Official: 'Black market' examined as Conn. prison overdose deaths rise
Six inmates have died in 2022 due to drug overdoses compared to one death in 2021
By Lisa Backus
New Haven Register
HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut Inspector General Robert Devlin says he is determined to find out how six inmates died of fentanyl intoxication while incarcerated in the state's prisons in 2022.
But he admits figuring out how the men got their hands on the drugs has been "challenging."
"We're checking the cells, we're conducting interviews with the inmates, we have leads and we've pursued leads, but we are unable to get sufficient evidence to find out what occurred," Devlin said in an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media Group.
Devlin's office along with the Connecticut State Police and the state Department of Correction have been investigating the 2022 inmate deaths for months, and in some cases, for more than a year.
"I'm determined to pursue this," Devlin said.
Devlin's office investigates all in-custody deaths, including those that occur at the state's prisons and all fatal use-of-police-force incidents.
Last year, the DOC had the highest number of fatal inmate overdoses in recent years even as Connecticut's overall overdose deaths dropped by 5 percent, according to data provided by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
In 2018 and 2019, there were two inmate overdose deaths each year, Chief Medical Examiner James Gill said. In 2020, there were four and there was one overdose death in 2021, Gill said.
DOC officials did not keep track of the number of fatal overdoses until 2022, a spokesperson for the agency said.
In one case, two men, Paul Castro and Javier Rivera, both died on Feb. 24, 2022 of acute fentanyl intoxication and a mix of other drugs at the New Haven Correctional Center, according to data provided by the DOC and the medical examiner's office.
The men had been incarcerated at the facility for months, DOC records show. A state police investigation concluded there was no "criminal aspect" to their deaths. But investigations conducted by the DOC and Devlin remain pending.
'Black market for drugs in jail'
In all, four of the six inmates who died in 2022 had been incarcerated for months or even years before they fatally overdosed while in custody, the data showed.
"There is definitely a black market for drugs in jail," said Devlin, who conceded the men likely obtained the drugs in prison considering the amount of time they had been incarcerated.
From his perspective, each of the cases is a crime since it's illegal to smuggle drugs into a state prison.
State police also concluded there was no criminal aspect in the fatal overdose of Robert Bracey, who died June 25, 2022 at the Bridgeport Correctional Center.
Bracey was the only inmate who entered a state facility the day before he died of an overdose last year. Another inmate, Ramon Diaz, entered the Hartford Correctional Center on Nov. 28, 2022 and was found unresponsive days later on Dec. 1, according to the DOC. He was pronounced dead on Dec. 5, records show. The medical examiner's office has no information on Diaz's death, but DOC officials have recorded him as dying while in custody.
State police are still investigating Diaz's overdose and the death of Ramon Ortiz, who was found unresponsive at the MacDougal Walker Correctional Institution on April 20, 2022. The state police investigation into the death of Joshua Choiniere, who died July 4, 2022 at Corrigan Correctional Institution, was "suspended" and turned over to the Inspector General, officials said.
All correction officers are trained to use Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, according to DOC spokesperson Andrius Banevicius. But the officers don't carry the drug, which is kept at various locations throughout the state's prisons, he said. Banevicius couldn't provide the actual number of locations since he said it varies for each facility.
"Suffice to say, anyone responding to a medical emergency would have access to Narcan," Banevicius said.
About 80 percent of the state's prison population have some type of substance abuse issue, according to agency officials. In 2022, about 749 — or about 7.5 percent — of the state's prison population of about 10,000 participated in a medication for opioid use disorder program, Banevicius said.
Inmates and their possessions are "subject to a thorough search their person and their possessions" when they enter the prison system, he said. They are also quarantined for 10 days when they enter any facility in accordance with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit the transmission of COVID-19, he said.
One of the DOC's biggest challenges is to prevent contraband from entering its facilities, Banevicius said.
"Whether it's smuggled in on a person's belongings, hidden in a letter, during a contact visit or thrown over a fence, inmates are constantly trying to find new ways to bring contraband into a facility," Banevicius said. "When you consider that a lethal dose of fentanyl, according to the DEA (federal Drug Enforcement Administration) is thought to be as little as 2 milligrams or about 10 to15 grains of table salt, you can begin to appreciate the challenge of keeping contraband out of prisons."
But family members of incarcerated individuals say they are an easy target for DOC officials when things go wrong.
"Of course, the DOC wants to blame families," said one person, who did not want to be identified out of fear their family member could face retaliation. "It's a great distraction from the great deal of time from when there were absolutely no visitors and at all and drugs were still getting in."
Banevicius said no correction officers have been implicated in providing the drugs that have led to the deaths. He also said his agency's Security Division has not completed any of the investigations into the deaths.
"One untimely death of an individual in our care, is one too many," DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros said in a statement. "Drug addiction is a terrible scourge that plaques our country. We will be vigilant in our efforts to prevent contraband from entering our facilities."
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