Paying the man

December 11, 2005

Inmate Michael Rabuck's death from a heroin overdose and his parents' frank talk about threats to their son's life have exposed a thriving drug trade at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup that must be shut down. The drug bosses at Jessup haven't let the concertina wire at the maximum-security prison disrupt their livelihood. Not only do drugs move freely inside, but outside the walls collection agents operate to facilitate payment of an inmate's debts.

The consequences of fostering this trade should be severe. State prison officials are investigating the circumstances of Mr. Rabuck's death, but the Anne Arundel County state's attorney, Frank R. Weathersbee, should intervene. There is plenty to interest a grand jury: drug smuggling, shakedowns, a criminal enterprise that kills.

Mr. Rabuck's parents, Amy Stealey and Larry Rabuck, learned about this system firsthand. They were at the mercy of their 29-year-old son's addiction and his blackmailing dealers. They spoke candidly with Sun columnist Dan Rodricks about their payments, in cash and money orders, to settle their son's drug debts. The money went to the Bronx, the Washington suburbs, East Baltimore, the prison itself.

The Rodricks column last week was a poignant portrait of parents caught in the middle. It humanized the statistics that show a 20 percent increase in inmates who have tested positive for drugs this year over last year. It argued for intensive drug treatment behind the wall. But the slickness of the prison drug trade makes a mockery of renewed prison efforts to offer treatment and training to inmates to give them a better start on the outside and keep them from reoffending.

Choosing not to treat drug-addicted inmates keeps the in-house drug dealers in business. Yet state lawmakers have refused to expand the treatment and training initiative beyond just two of Maryland's 12 prisons.

Michael Rabuck was a repeat offender whose heroin habit fueled his crimes. Prison didn't curb his addiction; it fed it. Ms. Stealey says she sought help from a corrections officer once and he advised: If her son couldn't afford the dope, he shouldn't use it. That was no advice, just evidence of staff complicity in the drug trade.

In the days before Mr. Rabuck overdosed Nov. 19, state corrections officials began a review of security measures to further stem the flow of prison contraband. The state must extend its investigation beyond one inmate's death to the corrupt system responsible for it, and commit to offer drug treatment systemwide. Sadly, for Ms. Stealey, no amount of drug money was ever going to save her son.

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