Prison `bazaar'

July 10, 2005

WHAT VICE can't be practiced in Maryland's prisons?

That's the question you'd have to ask yourself after reading Sun reporter Greg Garland's account of contraband seized from the state's nine largest prisons. Drugs (heroin, crack and marijuana), tobacco (loose and rolled), alcohol (store-bought and prison-brewed), pornography (DVDs and tapes), condoms and cell phones represent most of the stash seized over a recent 10-month stretch. That doesn't include the shanks and knives inmates craft on their own.

The extent of the goods recovered might suggest that prison officials are on top of the smuggling, but their inability to efficiently quantify the results of surprise cell searches and prison sweeps complicates their efforts. Record-keeping is inconsistent and varies from prison to prison , according to Mr. Garland's reporting; officials can't easily say whether the seizures represent an increase or a decrease in illegal goods. That's got to change. How can the Division of Corrections know acurately if it is stemming the flow of contraband into its prisons from Baltimore to Hagerstown, Jessup to the Eastern Shore? A uniform reporting system is essential to identify the problem, plan strategies and assess outcomes.

Prisoners have been smuggling contraband into their cells for as long as prisons have been incarcerating people. The file in the cake is a comic cliche. Contraband reports reviewed by The Sun show that inmates' preferences for illicit items haven't changed much and that they rely on family, friends and jailers to provide them. The confiscation of 121 cell phones, an astonishing number, reflects their popularity. But more troubling is the perceived indifference or outright complicity of corrections staff.

Contraband drives an underground economy - "a black-market bazaar" in Mr. Garland's words - where bartering for drugs occur. Accounts are kept. Debts are collected, one way or another. The illicit trade feeds drug habits, keeps gangs in business and provokes violence to settle scores, which is why corrections officials should expedite its plans to improve policing inside. Corrections chief Frank C. Sizer Jr.'s decision to ramp up staff and visitor searches should be coupled with increased random drug-testing of inmates. There should be no hesitancy in criminally charging lawbreakers. Mr. Sizer also should renew efforts to punish unauthorized use of a cell phone in prison if posted warnings don't reduce their numbers.

Convicted felons carrying on their criminal ways inside prison make a mockery of the system and must not be tolerated.

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