Contraband floods Md. prisons

Officials struggle to stem inflow of drugs, tobacco

Special Report

July 06, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A black market bazaar of heroin, marijuana, pornographic videos, tobacco, cell phones and top-shelf liquor is routinely being smuggled past security checkpoints and into Maryland's troubled prisons, an investigation by The Sun has found.

Periodic cell searches and prison sweeps have turned up such a trove of contraband over the past year that the Division of Correction is launching new attempts to stem the flow, including more thorough searches of staff, visitors and volunteers. "I have a group right now working on front gate entrance procedures," said Correction Commissioner Frank. C. Sizer Jr.

The Sun reviewed hundreds of pages of contraband reports filed by the state's nine largest prisons for a 10-month period ending April 30, examined other internal documents and interviewed former and current prison system staff. It found:

Heroin and other illegal drugs are making it into almost all of the state's prisons, occasionally in large quantities. For example, at the medium-security Maryland Transition Center, a prison formerly called the Maryland Penitentiary, officers discovered 109 packs of heroin on one day and 25 on another.

Two maximum-security prisons in Jessup - the Maryland House of Correction and Annex - appear to have the most problems keeping out prohibited items. Of 121 cell phones recorded on contraband reports for the nine prisons examined, 92 were found in the Jessup facilities. The phones present a security problem because they allow inmates to arrange drug deals or to continue to direct outside criminal enterprises while serving time.

Tobacco, banned in Maryland prisons since 2001, has become the most-smuggled commodity and is a major source of income for inmate entrepreneurs. A tiny, hand-rolled cigarette can sell for $3 to $6. A pound of loose tobacco that costs $100 to get into a prison can bring upward of $1,000 once inside, correctional officers say.

Inmates are obtaining such items as miniature bottles of liquor, X-rated DVDs, condoms and pints of Tanqueray gin. Searches by guards also turned up tattoo guns and "1 pet frog."

The flow of contraband - especially drugs - matters because it fuels much of the violence in prisons, corrections experts say. Those who fail to pay drug debts often become targets for assault. And gangs fight over drug turf in prison much as they do on the streets.

Drug trafficking can be especially lucrative in prison because a small packet of heroin can sell for 10 times its value on the streets, former correctional officers and inmates say.

"That's what everything in the whole prison is about - drugs," said Chester Norman, who served time in several Maryland prisons and is now rebuilding his life in another state. "Almost all the violence and stuff is based on the drugs."

Some union officials say they believe more contraband has been getting into the prisons in the past year because of staffing cuts and employee turnover. Sizer, who became Maryland's prisons chief in February 2004, says it's hard to make year-to-year comparisons because the system hasn't always done a good job of keeping records.

Even now, the review by The Sun found, it is difficult to tally and compare the amounts of contraband seized at different prisons because of inconsistencies in record-keeping. For instance, one prison might list that "controlled dangerous substances" were found on three occasions in a month, without specifying the amount or type of the drugs, while another reported the 109 packs of heroin.

Visitors, volunteers, support staff and officers who are insufficiently vigilant or are dishonest are all means by which drugs and other contraband can get into a prison, according to Sizer.

"The fact of the matter is that we have some staff that are corrupt," Sizer said, adding that he believes the overwhelming majority of his employees are honest and hardworking.

The minutes of monthly meetings of prison intelligence officers, whose job is to glean information about illegal activity inside their institutions, provide a revealing snapshot.

At the group's April 27 meeting at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, one officer reported that "weapons, cell phones, crack and raw cocaine, along with other types contraband, [were] found in cell searches" at the state-run Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center during that month, according to copies of the confidential minutes obtained by The Sun.

Meanwhile, the haul for April at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup included 22 cell phones, five homemade knives known as shanks and 30 grams of marijuana, according to minutes of the meeting.

And intelligence officers said members of a notorious gang, the "Bloods," were selling heroin at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. They said "canned tobacco prices had increased to $200 for 6 oz. can" at that facility.

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