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How the ban on visitors impacted the smuggling of drugs into Florida prisons

Prison officials have long said that inmates’ friends and family members bore the most responsibility for the flow of drugs and other contraband into Florida’s prisons. The early days of COVID-19 pro



Inmates’ friends and family members are mostly to responsible, according to prison officials, for the flow of drugs and other prohibited things into Florida jails.

That theory was put to the test in the early stages of the COVID-19 epidemic. Would less narcotics, firearms, and other contraband be seized if visitors were prohibited from entering Florida’s state prisons for a while?

Not quite.

Despite lockdowns that restricted access to prison facilities between March and September 2020 to only convicts’ attorneys and prison employees, more narcotics were seized in 2020 than in the two years before, according to a Miami Herald examination of contraband seizure data.

While the rate of prescription and narcotic pills seized in 2020 was about double that of 2019 and about quadruple that of pills seized in 2018, the overall amount of illegal substances (by weight) collected per 10,000 prisoners was more than 40% higher in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018.

Even in just the months when the jails were on lockdown and visitors were prohibited, the rate of drugs seized was greater.

However, the amounts of alcohol and firearms collected decreased in 2020.

The majority of the families of prisoners who spoke to the Herald anonymously out of concern for retaliation claim that the sheer amount of drugs entering Florida prisons—which they largely attribute to prison staffers and gangs—makes it difficult for recovering prisoners to maintain their sobriety or to avoid developing a drug addiction while incarcerated.

Before the epidemic, the state reportedly started moving prisoners farther away from their home counties to curb the spread of drugs, away from the friends and family who officials claimed shared some of the guilt for illegal substances getting into prisons. Because friends and family were sending illegal substances, the state claimed late last year, it also outlawed direct correspondence and started digitizing all mail besides legal and privileged letters and publications.

The Herald’s study of seizure data from the pandemic reveals that these regulations may not be making a dent in the issue, while it is difficult to assess what effect these policies have had. Lack of information also makes it impossible to accurately account for the number of prisoners who overdose, the illnesses they contract as a result, or the sums of money spent on their care by the government.

A prisoner at Holmes Correctional Institution in the Panhandle who is serving time told his partner that the amount of narcotics he observed flowing in his unit in 2020 was “more than he’s ever seen before.” He has been in prison for 20 years.

He is telling me that it’s difficult for him to stay sober during this time, which is eye-opening given that there are only employees present, she said.

The Department of Corrections rejected the idea that guards are in charge of bringing illegal substances into Florida prisons.

According to Michelle Glady, the agency’s spokesperson, in a statement to the Herald, “FDC has zero tolerance for personnel who break the law and our processes.” “The OIG [the agency’s Office of Inspector General] and FDC have a strong track record of ensuring that people who introduce contraband are arrested.”

Glady stated that the inmates with lengthy sentences and established presences “are mostly responsible for orchestrating the majority of contraband introduced [to the facilities],” adding that staff who bring in contraband make up a very small percentage of the agency’s workforce. One present inmate’s partner revealed to the Herald that she has also heard of other types of paper being sprayed or dunked in substances and then smoked by inmates.

In 2020, almost 6,900 grams of drugs were found per 10,000 prisoners, which is nearly 2,000 grams more than the rate from the year before. According to the Herald’s review of data on contraband seizures from two years prior, in 2018, the rate of drugs seized per 10,000 prisoners was 4,700. This includes synthetic marijuana, fentanyl, oxycodone, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone.

In searches conducted in 2020, almost 1,800 illegal prescription and narcotic medications, including opioids, were also found. This rate was doubled from searches conducted in 2019 and tripled from searches conducted in 2018.

For the six months in 2020 while Florida’s prisons were closed, 3,100 grams of powdered narcotics and 1,000 pills each of opioids and illegal prescription medications were recovered. This amounted to 1,000 pills for every 10,000 prisoners. Around 2,700 grams of narcotics and 580 tablets were used during the same months in 2019 compared to 2,900 grams and 430 pills per 10,000 convicts in 2018.

