopting new strategies and technologies to manage the crisis

powdered drugs in plastic bag in hand close-up

Fentanyl certainly isn’t the only threat facing corrections officers in prisons, but it is one that all facilities need to be prepared to respond to.


By Alexander Sappok, Ph.D.

The drug epidemic in the U.S. has grown to enormous proportions. The surge of overdose deaths serves as a grim reminder of a widespread crisis. Fentanyl is a major contributor to this surge and is one of the most dangerous opioids circulating today. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and has caused the majority of overdose deaths in the last several years.

Correctional facilities are already well-versed in the consequences of this drug crisis. Many facilities have been working for years to combat fentanyl and other dangerous drugs, yet the problem continues, with overdoses from drugs and alcohol increasing by 600% in prisons since 2001.

Thankfully, there are strategic elements that the corrections industry can leverage to effectively battle the drug epidemic, including long-standing law enforcement and security expertise, and new security imaging technologies capable of detecting even small amounts of drugs that evade conventional screening. Some prisons have already started the adoption process, and more and more facilities have begun to follow suit.

An international problem

The U.S. has drugs flowing into the country every day, much of which comes through the postal system. The USPS only tracks around 60% of packages from around the world entering the United States, leaving 40% of postal mail completely unmonitored. In addition, border officials generally don’t have the resources to prevent fentanyl from infiltrating the country at various ports of entry. As a result, the drug is becoming increasingly prevalent and easy to access, and the problem is only getting worse.

Nowhere is this more evident than in prisons, which have been dealing with fentanyl and many other drugs and contraband for years. Drugs are a big-money industry in prisons, and unfortunately, many inmates are easy targets. In fact, 85% of inmates have a substance abuse disorder or have committed a drug-related offense according to a recent NIH study. So as smugglers look for – and inevitably find – new ways to get substances into prisons, facilities have had to adapt and respond. Unfortunately, in many instances, the response is inadequate due to understaffing, lack of funding, and lack of sufficient training or resources. After all, it takes time to adjust and learn from every new threat, and the landscape changes daily.

As a result, stories about corrections officers exposed to these drugs hit the news regularly. In January of this year, two corrections officers examining mail in New York were exposed to fentanyl and had to be treated with Narcan. In February, four inmates and two officers were hospitalized after being exposed to fentanyl in a jail in Oregon. In March, in an Illinois state prison, two correctional officers were exposed to methamphetamine while checking mail for contraband.

It’s not just officers handling drug-laced mail that are at risk. In one case, fentanyl that contaminated the HVAC system of an Ohio juvenile detention facility resulted in seven people being hospitalized. Meanwhile, inmate deaths continue to rise and the crisis grows.

What the corrections industry can do to stem the flow of fentanyl

Correctional facilities are on the front lines of the battle against fentanyl, yet they often fall behind in adopting new strategies and technologies to manage the crisis. Here’s how that can begin to change.

1. Rethink current objectives and strategies in mail security

Corrections industry leaders should rethink their entire approach to mail screening. There’s already a very successful model in email security to detect and quarantine suspect messages. Email virus scanning software picks-up signs of malware, viruses, and ransomware and sets aside potentially dangerous emails for review, while normal emails make their way straight to your inbox.

Corrections facilities need to start thinking about physical mail the same way. Simple screening processes can be implemented to detect and flag suspicious mail while allowing normal mail to be delivered directly to the recipient. This allows for more efficient workflows and less time consumed with a detailed investigation. Rather than having officers open and manually inspect every mail item, suspect packages and letters can be screened, flagged, and set aside without opening them, thereby avoiding potential fentanyl exposure and resulting emergency response.

Just like an email might have certain red flags that allow software to classify it as spam, mailroom staff can check an envelope first for warning signs like a wrong or missing address, and watch for stains or excessive postage. There are also new technologies like T-ray scanners that can detect suspicious substances concealed in the mail item without opening them in near real-time, in the same way that email anti-virus software detects cyber threats.

As soon as a suspicious package is identified, the officer should isolate or quarantine the package or letter rather than opening it, just like you should never click on any links in a potential scam email. Finally, more experienced or informed personnel should be on hand for cross-checking or for disposing of a threat safely. Since the potentially dangerous items have been stored in quarantine, there’s no interruption to the normal flow of operations in the mailroom and investigators can come whenever they’re free instead of being rushed onsite immediately.

2. Bring in external expertise

Facilities can bring in consultants to provide external security expertise – either outside consultants or peers in other corrections facilities. Why is that necessary? Well, depending upon the prison, mailroom personnel may not be as experienced at detecting drugs and contraband in the mail. They don’t always have the training or resources on hand to recognize threats, or the time available to research and implement best practices. Not to mention outside experts may have a broader view of the issue and trends across the entire country, far above and beyond the local view that internal staff members might have.

