Drugs Inside U.S. Prisons

Jan 14, 2013 - by Shawn Griffith - 0 Comments

Jan. 14, 2013

How do so many illegal drugs get smuggled into prisons all over the United States? The author spent 20 years in various Florida prisons and tells how.

by Shawn R. Griffith

There is a drug epidemic inside America’s corrections system.

While serving 20 years in Florida’s prison system from 1992 to 2012 for an armed robbery, I saw every drug imaginable. Although I rehabilitated myself and quit using drugs altogether in the 1990s, that’s not the case for many prisoners. At least 60 percent of the estimated 20,000 prisoners I met inside frequently used drugs. After serving time in 18 different Florida prisons, never once did I witness an institution free of narcotics. Moreover, I met hundreds of men on transfer from other state prisons, and most said that the prisons from which they had come had more drugs than Florida’s institutions.

While doing research for my book, Facing the U.S. Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong, I unearthed a number of disturbing statistics related to drug addiction of U.S. prisoners. These stats have supported my own observations in Florida. Experts in one study found that 50 to 60 percent of prisoners had drug addictions severe enough to warrant intensive drug treatment. In addition, according to the Department of Justice, a study conducted in 2004 showed that 17 percent of all state prisoners and 19 percent of all federal prisoners admitted to committing their crimes to buy drugs. Of these drug-related offenses, 9.8 percent committed by state prisoners were violent crimes. In 2007, 3.8 percent of the 14,038 homicides were known to be narcotics-related. That’s equal to 533 victims of drug-related murder.

After considering these statistics, I would say that having so many prisons in the U.S. with a dynamic drug culture is a serious problem. What I wonder is just how many addicted prisoners today will commit a new murder of some unsuspecting victim tomorrow. It will occur. And it will occur partly because the system fails to adequately address the drug problem when officials have addicts inside prison. Something to think about when the question of funding prison drug programs invariably arises for public debate.

Nonetheless, the issue is not just a demand for effective drug rehab programs, but also reducing or eliminating drugs from the prisons altogether. Institutional programs are less effective when addicted prisoners go back to their dormitories and get a contact buzz from their druggy roommate or cell neighbor. The problems must be addressed holistically.


Questions and Answers about Drugs in Prison

When I speak with people during lectures on the criminal justice system, a lot of people ask me questions related to this topic: What types of drugs are most prevalent? How expensive are they? How do prisoners pay for them, and how do so many drugs get into the facilities?

These are good questions. Since most Americans have never been to prison, they rarely understand many of the things that go on inside the walls. For this reason, I’m going to share some personal experiences and other observations to answer these questions. Let’s begin with a few of the narcotics seen more often than others and a few examples of what they cost.

Marijuana is by far the most frequently used. It is cheaper compared to other drugs, such as opiates and depressants. A small amount, about the quarter size of a sugar packet, sells for $5. This is not to suggest that more potent drugs are less available. The prisons definitely have Roxies, Oxycodones, and other pills, including Valium, Xanax, and Ecstasy. They are just a little less frequently used, because of their cost. These “designer drugs” carry a high price inside. For instance, one Xanax “football” or one 7.5 mg pain pill of Lortab will cost between $10-to-$15, and users usually require more than one to get high. An Ecstasy pill can cost $25 or more, and just one Roxy or Oxycodone can run up to $30.

Another new drug has also become prevalent in prisons. It is called “Spice,” or “K2.”A myriad of state prison systems have been flooded with this synthetic marijuana. In its many different varieties, it still costs about the same as pot does. Forty-five state legislatures have recently banned these artificial bath salts, potpourris, and cannabinoids from legal possession and sales.Florida’s ban is covered under F.S.§893.03, which makes the possession or use a third-degree felony. The federal government has also taken action against the drug. In July of 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was signed into law. It banned synthetic compounds commonly found in synthetic marijuana, placing them under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Yes, before these bills were presented, the drug was actually legal outside of institutional settings. This is why it became so common inside prisons. Indeed, now that the push to make it unavailable has begun, it will likely cause the price of it to double inside penitentiaries. It won’t go away; it will just become more expensive to buy.

