Jail contraband targeted

State takes steps to limit flow of drugs, other items into prisons

November 17, 2005|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Maryland prison administrators say they are rewriting security procedures in an effort to disrupt the flow of drugs and other contraband into state prisons.

The state is buying new screening devices to enable more careful scrutiny of all visitors and staff, and officials are imposing tighter restrictions on what prison employees can bring to work, Maryland Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. said yesterday.

Drug-sniffing dogs will be used more often, Sizer said, and an "interdiction team" will conduct surprise inspections at prisons where there are signs of problems.

The new security measures come after a July report by The Sun that detailed how banned items such as heroin, marijuana, pornographic videos, tobacco, cell phones and top-shelf liquor are routinely being smuggled past security checkpoints at Maryland prisons.

Much of the violence in the prisons stems from disputes over unpaid drug debts or struggles by gangs for control over the lucrative black-market trade in contraband, officials acknowledged.

"We believe if we can eliminate the [underground] economy, the level of violence will be substantially reduced," Sizer said.

The new procedures, most of which take effect early next month, target access points at the state's 27 prisons. The changes will affect 7,200 prison employees and thousands more vendors, visitors and volunteers who enter the prisons, according to George Gregory, a prison system spokesman.

One of the major changes is to more strictly limit what prison employees can bring to work, Sizer said.

Correctional officers and other employees had been bringing in ice chests, backpacks, duffel bags and other items, which often did not get sufficient scrutiny, Sizer said.

The new rules require that employees bring no more food than they can eat during their shift, and that it be in clear plastic containers. The only beverages they can bring are bottles of water in factory-sealed plastic containers. Sizer said an officer was once caught using water bottles to smuggle vodka into a prison.

Also, correctional officers who bring in lunches rather than get meals from the cafeteria will have to store them in lounge refrigerators and eat them in the lounges.

The rules also prohibit staff from bringing cell phones, electronic devices or tobacco to work and from carrying more than $50 in cash.

A union official said that while not all of the changes are popular with correctional officers, they generally support Sizer's efforts.

"It sounds like sound security procedures," said Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92.

"There was some griping initially ... but some folks can see there's a problem there," Bailey said. "They have to recognize the institution has an obligation to try to stop some of those things for their own protection."

Sizer said some officers have sent him e-mails or told him privately they welcome the changes. He said disrupting the flow of contraband is important for the safety of prison staff, inmates and the public.

For example, he said, an inmate with a cell phone can bypass the prison's monitored telephone system, enabling that inmate to direct drug trafficking on the streets or to call and intimidate witnesses without being detected.

Sizer said he is tightening security measures across the board because he recognizes there has been a problem with contraband getting into the prisons.

"I'd like to say we will be able to eliminate it," he said. "But it's almost like a cat-and-mouse game. You plug one hole and another pops up somewhere else."

The prison system has had a deadly string of inmate-on-inmate violence over the past year, mostly stabbings by prisoners armed with homemade knives. Records show that the worst violence has been at the prisons that also have had the greatest contraband problems -- primarily those in Jessup and Baltimore.

While Sizer said the vast majority of corrections employees are honest, he also said a few corrupt officers have no doubt been smuggling contraband to prisoners.

Two officers were caught with drugs within the past month -- one as he was allegedly trying to deliver marijuana and Ecstasy pills to inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. The other was arrested after authorities said they found marijuana in her car in the parking lot of the women's prison in Jessup.

Sizer said his new "interdiction team" comprises officers who have proven adept at finding hidden contraband during cell searches.

He said administrators monitor the results of drug tests, contraband seizures and other data for indications of problems.

If warranted, the new squad will sweep in to a prison to conduct a surprise shakedown of the cells.

On its first venture about a week ago, the team entered a prison at 9 p.m. and worked until 4 a.m. the next day, searching 47 cells, Sizer said.

The searches turned up seven cell phones, 10 cell phone chargers and other items, Sizer said. He declined to identify the prison.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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