Trending Topics

‘Sophistication’ of drug smugglers thwarts Ore. mail scanning efforts

Assistant inspector general estimates DOC mailroom workers only catch about half of the drugs entering prisons through the mail


Common mail concealment locations are the seams and flaps of envelopes.

Joseph Kolb

By Noelle Crombie

PORTLAND, Ore. — Daniel Brackins sat at a corner desk along a cinder block wall, flipping past Fendi photo spreads in the September issue of Elle magazine. A faint mark snaking across a Burberry ad caught his eye.

He paused, trying to determine if the magazine’s perfume sample had left residue. Or had the glossy page been soaked with methamphetamine?

“See how there’s kind of like a splotch where it looks like an outline?” he said, tracing the stain with a gloved finger. “I won’t let that in yet until I test it and make sure.”

Brackins, who works in the mailroom at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, set the magazine aside for analysis and moved onto the next piece of mail.

Mailrooms like the one at Coffee Creek serve as a front line of sorts in Oregon’s hit-or-miss effort to stem the flow of street drugs into the state’s dozen prisons.

[Learn more: Battling narcotics in jail mail]

Contraband, drugs in particular, is nothing new in prisons, but a sharp rise among Oregon prisoners testing positive for a variety of illicit substances has infused the state’s interdiction efforts with new urgency.

The mail is a key smuggling route – prison mailrooms in Oregon processed 1.6 million pieces of mail last year. Drugs, cellphones and other contraband also find their way in through visiting rooms, work crews and compromised employees, corrections officials said.

By year’s end, the state plans to begin monitoring wastewater at every prison to better understand the scope of drug use among prisoners and which drugs in particular are getting in. Officials estimate the program will cost $144,000 a year.


Corrections administrators have long relied on urine analyses to track drug use and trends. They give tests at random and also when corrections officers suspect a prisoner is under the influence of an illicit substance.

Test results over the past three years suggest a surge of drug use among prisoners, with the rate of positives more than doubling since 2020, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis of Oregon Department of Corrections data.

The Oregon State Penitentiary saw one of the largest increases, with 30% of tests coming back positive for drugs so far this year — more than four times the rate three years ago.

Coffee Creek, too, saw a similarly alarming spike, with a 23% positive rate among those who were tested this year, compared to 11% in 2020, the analysis found.

The Department of Corrections does not track drug overdoses in its prisons. Since 2020, 54 prisoners went to the hospital — two of them died — due to “poisoning,” according to the agency, which said those incidents could be tied to alcohol, drugs, cleaning products or anything else someone has ingested.

Former prisoners say the rise in positive test results is no surprise.

“It’s available all the time, anything that you want,” said Laura Maner, 50, who got out of Coffee Creek in July after about a year for a forgery conviction and now lives in transitional housing in Hillsboro. “It wasn’t so much different than the street.”

Officials plan to impose new rules that include bans on greeting cards and colored envelopes, as well as restrictions on the type of paper that can be sent into prisons. The proposals are subject to the agency’s rule-making process, which can take up to a year, said Amber Campbell, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Card stock, thicker paper and colorful envelopes help conceal drugs, which can be soaked into paper and slipped along envelope seams, officials said.

Department of Corrections Acting Director Heidi Steward said the agency also plans to prohibit mail from third-party vendors on Amazon after discovering drugs secreted into the spines and soaked into pages of books and magazines.

The proposed changes are in line with steps many states have taken to limit contraband, said Kevin Kempf, executive director of the Correctional Leaders Association, which represents heads of prison systems nationwide.

“Across the United States, correctional leaders are constantly battling this issue,” he said.

Yet no matter what steps prisons take, prisoners still manage to smuggle drugs, Kempf said. He said some states have reported drugs being dropped into prison recreation yards by drone.

A growing number of prison systems have moved away from paper mail, scanning every letter that comes in for prisoners to read on tablets, he said.

Steward said she first wants to give the new rules a try.

“We’re really trying to keep that contact between the family and incarcerated people,” she said. “There is nothing like getting a letter from your child that is the actual letter from your child.”


One of the most commonly detected drugs in Oregon’s prisons is one used to treat opioid addiction.

