The drug flow: Inmate substance abuse continues despite testing, restrictions

  • Daniel May talks about changes to the Department of Corrections visitation police and drug use among inmates at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on March 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • An empty wall is seen where a row a vending machines used to be present in the visiting room of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on March 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A play area is seen in the visiting room of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord. The vending machines and board games previously available to inmates and their families were taken away in January. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Inmate Communications Committee members Evenor Pineda and Jeremy Semprebon talk about drug use at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on March 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Inmate Communications Committee members Evenor Pineda and Jeremy Semprebon talk about drug use at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on March 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Inmate Communications Committee members Evenor Pineda and Jeremy Semprebon talk about drug use at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on March 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Inmate Communications Committee members Evenor Pineda and Jeremy Semprebon talk about drug use at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on March 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 8/5/2017 11:14:58 PM

Prisoner Daniel May said he never considered snitching when corrections officers found Suboxone in his cell in Berlin in early 2015. Instead, he took the felony charge and withheld the truth about the source of the drug, even though it meant more time away from his children.

Two years later, May, 29, remains tight-lipped about where the Suboxone came from, noting he can only divulge so much without jeopardizing his own safety. May insists he was stashing the drugs for “some people” who viewed his cell as a safe hiding place because he had always abided by the rules and did not draw suspicion from guards.

“When you’re here in the prison, you’re not supposed to let people know where they came from, how they got there. You just got to take the charge,” May said from inside the men’s prison in Concord.

May called the decision “traumatizing,” but added, “I dealt with it because I’d rather have the time than be called a rat or not be able to live anywhere in prison but in protective custody.”

In a prisoner’s world, silence affords protection and ultimately one’s survival.

An inmate’s refusal to divulge the source of his drugs has become an increasingly common scenario behind New Hampshire prison walls, and it illustrates the challenge prison officials face in stemming the flow of new drugs to an inmate population often battling with addiction.

The drug trade is a lucrative business in prison, where supply and demand control is ever-changing, although continuously steep prices. In state correctional facilities, Suboxone, an opioid manufactured in clear strips, is the drug of choice, in part, because it’s so easy to conceal and because a small amount goes a long way.

Since Suboxone strips hit the market several years ago, corrections officials say they have seen an uptick in drug use, prompting top administrators to rethink policies aimed at curtailing the flow of illicit drugs into prisoners’ cells. A tighter mail policy along with heightened restrictions in visiting rooms have coincided with a steep rise – thousands more annually – in the number of drug tests administered to inmates since 2012, records show.

Commissioner William Wrenn said the drug problem reached a new level of severity the first weekend of 2017 when four men in the state’s correctional system overdosed, one of them fatally. The death of Michael Robert Cullen, 48, at the Calumet Transitional Housing Unit in Manchester involved fentanyl, a powerful opioid responsible for hundreds of deaths in the Granite State.

“Fentanyl is not a drug we commonly see in our facilities. I thought, at that point and time, that if we are going to see drugs like fentanyl coming in we need to get really serious about plugging up the holes,” Wrenn said. “Now, I’m not saying that fentanyl came in through the visiting room, but it was really the first sign of it in our system.”

As of late May, toxicology tests were still pending in the three remaining cases. In a follow up inquiry at the end of July, corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons refused to comment on the cause of the overdoses after previously indicating fentanyl may have been involved.

The lack of official information about what happened that January weekend has caused distrust and anger among inmates and their families, who say they are being punished for the actions of others. Thus far, stricter policies aim to curb inmates’ illicit behavior, but some say a more thorough screening of corrections employees is also necessary, as history has shown they, too, serve to profit from the drug trade.

The state’s Department of Corrections has not established a clear link between any of the four overdoses and prison visiting rooms, which became a target in the immediate aftermath. Instead, officials have continued to say the revised visitation policy which prohibits kissing and limits hugs to three seconds is one of the many ways it has responded to a worsening drug crisis.

Tracking violations

Several inmates at Concord’s prison for men said visiting rooms were an easy target for officials in a time of panic. While none of them denied that the Concord visiting room is a hotspot, they clarified that it is one of many at the North State Street facility, and that only a minority of inmates are to blame for the illegal activity there.

Prisoners Evenor Pineda and Jeremy Semprebon spoke with the Monitor this spring as members of the Inmate Communications Committee, an official body of the Department of Corrections which meets quarterly with the commissioner. Following the implementation of the new visitation policy, the committee asked Wrenn to compile statistics on the number and types of sanctions – including criminal charges – brought against inmates who exploited their visiting privileges to obtain drugs.

