LINCOLN — Convicted of second-degree murder and confronted with the possibility of life in prison, the 21-year-old inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary quickly found a way to blunt the edges of his new reality.
The marijuana cigarettes were rolled so slender and tight, he and other inmates jokingly called them “pinners.”
But he smoked the contraband joints for years, and they showed up on his routine drug tests, until he quit in the early 2000s. That decision helped him obtain parole in 2013 after two decades of hard time.
Now 45 and still on parole, he said almost any drug sold on the street could also be had on the inside. The list includes crack cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, K2, prescription uppers and painkillers, LSD, alcohol and tobacco.
“You could always find something in prison,” said the former inmate, who consented to an interview on the condition that he not be identified.
Little has changed in the four years since he left the system, except that the persistent problem of drugs and alcohol in Nebraska prisons may be getting worse.
The number of “intoxicant abuse” violations has increased from 1,714 to 2,348 over the past year, a rise of 37 percent, according to figures provided by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
Six of the state’s 10 prison facilities saw increases, but the steepest upswing by far occurred at the maximum-security Tecumseh State Prison. Nearly 700 violations were reported at the rural prison, an increase of 239 percent. More recently at the 1,000-inmate facility, an overdose of meth and Ecstasy caused the death of a 22-year-old Omaha man serving time for robbery.
“It’s absolutely a concern,” said Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes, “any time you see a spike in misconduct reports around intoxicants or substances — violent activities, weapons, cellphones — any of those serious contraband things that can contribute to bad outcomes.”
But Frakes said the numbers may also indicate that Corrections staff members have gotten better at finding contraband and holding violators accountable.
For example, he said the sharp increase at Tecumseh can be partly attributed to the discovery of large quantities of homemade alcohol inmates brewed in footlockers using bread, sugar and fresh fruit. Anger over confiscation of contributed to a March 2 prisoner takeover the hooch of a housing unit, which in turn resulted in the homicides of two inmates, according to an independent review of the incident.
The prevalence of drugs in prison also can be tracked through random testing of the inmate population.
A total of 1.52 percent of the 17,600 random urine analysis tests run on inmates in 2016 came back positive for drugs. In comparison, the positive rate was 2.28 percent in 2015, the year Frakes was hired by Gov. Pete Ricketts to lead Nebraska’s prison system. It was .72 percent in 2014.
The testing screens for five drugs: amphetamine, cocaine, alcohol, opiates and marijuana. Opiates and marijuana turn up most often, although the vast majority of the opiate positives are tied to legitimate medical prescriptions. Though fewer than 150 of the tests came back positive for meth in each of the past two years, that number has been growing, particularly at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
“I’m really concerned about amphetamine use, because it is possible to overdose on it, and it will drive violent behavior in some individuals,” Frakes said. “It’s really unpredictable.”
Frakes also repeated a point he made when the prisoner recently overdosed on meth at Tecumseh: 80 percent of all inmates have problems with substance abuse.
Anyone who enters a prison building represents a potential smuggler, including inmates, visitors, corrections officers, case workers, kitchen workers, administrative staff or even the contractors who come in to fix the plumbing. Money is the primary motive, say current and former inmates and prison officials.
The going rate for a single joint containing a pinch of marijuana is $10. A hit of crack that might cost $20 on the street goes for $60 or more on the inside. And a pouch of rolling tobacco that retails for $11 at a smoke shop can command $100 in prison. A mobile phone, which can help facilitate a drug enterprise, sells for up to $1,500.
“Every day you smell marijuana like it’s a cafe in Amsterdam,” said a current inmate who has served time in three of the state’s prisons and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Cash is prohibited on the inside, so most of the smaller drug transactions involve bartering snacks or soda pop or the tokens used to buy stuff at the commissary. Larger sums of money are typically handled by friends or relatives on the outside, or in some cases by criminal gangs working on both sides of the institutions.
People show plenty of ingenuity when it comes to getting drugs past the prison gates. Visitors will “keister it in,” as one inmate said, referring to the practice of hiding drugs in body cavities. Others conceal stashes in the folds of their skin.
Prison staff also have discovered tennis balls filled with dope that were slingshot over the wall and into the exercise yard. Some states have seen drug drops via drone, although Nebraska officials said they haven’t documented any such instance yet.
The mail represents another drug pipeline. Paper can be saturated with liquefied meth, which then is chewed by inmates. Suboxone strips, used to treat opioid addiction, have been affixed to envelopes or even legal documents and delivered to inmates.
All letters and packages are searched, Frakes said.
Terry Ewing, former security coordinator for Corrections, said he was sometimes surprised by what inmates managed to pull off. He recalled how several prisoners once ordered a television and had drugs hidden inside without messing up the packaging so it appeared to have come directly from a legitimate vendor.
“There was probably two pounds of marijuana in there,” he said.
Inmates risk spending time in segregation — commonly known as solitary confinement or “the hole” — if caught with drugs or dirty urine. If found guilty of a rules violation they could lose good time or other privileges, such as visits, telephone calls or recreation.
Most cases of inmate drug possession are not referred to authorities for investigation or prosecution, unless they involve larger quantities of drugs, Frakes said.
