ALFRED – It was just a goodbye kiss between a woman and her boyfriend who is serving time in the York County Jail.

But maybe it lacked sincerity, or included a wary glance over the shoulder.

A corrections officer became suspicious and discovered that the woman had transferred two OxyContin tablets to the inmate during the smooch.

“We’ve seen a rise in the attempts to smuggle contraband into the facility,” said York County Sheriff Maurice Ouellette. “I’m sure some has gotten through. We’ve found some inside.”

In an effort to keep drugs from being smuggled into county jails, some jail officials are sidestepping a state standard calling for inmates to be allowed physical contact with visitors.

Officials at several jails around Maine were unable to provide figures on the number of smuggling attempts they have interrupted, but say that anecdotal evidence and knowledge of specific episodes show it is a problem. Some counties said they did not keep data on the number of smuggling attempts.

In York County, the jail administrator was on vacation and others at the jail could not provide data on smuggling episodes.

Standards set by the Maine Department of Corrections call for inmates to have visits that include physical contact, except for specific security reasons.

“In the absence of a substantiated security risk, and consistent with the inmate’s classification, visits should include the opportunity for physical contact,” the standard reads.

But Ouellette has petitioned the DOC to allow him to go to video visits, which the jail already does for some high-risk inmates. Inmates would be in a separate room and would communicate through video cameras.

The change would require a waiver of state policy and is being opposed by civil libertarians and some family members.

“Contact visits with family members and/or friends remind inmates of the lives they cherish and reinforce the desire to follow prison guidelines so they can be released as soon as possible,” Irving Faunce, whose son Gordon Collins-Faunce is awaiting trial in the York County Jail, said in a letter to Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte. “Holding the hands of someone we love, even if it is across a cold metal table, becomes as precious as gold.”

Faunce is a former member of the state Board of Corrections, which allocates funding for county jails.

“Video contact is limited to high-risk people only and everybody else should have the in-person visits,” said Scott Fish, spokesman for the DOC, which operates the state’s prisons but also sets standards for county jails. He said York County’s move to video visits two years ago was seen only as a pilot project, and the state did not anticipate a long-term move to video only.

York County’s application is still pending. Ponte will make a decision after consulting with the Maine Attorney General’s Office, Fish said.

Ouellette said the proposed policy change is in response to a specific security issue: drugs.

“I’m charged with the safety and security of inmates inside,” Ouellette said.  “I’m trying to slow down what’s getting back there.”

He argues that contraband inside the jail leads to violence, theft and other misbehavior, pointing to a recent incident in the Cumberland County Jail in which two inmates were charged with unlawful sexual contact after searching another inmate for drugs.

“The word was she had had a contact visit and was carrying (drugs) and they practically raped her,” Ouellette said.

‘NO WARMTH’ WITHOUT CONTACT

During contact visits, inmates and visitors at the York County Jail sit around a table. They can shake hands, and sometimes can hold hands if they keep their hands on the table, Faunce said.

Faunce and his wife, Jan Collins, drive two hours twice a week from their home in Wilton to visit their son, who is charged with killing his infant son and is being held in the county jail awaiting trial.

“I try to put myself in the place of Gordon or other prisoners and what it would feel like to be isolated, where you can’t get outside, where you can’t talk to people unless it’s supervised,” said Collins.

Video is a poor alternative, Collins said, “because there’s no contact, because I am not in Gordon’s presence, it’s similar to watching a TV program. … There’s no warmth. There’s no intimacy.”

Beatrice Gray said she understands that inmates are in jail for a reason and need to be punished, but the change would punish families as well.

Her 9-year-old grandson thumb-wrestles with his father during visits, she said.

“They can hold hands over the table. They can’t kiss, can’t hug,” said Gray, who did not provide her son’s name because she did not have his permission.

“When you see that video, it doesn’t look like they’re looking at you. They’re looking down at that screen where they see your face,” she said, adding that the voice can be distorted.

Zachary Heiden, legal affairs director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said many of the inmates who would be affected by the policy change are awaiting trial and are therefore presumed innocent.

