LIMA — A new body scanner added last month at the Allen County jail has detected on more than one occasion contraband items that inmates were attempting to smuggle into the facility. And the mere presence of the machine has served as a deterrent to other smuggling attempts, according to corrections officials.
But the fight against jail contraband is an ongoing game of cat and mouse between cops and criminals.
Sgt. Todd Gresham, assistant jail administrator for Allen County, said that on first day the new scanner was in use, the device revealed a work-release inmate had ingested five balloons of tobacco which he was attempting to bring back inside the jail.
And even before the scanner was up and running, authorities called the bluff of a female being booked into the jail by telling her the machine would detect any contraband she may be carrying. The woman removed three syringes of heroin from a body cavity in response to that threat.
The new piece of equipment, which comes with an approximate price tag of $200,000, will scan every prisoner entering the jail, Sheriff Matt Treglia said when publicly unveiling the scanner in mid-November. Previously, inmates entering the jail were subjected to a strip search, but not a cavity search. And drugs, regrettably, were finding their way into the facility.
“We had a huge problem with contraband getting into our jail,” the sheriff said.
Gresham said corrections officers discovered drugs inside the jail on 10 separate occasions this year. Three inmates experienced drug overdoses — and one died — while incarcerated. Additionally, jailers found 37 cigarette lighters inside the jail this year, all smuggled into the facility via various body cavities.
Inmates found with contraband are subject to internal punishment, such as the loss of privileges. Persons found attempting to smuggle drugs into the jail are subject to arrest, said Gresham.
The jail currently holds an average of 260 each day — exceeding the state’s rated capacity of 220. And an increasing percentage of inmates are felons, due to changes in state law that now makes counties responsible for low-level felons.
“We had 5,800 arrests last year, with an average of 15-20 inmates per day being booked into the jail,” said Gresham. “And [inmates] are getting more creative. Some of them know that if they move their hands or fingers while they’re going through the scanner that it will blur the image. We have to tell them to remain still.”
Putnam County Sheriff Brian Siefker said the daily population at the Putnam County jail averages “in the high 30s,” a number that presents correction officials with far fewer concerns than their counterparts in large jails when it comes to intercepting contraband items coming into the jail.
“We haven’t seen a lot of attempts to bring contraband into the jail, but we have implemented what we call ‘two-minute pat-downs,’ which are pretty intense searches we perform on our work release inmates” each time those inmates leave and re-enter the facility.
THROUGH THE MAIL
Drugs and other contraband find their way into the jail in other ways than in the stomachs or body cavities of new arrivals. Officials in Fort Wayne, Indiana, found that out late last month when nearly three dozen jail employees were taken to the hospital for exposure to what law enforcement authorities believe was the drug fentanyl. Sheriff David Gladieux told The (Fort Wayne) Journal-Gazette the substance likely found its way into the jail through the U.S. mail.
According to the Fort Wayne newspaper, 34 jail employees were treated Nov. 20 for symptoms including tightness in the chest and headaches and other reactions associated with exposure to opioids. At least 11 of the employees were given Narcan, a drug that can reverse an overdose.
Confinement officers at the Fort Wayne jail found the substance Nov. 20 on a brown piece of paper outside a cell after an inmate tried to use an electrical outlet to light the paper, causing a small fire in the outlet. Smoke from the fire caused jail employees to become sick.
Withholding mail from inmates is not an option. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that inmates have the Constitutional right to receive mail, although jails can search correspondence in certain situations. Letters from friends or relatives can be opened and read by jail staff, while letters from attorneys can be opened but not read.
Gresham said officers at the local jail have started “gloving-up” in the wake of the incident in Fort Wayne, donning gloves and taking extra precautions against chemicals that may be contained inside letters.
Hundreds of pieces of mail intended for inmates are received daily at the jail in downtown Lima. Each piece is inspected by corrections officials.
“We can do it pretty efficiently,” said Gresham. “I can’t imagine how larger jails do it.”
Gresham said that after a jail informant reported that the drug suboxone was coming into the jail on the back of postage stamps, jail officials started removing all stamps from letters. For similar reasons, “we started ripping the backs off letters” because of foreign substances that were being affixed to the glue used to seal envelopes, said Gresham.
Any envelope that is discolored or that has lipstick or stickers are not forwarded to inmates, he added.
Creative criminal minds have forced jailers to take additional steps to ensure all legal correspondence is from attorneys.
Siefker said correction officers at the Putnam County jail go through the mail “thoroughly” and are always alert for contraband. “If something looks questionable, we’ll make a copy of it and give the inmate the copy.”
The sheriff said jailers in 2016 detected cocaine that was intended for an inmate, although no contraband has been intercepted in the mail this year.
After the Fort Wayne fentanyl incident, Sheriff Gladieux called for federal officials to overhaul rules that allow inmates to send and receive mail.
“When I’m taking 34 employees to the hospital because of their mail system, it’s time for the United States government to figure this out and stop catering to them so much,” he said. “It’s called priorities.”