Posted by Phoenix Drug Crimes Attorney Nick Alcock:
Arizona is looking more and more like the Mexican drug cartels’ gateway to the American southwest. The presence of illegal drugs inside what are supposed to be the most secure buildings in the state has led to the deaths of at least seven inmates from overdoses, all involving heroin, over the past two years. The state’s Department of Corrections classified the deaths as accidental. The Arizona Republic investigated these deaths as part of a more invasive investigation into the high rates of suicide, homicide and accidental deaths in Arizona’s state prisons.
The ability of inmates to get drugs and hypodermic needles while behind bars suggests that the Department of Corrections has its own drug problem. This is a heavily weak and flawed security system that allows a steady flow of drugs to be smuggled into the state prison system by inmates, visitors and prison staff. Corrections officials say that drugs, cellphones and other contraband can enter prisons via visitors, incoming mail, off-site inmate work crews and staff.
Corrections director Charles Ryan noted an incident two years ago at the Lewis unit in which a corrections officer was caught bringing in burritos stuffed with two cellphones and a package of marijuana. But Ryan says that inmate visitors are the biggest source of drugs. “We have visitors who may secrete contraband in a body cavity, and then pass it to an inmate who will secrete it in his body cavity,” Ryan said. To combat that, he says, the department uses drug-detection and cellphone-detection dogs. “We also search visitors through a screening device where a fan blows across the visitor, the dog sits on other side of a wire-mesh fence, and the dog will alert if there is contraband,” Ryan said.
Whether smuggled in by visitors, as Ryan says, or staff, as inmates and some corrections officers allege, drugs continue to get through. Internal incident reports for 28 days in May obtained by The Republic show that every day, correctional officers find heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and spice, along with syringes and contraband cellphones that inmates can use to communicate with drug suppliers on the outside. During cell searches, officers frequently catch inmates hurriedly flushing objects down their toilets.
Three-quarters of arriving inmates have significant substance-abuse histories, according to Corrections records, yet only one in 13 received substance-abuse treatment last fiscal year. A spokesman for the department said inmates usually don’t receive treatment until they approach the end of their sentence.
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