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Fatal Overdoses: Drugs and Death in Prison

On April 27, 1997, at Ohio's Trumbull Correctional Institution, Daniel Ray Williams died by lethal injection. Williams, then 37, was not on death row; the lethal injection was a self-administered dose of heroin. Robert Baksi, a Trumbull prisoner who reportedly had a beef with Williams, had delivered a "hot shot," a syringe filled with a deadly dose of heroin, to Williams' cell. Hours after injecting the drug, Williams was dead.

Williams was but one of 188 convicts who died of drug overdoses in state prisons between 1990 and 2000 according to "On Dope Row," the title of a recent national survey published by Insight magazine. The actual number of deaths is likely far higher.

More than half of the states surveyed had no data on prisoner overdoses prior to 1995, only 40 of the 50 states provided any data at all, and data from some states was incomplete, said Timothy Maier of Insight. Alabama, for example, reported 69 prisoner deaths but labeled 52 as "unexplained." Virginia said no information was available. Maryland could not produce records prior to 1998. The District of Columbia refused to cooperate.

Fatal overdoses are caused by two broad categories of drugs: prescription medications dispensed by prison pharmacies and controlled substances brought into prisons by employees and visitors.

In Ohio, for example, coroners' reports show eight prisoners died of drug overdoses since 1995: three from heroin, four from prescription anti-depressants, and one from aspirin. Who should be held responsible? "The person who overdoses," said Maryland's Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend whose brother, David Kennedy, died of an overdose in 1984. "They know they are not supposed to do drugs in there," scolded Ms Townsend.

"I'd say the vast majority of drugs now actually come through the guards," observed Dan Cahill who spent 24 years in Ohio prisons for drug and weapons crimes. Guards at most state and privately operated prisons are woefully underpaid and drug dealing offers supplementary, tax-free income. The unwritten but rigorously-often brutally-enforced code of silence among prison guards and their law enforcement brethren virtually guarantees freedom from arrest and prosecution of all but the most horrendous drug crimes.

The reality of prison life, said one corrections official, is that dangerous but nonfatal overdoses are so frequent they are not even counted. Prisoners who die from overdoses simply disappear as if their lives never existed. Their deaths free up needed beds in a chronically overcrowded prison system.

Sources: The Cleveland Plain Dealer ,Washington Times ,Insight , National Center for Policy Analysis

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