Cocaine and heroin are also available in prison, and these hard drugs usually cost more than others, depending on their potency. To get high just once or twice will run a prisoner at least $40 or $50, and dealers generally won’t deal with someone inside for less than a $50sale of these types of narcotics.


When a prisoner has run out of money to buy coke or heroin, violent robberies against other prisoners usually begin to increase. Because stabbings and other assaults are directly linked to hard drugs, prison officials pursue investigations more assertively against their proliferation. Thus, prison dealers limit the small-time sales as much as possible, to lessen their risk of being “snitched” on. A prisoner who runs out of crack cocaine because of little money will usually ask the dealer to give him some for free or on “front,” as a loan until the addict can rob someone or have more sent to his inmate bank account. If the dealer says no, which inevitably happens, desperate addicts might set the dealer up for a robbery or go tell authorities in retaliation. This creates a problem most inmate dealers wish to avoid. For this reason, dealers target sales to those prisoners who have better access to funds.

Funds come from a number of different sources. For prisoners who have little of their own resources, they get money sent from family and friends. No, that doesn’t mean that most grandmothers or mothers are knowingly sending their incarcerated relatives money for cocaine. Most incarcerated addicts will come up with some manipulative story about needing a new pair of tennis shoes or some other pressing need. Once the money is received, however, the addict will then have the money transferred.This process is called a “mail out,” because the addict mails out the money from his or her own account to wherever the dealer wants it.

Not everyone comes to prison broke. For those prisoners with a sizeable bank account on the outside, drug use is fairly easy. Prisoners are allowed to use money they’ve earned before incarceration. They can purchase commissary or things through the mail. If they want to send money to a wife or friend, they can. In fact, getting the drugs is the least of their worries. For every prisoner who has money for drugs, there are at least 25 addicts who don’t. Having drugs can be a dangerous proposition for rich inmates who might not be as street savvy or tough as those with rougher backgrounds.


A Cautionary Tale

I have seen firsthand how drug addiction can also increase violence inside prison in this way. My anecdote is about a prisoner addicted to crack cocaine. Everyone called him Reese, but his real last name was Bell. He was a black homosexual who sometimes wore lipstick and tight shorts. Anyone who was fooled by his appearance didn’t have long to find out how dangerous this “sissy” really was. He repeatedly robbed affluent inmates for crack cocaine or valuables to purchase it. He also had attempted suicide so many times that his arms and chest were covered with hundreds of deep-slash scars. He was a fighter and loved to cut his enemies, including himself. I was at a prison with him in 1989 and again in 2010, at Tomoka Correctional Institution, the prison from where I was released in 2012.

One night in 2010, as I was talking to a loved one on the phone, I heard a commotion and saw Reese fighting with another inmate. Some blows were exchanged; the altercation only lasted a few minutes. Of course, incidents involving someone like Reese always made me increase attention to my surroundings. As I continued the discussion on the phone, I started to look for Reese in our closed-in dormitory. I didn’t see him, but I did see his opponent. He was sitting in front of the television with his back turned as if nothing had happened. Not good! I also knew this inmate, named Diggs, and knew that he was a little slow, yet frequently had money. I watched intently because the tension in the dorm was also higher than usual, which signified to me that the altercation was not over. Reese also had threatened to finish business later, and I knew that he meant it.

In a show of stupidity, masked as tough bravado, Diggs just kept watching television as if Reese was no threat. I saw Reese, with a shiv in his hand, and Diggs had no idea what was coming. Reese came up to me. He didn’t say anything, but used my body to hide behind. This crazy addict was literally crouched beside me, looking like a mad animal on the hunt, bumping up against my leg. His hand gripped the homemade knife tightly.