Another reason is that the in-house methods and technology may not be appropriate or current for use in drug and contraband detection. An X-ray scanner might be available for bulk scanning of packages, but it can’t detect small quantities of liquids, powders, or drug-laced papers. These are the main substances that are entering these facilities. All too often fentanyl is detected after the fact, once mailroom personnel have opened an envelope or package, which puts them at risk. In November 2022, prison mailroom staff were exposed to dangerous drugs resulting in a medical emergency, the third such incident in this facility this year.

Thankfully, there are organizations that already have the know-how and resources for recognizing and neutralizing mail threats. Prisons and jails across the country should collaborate on updating their interdiction strategies, pooling expertise and leveraging technology to address fentanyl and the many other drugs and threats that can come through the mail. Having outside consultants on call to help identify potential threats and outsourcing training to experts in the security field, as necessary, is just one part of how sharing information can help corrections facilities mitigate these risks more effectively.

3. Allocate resources according to prosecution objectives

Corrections leaders should align their mail screening operation to their applicable federal, state, or local prosecution objectives and allocate time and resources accordingly. In other words, when officers find drugs in the mail, do they treat the drugs as evidence to bring additional charges against inmates or to track down suppliers? Unfortunately, both are often unsuccessful. Still, many facilities waste time and resources examining mail for investigational purposes even though these cases are never prosecuted, rather than simply quarantining, verifying and destroying dangerous substances, in accordance with applicable local policies. Avoid spending resources on a potentially fruitless investigation or prosecution process. Instead, correctional officers can just take a look at suspicious mail and eliminate dangerous packages as quickly as possible.

4. Prioritize efficiency and safety

Current manual mail screening processes are expensive, especially because the process is long, tedious, and inefficient. It all takes time, whether officers are opening letters, checking addresses, or filling out paperwork for contraband reporting. By contrast, using technology to scan mail quickly, without having to open letters, can reduce staffing costs and overtime while also keeping mailroom workers safer.

This is especially true with legal mail. Since legal mail (or contraband disguised as legal mail) has to be opened in the presence of the inmate, there’s a long and inefficient process for bringing in an inmate, not to mention the increased danger to staff with violent inmates or accidental exposure to drugs in the mail item. T-ray mail scanning technology capable of detecting illicit substances without opening the mail can help solve both problems.

5. Get creative with budgeting and focus on cost savings

Implementing effective technology-based mail screening solutions can quickly pay for itself when compared to tedious, time-consuming, and marginally effective manual processes used today. Many facilities see a positive return on investment in the first year, simply from staff time savings, allowing facilities struggling with already-strained staffing levels to reallocate staff to higher-value activities. Additional benefits include reduced drug-related expenses, spanning costs for medical care to legal proceedings, as well as increased staff retention and enhanced staff safety resulting in fewer lost work days and insurance claims.

Despite these benefits, it’s not always easy to find the money and resources to implement improved screening processes and technologies. So corrections officials should consider where mail screening falls within their budgets. Normally this would be part of a facility’s capital budget, which is usually very tight. Perhaps it can be appropriately applied as part of the interdiction budget instead, allowing resources to be reallocated as needed. These budgets can also be augmented through grants or inmate welfare funds since mail security directly impacts inmate safety.

6. Preserve privacy and legality

The recent trend to digitize or copy personal mail has gained ground to stem the flow of drugs and contraband into prisons. While effective at eliminating original physical mail from making it into the facility, it can introduce delays in receiving mail, still exposes screeners to potentially dangerous substances when opening the mail for scanning, and has sparked pushback due to, at times, poor image quality, requiring original copies to be stored on- or off-site for some period of time. Opponents of the process also raise concerns over cutting off inmates’ access to original personal letters, photos, and cards.

On the other hand, legal mail is subject to attorney-client privilege and attempts to digitize legal mail have been met with legal challenges. In cases where facilities have moved to copying legal mail, it must be done with the inmate present, adding additional logistical and safety concerns to the process. As a result of implementing digitization efforts for personal mail, facilities often see a shift in the flow of drugs and contraband to fraudulent legal mail.

The ability to implement new security imaging tools, to quickly scan unopened mail, whether personal or legal, allows original mail to be quickly and efficiently cleared and delivered to the intended recipient while at the same time preserving confidentiality and protecting screeners and mail handlers. Implementing these new approaches can deliver a win-win both to reduce the overhead and logistical burden on facilities and staff, while ensuring staff and inmate safety, all the while allowing safe mail to flow through the system unimpeded.

When security is done right

Fentanyl certainly isn’t the only threat facing corrections officers in prisons, but it is one that all facilities need to be prepared to respond to. Thankfully, many correctional facilities are working harder than ever to find ways to cut down threats and detect dangerous substances before they can harm anyone. With the right expertise and mail screening procedures, they can begin to do just that.

About the author

Alexander Sappok, Ph.D., is CEO at RaySecur.