Visitors caught with any amount of drugs are referred to law enforcement authorities. The same goes for staff found with “significant contraband and drugs,” said Dawn-Renee Smith, spokeswoman for Corrections. If staff are found guilty of trafficking contraband, they also lose their positions.
To combat the problem, prison staff routinely search cells, common areas, yards and prison perimeters, Smith said. Inmates also are frequently pat- and strip-searched, she added.
Inmates, visitors and staff all are subject to random searches using hand-held metal detectors or walk-through metal detectors. Visitors and staff also must have their bags and other belongings searched prior to entering a prison.
Although prisons and jails in some other states have employed the types of X-ray body scanners used in airports, Nebraska has no immediate plans to do so, Frakes said.
The department has long used three canine teams to combat contraband, and a fourth team was recently added to help cover the 10 institutions with a combined population of 5,000 inmates.
In his experience, dogs not only do a great job of detecting drugs, they also turn away would-be traffickers at the door. And canine teams trigger an immediate reaction when they enter an open housing unit where inmates have a clear view of the commons area, the type of layout that exists at Tecumseh.
“When the handler and the dog walk in the door, the toilets start to flush,” Frakes said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has one of the top reputations nationally when it comes to addressing prison contraband. Major Scott Bowman, the department’s security director, said recent inmate testing revealed a positive drug rate of 0.5 percent.
The department employs 24 canine teams with plans to add four more to provide coverage for 25 secure facilities that house 48,000 inmates. Each Pennsylvania prison has dedicated teams of officers that gather intelligence and investigate each case when contraband is found in one of the buildings.
All staff are subject to random searches, including their vehicles. And they’re not allowed to bring lunches — all staff meals are provided at the facilities, Bowman said. When staff are caught with drugs or other contraband, outside agencies handle the investigations.
“It’s not handled internally,” he said. “We’ve had the FBI walk right in and handcuff them and walk them out in uniform.”
In Nebraska, two criminal investigators cover the entire prison system, although Corrections can also refer cases to the State Patrol. But Frakes said the department has more recently beefed up intelligence-gathering efforts with a focus on reducing contraband and other criminal activity.
A recent informal survey of Nebraska Corrections front-line staff revealed that some prison workers think the department needs to use more canine teams to conduct general searches and apply more scrutiny to staff. One employee said he had never been searched in three years of working in prisons, according to a survey conducted by Doug Koebernick, inspector general for Corrections.
Prison employees who responded to the survey also suggested a move toward eliminating “contact visits” between inmates and their friends or families. Under current rules, inmates and visitors can briefly embrace or touch at specified times during the visit. Although the contacts are supervised by staff, contraband exchanges can and do occur.
Frakes said contact privileges are taken away from inmates caught with contraband. But he said contact visits are an important incentive that helps the department better manage the inmate population. Considering that inmates who have strong family support after their release are less likely to commit more crime, Frakes also argued contact visits help inmates stay connected to their families.
A visitor apparently slipped contraband to the prisoner who died June 6 from an overdose of meth and Ecstasy, according to Koebernick’s investigation. Following the visit, staff saw a blue pouch in the prisoner’s mouth, which he apparently swallowed.
But Koebernick said his investigation could not pin down whether the events were linked.
Based on his investigation, Koebernick recommended more frequent and thorough searches of staff, more frequent use of drug dogs and a review to see whether visitor and staff searches are being done according to protocol and whether the searches are affected by low staffing levels.
Ewing, who led the effort to combat prison contraband in Nebraska from 1987 to 2012, said the spike in the number of substance violations represents a red flag. While he agreed that corrections officers have clearly rooted out more drugs and alcohol, the numbers still indicate a problem that could be tied to inmate overcrowding and staffing shortages.
“They’ve got some kind of a structural problem in their security mechanism that has created what I think is an opening,” he said.
Dennis Bakewell, a former prison warden and administrator who retired in 2013 after 36 years with Corrections, offered a different take. In his view, the boost in homemade liquor at Tecumseh may indicate inmates are having a harder time obtaining their drug of choice.
“I think there are a lot of things in place to make (drugs) difficult to come in, and that’s why the price is what it is,” Bakewell said. “The price is many times what people pay on the streets for the stuff for a reason.”
The former inmate now on parole in Lincoln said he believes overcrowding definitely factors into the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse within the prison walls. A 2014 report by the State Ombudsman’s Office showed only 13 percent of inmates were enrolled in programs aimed at anger management, sex-offender treatment or drug rehabilitation.
“The drug use is a symptom of a larger problem,” he said.
Frakes said the twin issues of overcrowding and high staff turnover create challenges when it comes to combating contraband. It takes training, time and experience for a corrections officer to learn how to read inmate behavior, where the hiding places are, what brewing hooch smells like. Nonetheless, he refused to blame the intoxicant violations on those challenges.
“In a perfect world, we’d have a few fewer inmates and we’d have a lower rate of turnover, but I’m not going to say those factors are making it significantly easier to get stuff in our facilities,” he said. “Based on misconduct reports … staff are doing a heck of a job catching people doing things wrong, doing bad things.”