Reese then moved suddenly, violently stabbing Diggs in the neck, and then backed away. They then fought, with Diggs grabbing a large trash can, to shield himself until the officers came and apprehended them. Diggs survived, and later I learned that the altercation was about drug money. Reese was transferred to Dade Correctional Institution, where, within the same year he killed another inmate. He was sent to Florida State Prison, and the next year he committed suicide.


Guards Smuggling Drugs into Prison

Drugs in prison increase violence in prison. Usually the inmates who get robbed and physically harmed have nothing to do with making drug deals. They get victimized because of someone else’s addiction, and yet another person’s greed. These drugs do not miraculously appear out of thin air. Someone is trying to make a profit at other people’s expense, and someone has to get them inside the facility.

About 50 percent of the smuggling is carried out by guards themselves. How do they get them inside? One of the common ways is for them to make a big lunch or other meal and slip the drugs into their food. A compressed quarter ounce of marijuana fits well between a bologna sandwich. When the guard decides to throw away the uneaten part of his lunch, and the inmate orderly who cleans his office slips the sandwich into his pocket, who would know the difference? Nobody. Even if another inmate were to see, most would think nothing of it. Even non-drug-smuggling corrections staff will frequently reward inmate lackeys with leftover food from their lunch boxes.

If another prisoner were to witness a drug transaction between a guard and another convict, opening his mouth could lead to serious consequences. Not only does he have to worry about the repercussions of snitching on the prisoner, but more dangerously, the guard could have another inmate or corrupt officer bypass any safety measures, such as protective custody, and he could find himself with a shank in his back. This is a common fate for informers against corrupt guards.

Another common way for guards to smuggle is simply to place the drugs somewhere on their bodies and meander into the facility with them. Compressed freezer bags of dope taped around a mid-section, pain pills that look similar to prescription medications, and ballpoint pens stuffed with crystal meth in plain view are ways drugs get inside. After all, who better to know how to smuggle than the security personnel themselves.

I remember drug drops made by a guard at a prison in the 1990s whohad just started working a few months earlier. One day he approached my cellmate, who was dealing marijuana. He told him to beware of two sergeants who were investigating his mail and the consecutive sequence of money orders that had reached both my cellmate and one of his user customers. This was a routine way of identifying inmate dealers, because families don’t usually send other inmates money at the same time that they send it to their relative. The sequential money orders in different envelopes (with serial numbers only one digit apart), yet with similar handwriting, are dead giveaways.

My cellmate was shocked. He hadn’t spoken with this guard before he had been provided with such pertinent information. Since my cellmate had been buying his drugs from an inmate supplier, he could not see the connection or understand why this officer had told him about the investigation. The dealer thought that maybe the officer was looking to exchange information, to allow him to deal and become a snitch on everyone else. My cellmate was not a snitch, and secretly discussed this with the guard. The guard said he didn’t need anything in return. But to make the corrupt cop look good, my cellmate placed a large knife made from a lawnmower blade inside the trash can so the guard could find it. This would allow the rookie to garner respect from veteran guards who might not otherwise trust him.

About two weeks later, the rookie guard returned the favor. He walked into our cell, opened up his button-down uniform shirt, and pulled out two large freezer bags of premium marijuana wrapped and taped around his midsection. He dumped them on the locker and handed my cellmate an address to where the money should be mailed. To my cellmate’s delight, the rookie was the true supplier of the drugs my celly had been buying all along, only now, my celly had been tested and was trusted by the rookie. They simply cut out the middle man.



Much of the blame for drugs inside prisons rests with the guards, and many more ways have been employed by corrections employees to smuggle drugs inside prison.  But prisoners themselves also come up with ingenious ways. About 50 percent of the narcotics smuggled into the penitentiaries originates through prisoners’ outside sources. The most frequent of these involve visitations with friends and family, mail packages,outside work details, and recreational, educational, or hobby-craft equipment donations.

Unfortunately for the children and families of prisoners who obey the law, contact visitation gets a bad rap for its role in smuggling drugs. For those wondering if prisoners really smuggle drugs by placing them inside their rectal cavities, yes, it’s true. This is by far the most common method of sneaking drugs into correctional facilities by inmates, rather than guards. It’s called “suitcasing.”

