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More Drugs Seized by Florida DOC During COVID-19 Lockdowns Than Before

by David M. Reutter

Contraband statistics obtained from the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) during pandemic lockdowns debunk officials’ theory that visitors and mail are the main source of smuggling into state prisons. Instead the August 2022 report says the numbers point to one source: staff members and guards.

From March to September 2020, Florida prisons went into lockdown as COVID-19 peaked among prisoners and the general population. Visits were suspended during that period, and prisoners were confined to their housing units to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. Yet, DOC data shows that the flow of illegal drugs, cellphones, and weapons not only failed to decline but in fact increased.

The analysis, conducted by the Miami Herald, shows that the amount of drugs seized per 10,000 prisoners was 40% higher in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018. The rate of prescription and narcotic pills seized in 2020 was nearly double that of 2019 and around triple the rate of pill seizures in 2018.

During the six-month lockdown period, guards seized about 3,100 grams of powdered drugs — heroin, cocaine, opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone, methamphetamine, Suboxone, and synthetic marijuana. Another 1,000 pills of opioids and unauthorized prescription drugs were seized for every 10,000 prisoners. The amounts for the same months in 2019 were roughly 2,700 grams of drugs and 580 pills; the 2018 rates were 2,900 grams and 430 pills per 10,000 prisoners, the Herald reported.

“When you have no visitors in your facilities, … how else did it get in?” quizzed state Rep. Dianne Hart (D-Tampa), answering her own question: “The staff brings most of it in.”

Once inside a prison, the contraband must be distributed, so gangs take over. Civil rights attorney James V. Cook said of his incarcerated clients that “[a]lmost without exception they mention that the drugs are brought in by officers and distributed mostly by gang members.”

To combat gang influence, DOC began shifting prisoners to lockups farther from their homes. But this is not just a game of cat-and-mouse; many prisoners struggle with addiction, so the contraband problem understandably worries loved ones now fearful of relapse — especially when the extra distance they must travel reduces their ability to visit, compounding the temptation of plentiful drug supplies with isolation and loneliness.

While the amount of drugs increased during lockdowns, the number of disciplinary reports decreased compared to the prior two years. Cellphone disciplinary reports also decreased slightly, though hitting a three-year high in September 2020.

Interviews with prisoners at various lockups supported a general consensus that guards regularly found drugs and cellphones, but they did not issue disciplinary reports. Realizing that the lockdown would point blame for smuggled contraband to themselves, many guards feared that such reports would make them look bad. Combined with the fact that shakedowns were not conducted as often, the true depth of the contraband problem may have been worse.

The typical supply of drugs and tobacco in prison is sufficient to last one or two weeks. Yet, I viewed a steady supply of tobacco and drugs at Sumter Correctional Institution during the lockdown period. The supply really peaked afterwards as stimulus checks hit the compound.

In April 2022, DOC adopted a new policy to digitize all incoming mail, with the exception of legal and privileged mail and periodicals. The rationale for the rule was to reduce smuggling of drugs and other contraband. From my point of view, however, there has not even been a slowdown, except in the timeliness of receiving my mail.

Rep. Hart understands that guards are the source of the contraband problem. “They’re not making enough money and because they’re not making a lot of money, they get into the game,” she said. “That’s the main driver.” 

Sources: Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald

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