The Monitor posed a similar question to officials as part of a Right-to-Know request in February, but was told the department does not track the number of inmates who receive additional sentences as a result of drug possession and distribution charges.

Each year, officials do record the number of disciplinary violations by type at the women’s prison in Goffstown and the men’s prisons in Berlin and Concord. Dozens of offenses, including drug possession and distribution, as well as refusal to produce a urine sample, are charted in accordance with a coding system.

The men’s prison in Concord documented the most infractions for drug possession and distribution between 2012 and 2016, peaking at 205 violations in 2015. The prison houses the most inmates of the three at more than 1,400, and its services are limited when compared to Berlin, which has a drug treatment unit for offenders.

One of two drug counselor positions in Concord has remained unfilled since last October due to a lack of qualified applicants. The vacancy is part of a larger system-wide staffing problem that has plagued the department for years, as more officers are mandated to work longer shifts and additional overtime.

For inmates found guilty of a drug offense, the penalties have shifted in recent years to prioritize drug treatment over punishment. While that has left some inmates speculating whether a lighter punishment has contributed to increased drug use, all who are found guilty do face some level of disciplinary action, including loss of visitation.

Not all inmates caught with drugs are criminally prosecuted. Wrenn said officials are most interested in holding responsible the dealers and not the users caught with minimal amounts.

But identifying the dealers is tough work in a profitable drug trade that survives on secrecy.

Contested form

Inmates are punished in accordance with a three-tier disciplinary system that takes into account the seriousness of the alleged crime. First-time drug offenders are likely to receive a more lenient punishment – a mandated 25-day loss of visitation and increased random drug testing – unless security staff determine the circumstances of the case warrant an upgrade.

Any inmate who is found guilty of an additional drug offense in the next 90 days is susceptible to a stiffer punishment to include an extended loss of visitation. Drugs obtained through visits are viewed with a more critical eye.

A form included in the department’s policy on processing spot, disciplinary and incident reports has garnered a lot of attention inside the Concord prison since the new visitation policy took effect in late January. Inmates accused of possessing drugs, giving a positive urine sample, or refusing a urine test are required to fill out the form as part of the standard hearing process.

The form reads, “Because of information that the NH DOC has, we are convinced that the vast majority of illegal drugs comes into the prisons through the visiting rooms. It is the presumption of the NH DOC that the drugs you possessed/used came in through a visitor (your visitor or another inmate’s visitor).”

It goes on to say that unless an alternative theory can be explained, corroborated and verified, inmates will lose visitation with family members for 30 days and with friends for one year.

The Monitor obtained the form as part of its Right-to-Know request. When a reporter shared the form with Wrenn in an interview this spring, he indicated he was unfamiliar with it, stating “I don’t know if I’ve read this before.”

The form is part of a drug disciplinary policy that took effect in February 2016, and it names Wrenn as the issuing officer. Wrenn, a retired police veteran, has led the state’s Department of Corrections since December 2005.

Despite noting his unfamiliarity with the document, Wrenn spoke to what he believes are the broader objectives for having inmates fill out the form as part of a disciplinary process.

“I think what they’re doing is they’re saying that if you’re an inmate and we catch you with drugs, there’s a presumption that you got these drugs in the visiting room. Now, you have to convince us that that didn’t happen,” Wrenn said. “Essentially, what it’s asking them to do is say, ‘No, I didn’t get it there. I bought it from so and so.’ But, they’re not going to do that because they’re not going to rat out their drug dealer, both because they don’t want the drug dealer getting caught, and, secondly, because they don’t want to get beat up.”

Concord inmates Pineda and Semprebon said they suspect most prisoners who signed the form were provided with a summary description while it was before them for a signature, and that they did not read it closely to understand the broader implications. The men said they’re also concerned about the possibility that inmates who objected to signing the form may have been threatened with higher sanctions, forcing them to comply.

During an Inmate Communications Meeting in March, Semprebon told Wrenn he hoped the form was not used as “a gold standard” for taking visits away, because the conclusions that might be drawn from the forms as a whole are deeply flawed.

Far-reaching problem

As inmates not involved in the drug trade try to look for solutions to the ongoing issues at the Concord prison, they say there is more to the problem than meets the eye.

Inmates who agreed to speak with the Monitor said the drug problem cannot be viewed in isolation. They said a narrow focus on prison drug use and its implications for visiting rooms have prevented people from seeing the underlying issues that need to be addressed hand-in-hand.