This is how it’s done. A friend or family member of the prisoner will go get the drugs. If the narcotics are pills or are in powder form, compression is not necessary. For larger packages like marijuana, the dope is wrapped flat in some type of sealed package, usually plastic wrap, and then placed into a book. The book is placed under a car’s tire, some other heavy object, or squeezed with a heavy vise overnight, folded in half the next morning, and compressed again. This process is repeated enough times until it is compressed into a rectangular-shaped packet, about one inch wide by three inches long. A packet of this size can hold up to an ounce or two of marijuana, and many times that amount of cocaine or heroin. This is then jammed down into a roll made for quarters and wrapped tightly with tape. This is usually electrical tape, because it is more pliable for insertion into the rectum.

Before rectal insertion, the prisoner prepares by either bringing a small packet of KY jelly or lotion to the visitation room. To avoid detection of this lubricant, the offender will hide it away stitched within his clothing, shoes, or even inserted inside himself. Ordinarily, five to seven guards provide surveillance inside the visitation area, but this number is frequently reduced to as few as three officers during lunch or during disturbances on the main compound. In other cases, guards have to conduct body strip searches of inmates coming into and out of the area. This reduces security and provides an opportunity for inmates to steal a kiss or a sexual act from their visitor. It is also the time, when the coast is clear, for the pass off of drugs to occur. The visitor then pulls the packet out of a bra, panties, shoes or other crevice of concealment and the pass is made. Some cons are so adept at the process that no bathroom is necessary. They simply put some lubrication on the end of the tube-shaped package, and up the rectum it goes. Some men can successfully suitcase three or four of these at a time. For female prisoners, using the vagina and the anal cavity can increase the quantity to six or seven packages amounting to multiple ounces of dope.

Once visitation has ended, the prisoner gets stripped and told to bend over and cough. Nine times out of 10, the package is far enough up the anal cavity that it can’t be seen by the guards. The prisoner gets dressed, goes back to his dorm, and sits on the toilet. After the dope is defecated, it is then rinsed off and opened. The problem with many packages of dope is that the visitors don’t adequately seal the packet, causing the dope to be tainted with feces. Does that dope get flushed? Not at all.The dealers who smuggle heroin or coke will sell these tainted drugs to unsuspecting junkies, who then shoot the bacteria-filled dope into syringes and veins, sometimes causing infections, septicemia, or even death.

Although most dope smokers in prison get away with smoking by making sure the smoke goes directly in the cell exhaust vent, some inmates are less careful than others. Many hallways will smell like crap-smoke later in the day.

Mail packages, especially yearly gift packages from families and case work supposedly from legal agencies, commonly contain drugs and paraphernalia. One example that I witnessed involved a pair of shoes. Inside these Fila basketball shoes, the high-top cushions were cut out and replaced with saran-wrap-filled, fluffy, hydroponic weed, then neatly sewed up. The inside walls of the shoe also had a handcuff key, and between the bottom and the sole cushion $500 in cash and half of a hacksaw blade were hidden. These shoes made it into the prison and were never discovered by authorities, similar to the way that legal packages with dope get by security measures.


Legal Mail Packages

Legal-mail packages are the only ones that may not be opened by prison officials without the prisoner recipient’s physical presence, for confidentiality reasons. Designing the packages of pot or other drugs is fairly simple. Frequently, the con will have some collaborator on the street get a 200-300-page transcript from the courts, take it home, and cut a section out of the top, where the holes made by a holepunch have a brass slide and are covered by some folder top or other common binding. They then place a compressed packet of dope in the cut-out section and super glue the pages around the cut. This way, when staff flips through the transcript, the little inch or two margin at the top just looks like it stays closed because of the normal brass prongs that go through the holes. On the return address they put an attorney’s name and address or even the court from which the transcript originated.