Inmates at the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor are allowed brief physical contact, usually an embrace at the end of the visit. During the visit they speak across a table separated by a glass barrier about a foot high, said Capt. Richard Clukey.

“Contraband is always an issue,” Clukey said. “The area is closely monitored by corrections staff and we also have a DVR system for recording and reviewing activity during contact visits.”

The jail, which averages 170 inmates, is sticking with contact visits for the foreseeable future.

“It’s positive for inmates and family members,” Clukey said. “Unfortunately, there’s a few who take advantage.”

STEMMING THE DRUG TIDE

Jails around the state vary in how they handle inmate visits.

The Somerset County Jail in Madison separates inmates and visitors with glass partitions and is also planning to install video equipment.

The Cumberland County Jail in Portland still has visits in which inmates and visitors are in the same room, talking through a screen, with a glass barrier.

Visits used to be conducted at a table with inmates on one side and visitors on the other. Then officials erected 8-inch-high glass partitions, and then put up taller glass.

“We had to add netting over the top of it because they were still getting drugs in,” said Capt. Steve Butts, who is in charge of security. Officials then had to seal minute cracks in the window and table because small packets were still finding their way through. Visitors would also stick items to the undersides of stools in the visiting area that would then be collected by a departing inmate or later by a trusty.

Butts said the glass partitions have been in place for more than five years. He did not have data on how often people were caught trying to smuggle contraband during visits, but said the incidents dropped significantly after barriers were enhanced.

Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscassett did away with contact visits about a year ago, said the jail administrator, Col. Mark Westrum, chairman of the state Board of Corrections.

“We had to. I have an obligation to provide for the safety and security of the inmates and the staff,” he said. “These people would get whacked out on Suboxone or OxyContin.”

Two Bridges had a high-profile contraband case in which an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Stephen Foote, was convicted of smuggling Suboxone to two inmates.

The state’s physical contact standard is considered an essential standard, not mandatory. Mandatory standards are based on laws and legal precedent, while essential standards are “established professional correctional practices that have been found necessary to protect the health and safety of inmates and staff as well as the security of the jail.”

Butts said jails might go to full-body scanners similar to those used in airports that can see through clothing and body tissue. One that is made specifically for correctional facilities can cost more than $200,000. Butts said he hopes to find grant funding.

The DOC installed a full-body scanner at the Maine State Prison in Warren at a cost of $197,000 last month to check inmates coming from other facilities, visits or returning from outside work assignments. The state plans to install another at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Gary LaPlante, director of security for the state prison system, said that since Jan. 1, the state has initiated 37 drug trafficking investigations at the two prisons, most of them involving attempts to pass Suboxone, which is used to treat opiate addiction.

In the past year, LaPLante said, the department has created teams to investigate and thwart smuggling, added drug-sniffing dogs, and increased drug testing of prisoners. The prisons also no longer allow mail to be delivered in envelopes because drugs have been hidden behind stamps or in the adhesive.

Butts said people will even admit to minor crimes in order to be brought into the jail, where they can sell the drugs they smuggle inside their bodies.

Ouellette, the York County sheriff, argues that video visits are easier to staff. Rather than having to keep inmates separated based on security status and using the visitation room at different times, video conferencing can take place simultaneously.

“We’re trying to leverage technology to improve efficiency and reduce security problems,” Ouellette said.

He plans to expand the number of video terminals if the York County Jail is allowed to end contact visits. Newer video terminals are of much higher quality, he said.

The jail currently has 20 waiting to be installed. The units cost $1,500 each, said Lt. Col. Michael Vitiello, a jail administrator. They are paid for through the jail’s inmate account, which is funded through commissary sales and telephone calls.

Ouellette said if the change is approved, he will still be able to grant contact visits under special circumstances. The policy change also would not apply to clergy, lawyers or health care professionals. Those situations are not the target of the policy change, Ouellette said.

“It’s the general population and those people looking for a source to get a fix,” he said. 

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald