How Drugs Get Into Prisons: It’s More Complicated Than You Might Think

People sometimes are surprised when a news show says that inmates at this or that prisons have been using drugs. How do you get drugs in a prison, they ask?

Typically through the guards. It happens everywhere. In some lockups it’s barely controlled.

Part of the problem is that that guards are not upper-middle-class with degrees from the University of Virginia and high salaries. Not many people want the job. So the tendency is for a lot of the guard force to be not too far socio-economically from the prisoners they’re watching. Sometimes they even come from the same neighborhoods. They don’t make much, which makes them susceptible to corruption.

But the incentive for smuggling drugs isn’t always money, as one might think. (This isn’t speculation by me, incidentally. Books have been written on the subject by former correctional folk.) Guards can get gamed into supplying narcotics when they don’t really want to.

An example:

A new guard comes on duty. He’s green and vulnerable, not sure whether to be the tough guy to maintain his authority or be less forbidding. A con starts saying Hi and chatting a bit. Pretty soon he slips into using the guard’s first name. No big deal.

The con is slick. If you haven’t talked to prisoners in a prison or urban jail, you probably don’t realize just how friendly and convincing they can be. Next he starts doing favors for the guard. “Hey, Bob, want me to clean your area? I don’t have anything else to do.” He’s slowly getting Bob in his debt.

Next, maybe, it’s “Gee, Bob, I left my smokes in my cell. Can I bum one off you just once?”

Bob, liking the con, who after all has done him some favors, provides a cigarette. Guards in most prisons aren’t supposed to socialize with inmates or to give them anything. He has now broken the rules for the con.

The “borrowed” cigarette becomes more frequent, then routine. Then maybe it’s a pack. Then one day the con says, “I want an ounce of reefer. I’ve got two cartons of smokes you gave me in my cell, and I’ll turn you in if you don’t do it. It’s just once, and I’ll never ask you again.”

The guard doesn’t want to lose his job. But if he brings in the drugs, he’s hooked. It happens.

A buddy of mine used to run Internal Affairs in a big jail. He said that female guards were particularly susceptible. Few of them were particularly attractive. They worked daily in close contact with large numbers of sweet-talking men with no morals. Pretty soon Sally, the lonely guard who didn’t get asked out much, encounters William, a handsome and muscular guy in for armed robbery. He convincingly–for example, not too quickly–finds that Sally is the answer to his dreams. Sally wants to believe it. William talks of marriage when he gets out.

He knows, he tells her, that they can’t make love while he’s in, but. . .he sure would like some naked pictures of her. She complies.

Which is absolutely against the rules. He blackmails her with them. She has three kids and no husband. She can’t afford to lose the job. Bingo.

More elaborate games have been played. The con gets in good with the guard, gets him to start mailing letters to the con’s wife for him–which he isn’t supposed to do. This goes on for months without problem. Then the con falls into a deep depression. Bob asks why. “It’s my little girl. She just died.”

Bob is sympathetic. The con says, “Look–I don’t like to ask you this, but–could you go by and see if my wife is ok? I’m worried about her. I’m not with her, Laurie just died?.”

Bob, trying to be decent, goes to console Mary. He doesn’t know that he’s being photographed going into the woman’s house. He doesn’t know yet that some of the letters he mailed for the con “warn” her that Bob is threatening the con with bad treatment if Mary doesn’t provide sex. The dead child never existed, and Mary isn’t married, but never mind.

If Bob doesn’t smuggle in drugs, then Mary will go to the authorities, show them the letters and photos, and Bob will be on the street, if not facing criminal charges himself.

One way or another, narcotics get into prisons. Short of major changes in hiring and salaries, they’ll keep on getting in.

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