Cons love this method. Frequently, they will not even have the package mailed to themselves. Instead, they will send a contraband package to some other prisoner, without even telling the prisoner that the dope is on the way. This is why authorities cannot always stick someone with a charge or conviction for smuggling through the mail. They know that oftentimes the recipient knows nothing about the drugs. The true perpetrator knows that the package is coming. The creative con also knows when it arrives, because legal-mail packages are usually posted on bulletin boards inside dormitories, with the names of the recipients. This enables the prisoners to know when to go pick up the legal package from the mailroom staff. After the dope is safely in the hands of the unsuspecting inmate, the real culprit will approach the duped inmate and either offer him a cut, or strong-arm the package away, depending on the reputation of the unsuspecting convict.


Donated Equipment

Visitation and mail packages are particularly common for smuggling into maximum security facilities. Another method involves hiding dope or guns inside recreational equipment that has been “donated” to a prison chapel or recreation office. Because these pieces of equipment usually have metal inside their designs, the contraband won’t be detected by ordinary correctional methods, such as metal detectors.

For instance, a scheme was discovered at Tomoka Correctional Institution, Daytona Beach, Florida in 2011 involving two inmates who had cell phones and dope hidden inside a large musical keyboard. These artists played the tune of smuggling three successful times, without detection. A jealous competitor them snitched them out to authorities. Later, rumor had it that these same prisoners were making mobile calls from confinement to retaliate against the snitch. Business and more violenceas usual.


Outside Work Details

For facilities that house minimum-custody inmates, however, a method more common than visitation, mail, or donated equipment involves outside work details. Most of the public has seen the guys with the striped uniforms working along some county road, usually with some red-faced guard supervising them. What might be shocking to most are the primary culprits who aid and abet these guys’ access to ganja. There are some women in the outside world, especially younger ones, who are fascinated by convicts or “bad boys.” A person only has to read bizarre stories of women marrying murderers on death row to know this is true. In the case of drug smuggling, these girls are responsible for tons of narcotics getting into facilities. Some girls just drive by and throw one joint to a handsome prisoner. Others throw whole ounces, without even knowing the convict.

In other cases, a girlfriend, or any other loved one for that matter, male or female, places a package of dope close to a work camp or other minimum-custody facility. The inmates who have mowing, painting, weeding, or some alternate work assignment will make a call to have this arranged. In the morning, when they exit the facility, they will work as usual and pick up the drugs from their concealed spot. When the workday is complete, they stash the dope inside a mower, truck, or some other instrument of concealment and walk into the secure area. They get physically stripped searched, wash up, and then grab their equipment and go to place it into its assigned storage locker, shed, or other unit inside the institution. Within hours, deals are being made.



Unfortunately, I have more knowledge about this topic than I’d like to admit, and I’m glad that lifestyle is far behind me. Sometimes I wish that I could just forget it all. After years of rehabilitation, however, I feel compelled to use my past to educate people so that our society can eventually develop a more effective corrections system in the United States. Education is half the battle to instituting effective drug interdiction and intervention inside prisons.

To combat the scourge of drugs in prisons, reformers and concerned citizens will face much resistance over the cost of drug rehabilitative programs, aftercare for released prisoners, mentoring programs, and family initiatives. However, people need to argue back that one murder by a drug-addicted recidivist can carry no price tag. Furthermore, the cost of one prisoner is tens of thousands of dollars annually. If taxpayers spend only $5,000 on rehabilitating one drug-addicted prisoner, who then becomes a taxpayer himself, the amount of corollary tax savings is appreciable. In the debate, reformers must include the public dole for the victim’s family, years of welfare for the children of reoffending prisoners, lack of child support, lack of healthcare for prisoners’ children, and so many more responsibilities missed by an otherwise drug-free, taxpaying mother or father.

The time for changing our corrections system is now. Drug use in our prisons should be completely unacceptable. Laws and more corrections guards have not stopped it. The source of the problem is the addict’s demand for it. This core of the problem must be addressed with effective drug treatment for addicted inmates, both while in prison and after release.

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