March 17, 2010

Drugs: Inmates, jailers match wits


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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Senior Correctional Officer Ed Tibbetts tosses a stamp into the trash in the mail room at the Maine Correction Center in Windham on March 3, 2008. The center removes the stamps from the mail sent to inmates due to the smuggling of drugs.

Tim Greenway

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Investigator Peter Herring peels back a stamp with the drug suboxone on the back of the stamp at the Maine Correction Center in Windham on March 3, 2008. Putting drugs on the back of stamps is the newest way to smuggle drugs into the center.

Tim Greenway

Staff Writer

WINDHAM — Peter Herring, an investigator for the Maine Department of Corrections, peels back a postage stamp on a letter sent to a prisoner, revealing a small concentration of orange powder.

The powder hidden under the stamp is crushed Suboxone, a prescription anti-addiction drug that in recent months has become a desirable illicit drug within the Maine Correctional Center.

''There's a large amount of Suboxone coming in,'' said Herring, the Windham prison's lone investigator.

The drug represents the latest challenge to the prison's efforts to prevent contraband from getting to inmates.

Herring is investigating about 10 cases in which people on the outside have tried to smuggle Suboxone to friends and family on the inside via the mail, visits or in pre-arranged drops at inmate work sites. The prison has responded by ripping the stamps off the thousands of pieces of mail that come in each week and increasing the monitoring of telephone calls and letters.

Keeping illicit drugs out of the prison is an important mission for the safety of staff and prisoners, said Scott Burnheimer, superintendent of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, which houses roughly 700 mostly medium- and minimum-security male and female inmates. The Maine State Prison in Warren and county jails also have dealt with smuggled Suboxone.

''When people are under the influence of drugs, they do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, thus causing danger to other prisoners and staff, and it becomes a black market trade,'' Burnheimer said.

In one case, a prisoner told his girlfriend during a phone call that he would get beat up if she didn't help him smuggle the drugs. Limited supplies means a common cigarette sells for $10 and a marijuana joint for $7. Informants describe prisoners making thousands of dollars a week in illicit drug sales, Herring says.


Suboxone is just the latest drug of choice in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game where prisoners exploit perceived gaps in prison security.

In recent years the prison has battled attempts to smuggle painkillers such as OxyContin and addiction drugs such as methadone, a liquid that was smuggled through balloons that inmates swallowed surreptitiously and later expelled.

What is surprising about the efforts to smuggle Suboxone into prison is that the drug is engineered to be less dangerous and less prone to abuse than other medications, including methadone. However, the manufacturer's literature does note it produces ''limited euphoria,'' though much less than other opiates.

''The people I arrest (smuggling) it, all tell me you get high doing it,'' Herring said. ''These guys will snort anything. It's like poor man's cocaine.''

Advocates for the drug say it does not typically produce the euphoria associated with heroin or prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, making it a less likely target for abuse. And though other cities in the country have experienced problems with diverted Suboxone on the street, Maine has not had that problem, according to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

The drug's desirability inside the walls of the prison suggests it does have some allure, whether by non-addicts seeking a mild high or by chronic drug users who are coping with withdrawal during their sentence.

''When people (enter prison) they are put through rapid withdrawal, and I would think in that situation they're going to get whatever they can,'' said Ronni Katz, substance abuse prevention program coordinator for Portland's Health and Human Services Department. ''We'd like to work with the prisons to be able to allow people to get their medication as if they had diabetes or a heart condition.''

In one of the cases at the Windham prison, a woman told her boyfriend she needed the Suboxone so she could stay clean and avoid using hard drugs while in prison. Most of the people who have been caught trying to obtain Suboxone inside have had histories of addictive drug use, Herring said.


Prison officials say the contraband and new smuggling techniques have led them to step up security.

One of the latest techniques for smuggling the drug is to moisten a stamp and dip it into the powder of a crushed Suboxone pill, then affix the stamp to a letter to a prisoner. In another case, the pages of a birthday card were separated then glued back together with a bag of powder inside.

Guards in the prison's mailroom already spend hours each day opening every piece of mail in search of contraband. Now they've started tearing the stamps off each letter and running their fingers over the envelope, feeling for the lumps that may signal the presence of an illicit powder.

''It is very labor-intensive. There's nothing else you can do,'' said Ed Tibbetts, a prison guard who works in the mail room. ''Everything has to be opened. Everything has to be checked.''

Other popular smuggling techniques involve family members -- from young children to grandmothers -- slipping something to prisoners during visits or leaving a ''drop'' somewhere outside the facility where a prison work crew has been assigned.

Rooting out such schemes takes intelligence-gathering. Informants will alert Herring that someone is planning a smuggling operation. That can lead to monitoring telephone calls.

Prisoners count on the prison staff's inability to monitor the vast number of phone calls, and just in case calls are being monitored, they use a prison code.

In one call, a woman on the outside told the prisoner about how her dog went to the bathroom on the Dumpster -- the one to the left of the building -- and she cleaned it all up except for the front left wheel.

She said there were ''five and seven,'' then corrected herself to say some young relatives were now 5 and 7 years old.

From that call, Herring knew a prison work site had been compromised.

When he checked the front left wheel of the Dumpster, he found a bag with five Xanex, an anti-anxiety medicine, and seven Suboxone.

In letters preceding receipt of a Suboxone-laced stamp, a prisoner wrote that a friend will regularly send $200 as long as the person on the outside keeps sending letters, then added the underlined caution: ''Make sure the stamps stick.''

Any time prisoners have contact with the outside world, there's the potential for security to be compromised, Herring said.

That can be through food vendors, staff, work opportunities outside the prison walls, or family visits where a reunification kiss is the opportunity to transfer drugs. The prison industries program, which reupholsters furniture, has turned up hollowed-out couch legs filled with drugs.

The prison also employs its drug-sniffing patrol dog, which can indicate the presence of drugs in the mail as well as during searches in the prison. The dog's handler now has started reinforcing its effectiveness by using Suboxone in the dog's training.

''We'd be foolish to think we have the resources to catch everything that comes in,'' said Burnheimer. ''We can get a sense when we're doing well, because we hear the trade price per pill goes up.''

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

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