CONCORD, N.H. - As the nation stares down a heroin and opioid crisis, corrections officials and lawmakers are seeking new ways to keep drugs out of jail cells as visitors and inmates continually find ways to smuggle them in. While drugs in jails have always been an issue, the present crisis is bringing new challenges and, at some facilities, a higher volume of drugs, officials say.
"There is always an investigation going on into some type of drug activity here," said Dan Hammer, an investigator at the men's prison in Berlin, New Hampshire, a state where the problem of heroin and painkiller overdoses is especially acute.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan signed legislation Wednesday to put six full-body scanners, in the three state prisons and potentially more in county jails. Anyone entering, including visitors and staff, must go through them. Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn is looking to purchase drug-sniffing dogs, as are some jail superintendents.
Other, less expensive policies are also in place. Prison inmates must open mail in front of employees and throw out the envelopes. At the Hillsborough County jail, inmates no longer help clean bathrooms because visitors were leaving drugs inside. Beyond just rooting out the drugs, county jails are looking to help inmates beat their addictions through treatment programs.
In the state's prisons, officials say it's the type of drug, not the volume, that's changed. Suboxone, used to treat opioid addiction but also producing a high of its own, in the form of a breath strip is the latest drug of choice, Hammer said. Suboxone is
Inmates smuggle it in by sticking it to their bodies or swallowing balloons filled with dozens of strips. On the street, strips or pills of suboxone sell for $10 to $20. Within prison, a strip can sell for hundreds of dollars.
"The value once you're in the state prison increases dramatically," Hammer said.
Suboxone smuggling has posed problems in county jails in New Mexico and Virginia, where inmates were receiving photographs soaked in a liquid form of suboxone that they could chew on to get high. In 2014, California officials reported a significant increase in drug smuggling in jails and the state prison system brought in drug-sniffing dogs and implementing airport-style hand swabs for visitors and staff.
Jail superintendents in several large New Hampshire counties say 80 to 90 percent of inmates are in for drug-related crimes, including the direct sale or use of drugs, or something like a robbery charge to help pay for drugs.
"It's becoming more and more prevalent that almost everybody that's coming in has some type of drug problem," said Belknap County jail Superintendent Keith Gray.
If an inmate is suspected to have drugs inside them, they can be placed in a "dry cell" without a bathroom, requiring them to notify employees when they need one so the employees can see if any drugs come out. Sometimes inmates are taken to the hospital for monitoring in case the balloon of drugs ruptures, creating the potential for an overdose.
Wrenn, the corrections commissioner, said his staff is developing procedures for use of the body scanners. He cautions the new tool is not a panacea, but could be effective in keeping illegal substances out of prison cells.
Drug-sniffing dog programs are in place in states like New Mexico and Arizona, he said, and he'd like to follow suit.
"The combination of both of those items, I think, provides a very strong strategy with reducing the amount of drugs in the prisons," he said.
By Kathleen Ronayne - AP/June 19, 2016
Photo: Jim Cole, AP
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Getting the Drugs Out of US Prisons Remains a Serious Objective