Among the issues they cited were limited drug treatment services and programming, in part caused by routine budget cuts over the past decade; a lack of incentives for inmates to stay sober; and too few corrections officers who are overworked due to mandated overtime shifts.

Pineda said a stricter visitation policy has been demoralizing for a lot of men, who viewed the opportunities to interact with their loved ones as one of the key cornerstones of the state’s correctional system. That interaction was restricted when officials began timing hugs, and removed all board games and vending machines from visiting rooms, he said.

Semprebon echoed those concerns, adding that visiting hours have gradually diminished over the past several years, causing many to view the new policy as a near final straw. The only thing worse would be no-contact visits, he said.

No-contact visits would only be implemented as a last resort, Wrenn said. While no-contact visits are becoming more common at jails, Wrenn said people are incarcerated there for short periods of time, opposed to in prison where they could serve a couple of decades to life.

“To say you can’t have contact with your wife or your child, or your mother or your father, to me, is difficult, and it works against that theory of building that strong inter-family connection that is going to help that inmate when he leaves,” Wrenn said.

Both corrections officials and inmates are hopeful that the installation of full-body scanners at the state’s three prisons will provide an added source of security that could pave the way for a reconsideration of the latest visiting room policy.

The scanners will be installed at points along each prisons’ secure perimeter. That means inmates will walk through the X-ray scanner after visits and before returning to their cells. Likewise, new and returning inmates will be scanned in the prisons’ reception and diagnostic units to ensure they have not tried to conceal any contraband prior to entry. The current setup does not allow for the detection of drugs concealed inside a person’s digestive system.

Inmates agreed that the reception and diagnostic units of the prisons are of significant concern and to date have not been adequately addressed. But even when the X-ray scanners are installed, they said, inmates determined to continue their drug use behind bars will find new ways to cheat the system.

Without being too specific, Pineda said there are “other little loopholes that no one ever thinks about that guys explore; guys have all day here to think about that.”

No easy solution

The restrictions on the visiting room was preceded by a tightening of the department’s mail policy, updated in 2015 to prohibit inmates from receiving greeting cards, drawings and stationery. Officials argued those items had been used to conceal drugs, largely Suboxone, in the mail.

The New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the mail policy in a civil lawsuit it brought against the department of corrections in federal court. The organization argues the ban infringes on the free speech rights of families with loved ones in prison.

The clamp down on policies affecting inmates and their families have caused some to question what corrections officials are doing to ensure their own employees are not also a source of the drugs.

Nearly two years ago, a chef was arrested and charged with smuggling thousands of dollars worth of Suboxone into the men’s prison in Berlin where he worked. Charles Hanson, who began his employment with the Department of Corrections in 2004, pleaded guilty to working with an inmate on the kitchen staff to bring in the drugs. Hanson’s minimum parole date is in June 2019.

Wrenn said all allegations against staff are thoroughly investigated to the fullest extent possible. He noted that inmates will routinely blame corrections officers for bringing drugs inside the prisons without providing further specifics, including the names of those responsible.

“Does it happen? Yes, it does happen. We’ve seen it happen. Does it happen to the level that some people might lead you to believe? No, I don’t believe that,” Wrenn said.

Jack Donson, a private prison consultant who spent 23 years working for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said the flow of drugs into prisons and jails is an age-old problem that’s impossible to eradicate entirely.

“It’s more complicated than restricting inmate activities. The inmates are always one step ahead of staff,” Donson said. “You’re never going to staff it 100 percent – and that’s a silly thought anyway because there are dirty staff.”

Enhanced security may curtail the drug flow, but it will also increase the demand for drugs and the price, he said.

When May was caught with Suboxone in his cell in Berlin in 2015, he did not consider himself a part of the prisons’ active drug trade. He knew there were people making upwards of a 1,000 percent profit on street drugs, but said the risks weren’t for him.

“Everyone makes mistakes. If you don’t have the right finances in your life … people here can make things sound pretty good, whether it be staff or whether it be the inmates,” May said. “I don’t think that anyone really goes into prison thinking that that’s what they’re going to get themselves into, until they find out that they can make so much money from it.”

May said after he was convicted of felony drug possession he made a conscious effort to keep to himself and engage in programming that would help in his eventual transition back into the community.

“The code of being an inmate is you try to help out your other inmates the way that you can, but really what you should be doing is going home and helping your family out,” he said. “It’s hard to recognize that in the early stage of your bid.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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