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Prison Officials Losing War on Drug Smuggling

by David M. Reutter

Despite the closed environment and high security features of prisons, prison officials continue to lose the battle against drugs and other contraband smuggling. The results of interdiction efforts are often the same as those in America’s decades-old “war on drugs” – a few skirmishes are won that nab a few offenders, but the vast majority of illicit contraband makes it through.

Drugs enter prisons in a variety of ways – via corrupt staff members, visitors, and prisoners who work outside the fence, such as in community corrections programs. The reason why drugs are smuggled into prison is twofold: high demand and a black market that commands high prices.

According to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation special agent Mike Ruff, gang-related drug activity is the main cause of institutional violence.
“Something that appears to be a riot between different gangs is not necessarily because they’re rivals – it’s more because of a drug deal gone bad,” he said. “All of the gangs are actively involved in narcotics.”

Hawaii’s Deputy Director of Corrections, Tommy Johnson, said gangs control the drug trade in that state’s prison system. The reason? Profit. The going rate for heroin in a Hawaii prison is ten times the street price, he said.

The black market for drugs is so profitable that it entices prison staff to risk their careers, and freedom, for a share of the proceeds. Richard Pillajo, a Florida prison guard, was so tempted. Pillajo was arrested on July 10, 2009; investigators said he planned to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and hydrocodone pills to prisoners at the Avon Park Correctional Institution for a $2,500 payoff.

That same month, Shamel Watson, a guard at Florida’s Everglades Correctional Institution, was charged with drug trafficking, conspiracy and bribery for agreeing to smuggle 4 ounces of cocaine and a pound of marijuana into the prison.

The Florida Dept. of Corrections (FDOC) has been aggressive in its efforts to eradicate contraband. It has nine teams of canine units that rotate among 60 facilities. Prison officials use metal detectors to search both visitors and staff, plus conduct pat-down searches of employees. Additionally, staff and prisoners are subject to random drug tests.

Despite those efforts the net effect has been minimal. In 2008-09 there were 1,132 positive drug test results for Florida state prisoners, equivalent to the same 1.6% positive rate reported ten years ago. Further, guards confiscated 2,832 grams of marijuana and 92 grams of cocaine over that time period – the largest amount in the last decade.

“People are always trying to smuggle drugs in,” said FDOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. “Our ultimate goal is to get rid of it, but I’d be a fool to tell you that will ever be realized.”

The February 2010 arrests of 19 former Florida prison guards reveal how alluring the drug trade can be, even for those who have worked in facilities filled with drug offenders and thus should be aware of the consequences of illegal drug trafficking. The arrests, conducted by FBI SWAT teams, ended a two-year joint federal and Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office investigation dubbed “Operation Blind Justice.”

Arrested were Glades Correctional Institution guards Latess Hill, Jentle Chatman, Zedra “Sarge” Warner, Belinda Davis Brown, Samantha Wilkerson, Kenyetta Biggs, Melvin Brown, Jason Miller, Marcus Pitre, Takisha Golden and Melissa Jefferson; South Bay Correctional Institution GEO Group guard Elisha Allen; and Florida Road Prison guard Tanika Wright. All were charged with cocaine possession for trafficking what they thought were multi-kilo loads of cocaine between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties, although no real drugs were used in the sting operation. They were paid amounts ranging from $5,000 to $33,000 to help smuggle the drugs. Also arrested were Dondia Wilkerson, Antonio Key and Pakesha McCray, who falsely claimed to be prison guards so they could get in on the action. See: United States v. Hill, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 9:10-cr-80019-DMM.

Additionally, authorities arrested Sgts. Alanda Ray Shaw and Sheroen Lenard Dukes; guards Natasha Lacola Beckles, David Jermaine Stewart and Marlon Anthony Ellison; and substance abuse counselor Osmond W. Williams on state charges of bribery, conspiracy and contraband smuggling for bringing cash, cell phones and iPods into the Glades and South Bay Correctional Institutions.

All of the guards indicted on federal charges pleaded guilty in May 2010 to “at least one felony count involving either conspiracy to possess cocaine or attempting to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute.” All but one of those former guards were sentenced to federal prison terms ranging from 21 to 50 months plus up to five years’ supervised release. Miller has not yet been sentenced.

“Our best defense against drugs in our institutions is the eyes and ears of our employees – the officers working in the institution,” remarked FDOC secretary Walter McNeil. “In this case the problem involved our staff, but I want you to know that in this case they were also the solution,” referring to the FDOC’s cooperation in the joint FBI investigation.

Regardless, so long as there are huge profits to be made by smuggling drugs into prisons, and prison employees willing to risk their careers to do so, the problem of narcotics and other contraband smuggling is unlikely to be solved any time soon.

Sources: Associated Press, Palm Beach Post, U.S. Attorney’s press release, Miami New Times

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Related legal case

United States v. Hill