More Md. prison inmates testing positive for drugs

20 percent increase over '04 comes amid security concerns

September 15, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The number of Maryland prison inmates testing positive for drugs has increased sharply this year -- running about 20 percent higher than in 2004, records show.

The increase in positive test results, which suggests that more drugs are penetrating security checkpoints and getting into the state's prisons, comes amid complaints that recent staff cutbacks have compromised prison safety and security.

The Maryland Division of Correction released data about drug testing in the prisons in response to a public information act request filed by The Sun.

The state reports show that 343 of 12,035 inmates tested in Maryland's 12 medium- and maximum-security prisons during the first six months of this year had positive results for drugs including heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

If that rate continued, 686 inmates would test positive by year's end -- compared with 567 last year. The number testing positive has generally been running higher since 2002, even though fewer prisoners are being tested.

Maryland Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. conceded that drugs are a problem in the state's prisons. Prison officials constantly struggle to stay ahead of the inventive methods that smugglers find to bring in drugs and other contraband, he said.

"It's like a cat-and-mouse game," Sizer said. "You close one hole, and they find another."

He cautioned against reading too much into the drug testing data. More positives could mean prison authorities are doing a better job of identifying inmates they believe need to be tested for possible drug use, he said.

"What it tells me is we are doing a better job in our spot checking," Sizer said. "More positives tells me that we're doing a better job."

Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, disagreed. "Obviously, more drugs are coming in, and this is an indication of it," Bailey said. "My feeling is that this is the result of a lack of adequate staffing and a lack of adequate searching of both visitors and staff."

John R. Reamy, president of the Hagerstown chapter of Maryland Classified Employees Association, a labor group representing correctional officers at Roxbury Correctional Institution, offered a similar assessment.

The amount of drugs coming into RCI appears to be increasing, Reamy said, as is the number testing positive for drugs. He said he believes staffing shortages contribute to the problem.

"Either it's because inmates have found new ways to bring stuff in, or it's because there are fewer eyes watching points of entry," Reamy said.

Other signs point to a growing drug problem. Last month, for example, five inmates at RCI fell ill after taking bad heroin. Three of the men became so sick that they had to be hospitalized.

A spokeswoman for the Division of Correction said there were eight deaths from drug overdoses in Maryland prisons in 2002, three in 2003 and five in 2004. She did not have information readily available on drug overdose deaths this year.

Sizer said there is sufficient staffing to run the state's prisons in a safe, secure manner. But he said problems filling vacancies have left some positions open and put a strain on the system. He said he plans to unveil policies soon aimed at reducing the flow of illegal drugs and other contraband.

Among other things, he said, staff and visitors will be searched more thoroughly before entering prison facilities, and access points will be limited. The changes are important, he said, because the drug trade and trafficking in other contraband, such as cell phones and tobacco, contribute to violence in the prison system.

"Substance abuse in prisons, we all know, creates a dangerous environment," Sizer said. "I believe that if we can limit contraband, we will see a reduction in violence."

Cell phones and tobacco -- a banned and valuable commodity in the state's prisons -- have been the correctional system's biggest and fastest-growing problems, he said. But drugs remain a big concern, Sizer said.

Inmates periodically are required to give urine samples that are tested for such drugs as heroin, cocaine and amphetamine. The data on inmates tested for drug use vary widely among the state's prisons. Generally, the more inmates who were tested, the higher the number of those who came back positive.

Random tests are conducted monthly, with a certain percentage of the prison population tested, according to corrections officials. "Spot tests" may be ordered for others if authorities suspect they are using drugs.

Some prisons do far more drug testing than others. For example, the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland, a medium-security prison, conducted 4,534 drug tests in 2004. Of that number, 86 came back positive.

In contrast, the Maryland House of Correction, a maximum-security facility in Jessup, conducted 1,333 drug tests, 67 of which came back positive.

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