The Department of Corrections manages the data that the Herald examined, which it acquired via making public documents requests. The quantity collected is thought to represent a small portion of all contraband circulating within the jail system. There is no way to determine which facilities are the worst for contraband smuggling because the agency declined to share facility-specific information due to security concerns.

Glady noted that during the visiting suspension in 2020, the agency noticed a rise in drug-related contraband cases outside the guarded perimeter, including those involving incoming mail, while the number inside the restricted sections reduced. After the visitor restrictions were eased, according to FDC, the breakdown of seizures inside and outside the perimeter has started to trend back to pre-pandemic levels.

However, the amount of narcotics found in these events is not known. The Herald was sent to the public records department by FDC since it did not disclose the supporting statistics outlining the amount of drugs seized both within and outside the protected perimeter.

A civil rights lawyer named James V. Cook claimed he receives between 30 and 40 letters every week from clients mentioning some kind of inmate smuggling.

They almost always state that the drugs are brought in by officers and are mostly distributed by gang members, he claimed.

Cigarettes, cash from the offenders’ jail accounts, or even sexual favors were used as the medium of transaction.

According to the Herald, of the nearly 60,500 grams, or 135 pounds, of drugs detected in 2020, around a quarter were marijuana and almost 30% were methamphetamine. But with 36%, the dangerous synthetic marijuana, also known as “K2” or “spice,” was by far the most popular.

K2 is a compound that can be created from any component that is readily available and has no particular chemical composition. It can occasionally contain rat poison or bug spray. On K2, inmates frequently have heart attacks and hallucinations. They move about like walking dead. They occasionally “fall out” and experience convulsions that include twitching, spasming, and foam coming from their mouths. Sometimes they pass away.

Short-staffing is a significant factor in the influx of pharmaceuticals, according to Cook: “The issue is so serious that convicts tell me that many guards are letting gangs govern the dorms,” the inmate says. “I kind of extrapolate from the general information I hear.”

The poor compensation combined with rising rents and living expenses in the state, according to Ron McAndrew, a former Florida prison warden who has testified as an expert witness in hundreds of cases.

Being complicit in or ignoring contraband smuggling can enable many of the young prison guards make quick money. Gang members are constantly looking for staff members who are susceptible to seduction or extortion, both inside and outside of institutions.

Family members and visitors to inmates do attempt to smuggle drugs into the facility occasionally, according to campaigners for prison reform, but they claim that these attempts make up a very small percentage of all narcotics entering the system.

A Herald review of the arrest reports revealed that visitors accounted up one-fifth of the 122 arrests the FDC’s Office of Inspector General made in connection with bringing contraband into state prisons from 2019 to the present — the time period for which the data is easily accessible. The remainder were all members of the jail staff. (This does not account for the number of visitors who were found in possession of illegal substances by agency workers but were detained and imprisoned by outside law enforcement agencies.)

Less than 2% of the 2.1 million illicit items discovered between January 2019 and April 2021 entered the jail system through the mail.

However, reform proponents contend that convicts and their families bear the bulk of the costs associated with the FDC’s initiatives to stop contraband smuggling, such as the most recent mail restrictions. For offenders found guilty of possessing prohibited narcotics, punishment might include disciplinary citations, tighter detention, or perhaps an additional five years in jail.

So where’s the assistance? People make errors in the streets, where punishment is harsh, but in Avon Park, you are just placed into a cage, according to Christine, Mike’s partner who is also a prisoner there.

Christine claimed that they have been “suffering with” Mike’s addiction for years.

She claimed that Mike entered as a teenager “with no history of drugs other than a little bit of marijuana here and there, and it was only in prison that he moved on to heavier substances.”

In June, he enrolled in a twice-weekly drug rehab program. Christine, however, said that the sessions are frequently postponed and that the prevalence of drugs in the housing units is also a problem.

She continued, alluding to a harsher type of detention, “He goes back into a dorm where he’s around it all again and if he tests positive he gets thrown into confinement.”

He didn’t enter with a drug issue, but now he’s going to return home as someone who does.

——— (Sheridan Wall and Court Cox of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed reporting.)