June 24, 2013

Drugs imperil county jail contact visits in Maine

Despite state standards, some sheriffs prefer video-only visits so contraband can't be smuggled.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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

click image to enlarge

Jan Collins stands outside the York County Jail in Alfred before a visitation Sunday. Collins and her husband, who drive two hours twice a week from their home in Wilton to visit their inmate son, oppose the York County sheriff’s plan to end contact visits at the jail.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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