Suboxone, which contains buprenorphine, comes in small flat tabs, making it easy to smuggle, said prison officials. Methamphetamine, synthetic cannabinoids and fentanyl often show up in drug tests as well, corrections data shows.

Suboxone is not especially dangerous, said Devarshi Bajpai, behavioral health administrator for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

“However,” he said, “it is a currency for manipulation and extortion. That’s where in a prison it becomes really dangerous.”

Brandon Kelly, a former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, said the black market for drugs in prison is a lucrative business. A Suboxone strip that might cost between $20 to $50 on the outside can fetch $400 in prison, he said.

Prisoners can’t have cash, but they may have accounts where they can keep money for food and other goods sold through the prison commissary system. They can also send checks to people on the outside, buy magazine subscriptions and make charitable donations.

When drug deals in prison go south, people tend to get hurt, said Kelly, who oversaw the state penitentiary from 2016 through 2021.

“People don’t pay their debts and that leads to violence,” he said.


Nationally, an increasing number of states are introducing or expanding treatment that involves medication used to treat prisoners who are addicted to opioids, said Kempf, who previously led the Idaho Department of Corrections.

Data so far is promising, he said. Rhode Island, the first to offer the treatment in 2016, saw a significant drop in fatal overdoses the following year among prisoners who had been recently released, according to one medical journal.

The black market for buprenorphine also tends to bottom out when incarcerated people have access to it, said Dr. Peter Friedmann, a professor of medicine at UMass Chan Medical School in Boston.

“In the absence of effective medication treatment in the facility, folks turn to self-treatment,” said Friedmann. “The vast majority are using it to address what I think is a policy failure in a lot of our correctional facilities, which is the limited availability of effective medication treatment.”

Friedmann is helping to evaluate the use of medication, including buprenorphine, to treat opioid addiction among the incarcerated in Massachusetts jails.

He said some jail officials have pushed back, questioning how dispensing a drug now considered contraband can help.

“But then when they see the effectiveness of treatment on folks within the facility, the improvement in behaviors among inmates, a lot of folks’ eyes are opened and minds are changed,” he said. “It’s not to say the problems with diversion and contraband go away, but I think there is a sense that it becomes a much more controlled environment.”


Two years ago, the Oregon Department of Corrections began offering buprenorphine to prisoners suffering from opioid addiction when they were within 13 months of release, Bajpai said.

He said about 500 people received the treatment in the program’s first year. Oregon’s prison population is about 12,000.

Corrections officials don’t know what percentage of the prison population suffers from opioid addiction but estimate it’s about 15%.

Overall, about 63% of prisoners in Oregon have a substance-abuse disorder and about 50% of the population shows a “severe need” for treatment, according to state data.

This year, the Legislature set aside nearly $8 million to pilot more comprehensive treatment programs — including giving buprenorphine to prisoners at any stage of their incarceration — at the Oregon State Penitentiary and Snake River Correctional Institution.

The agency plans to offer a similar pilot at Coffee Creek, the state’s only women’s prison, Bajpai said.

Together, the state penitentiary and Snake River house the largest numbers of prisoners with the highest treatment needs, according to the Department of Corrections.

Agency officials estimate up to 1,100 people will take part in the new program.


At Coffee Creek, Brackins, an administrative assistant in the mail room, carefully examines letters, looking for blurry lettering and other telltale signs of drug contamination.

He peels back a stamp, examining the envelope for discoloration.

“There have been times where they put fentanyl or meth underneath the stamp,” he said.

Coffee Creek prisoners get more mail than any other facility in the state, according to the Department of Corrections.

The mailroom here handles about 30,000 pieces of mail a month, with much more around the holidays, workers said.

“During Halloween and Christmas, all the big holidays, typically, you’ll see a lot more drugs trying to come through,” Brackins said.

As for the September issue of Elle, Brackins tested the page using drug detection equipment. The results came back inconclusive. The magazine failed inspection.

Melissa Nofziger, assistant inspector general for the Oregon Department of Corrections, guessed that workers only catch about half of the drugs coming through the mail — a low percentage she chalked up, in part, to the limited staff they have to go through a large volume of mail. A bigger problem, she said, is the use of increasingly clever smuggling methods.

“The sophistication just gets better every day,” she said.

— Noelle Crombie;; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie

Our journalism needs your support. Please become a subscriber today at

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.