ven behind the barbed wire and guard towers of America's
prisons and jails, a total triumph over drugs still
eludes the nation.
America's failure to keep drugs out of a place where almost nobody
believes they belong illustrates the problems of the drug wars as
well as the management crisis inside America's prisons.
want drugs get them. A 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study
of drug use in local jails showed that about 10 percent of local
jail inmates test positive for drugs — a percentage that slips only
slightly in state prisons. Federal facilities do the best but, even
there, motivated prisoners figure out how to get high. Since states
can opt out of BJS studies or refuse to test inmates, the study
probably understates the extent of drug use. Indeed, even the worst
inmates can find drugs: Charles Manson got caught dealing marijuana
want drugs. Bureau of Justice Statistics studies from 1997 and 2000
show that over fifty percent of inmates used drugs in the month
before their arrest and more than a third committed the crimes
leading to their arrests while under the influence of narcotics.
opponents, however, tend to agree that drugs should stay out of
correctional facilities. "It's a matter of teaching prisoners to
obey the law," opines Ken Haas, a University of Delaware professor
and former state corrections system official. "I support legalizing
drugs but if drugs are illegal in society, they can't be legal in
prison." American prisons and jails have always banned alcohol and,
increasingly, they ban cigarettes as well. Given that cigarettes
once served as a universal prison currency, legalizing drugs inside
prisons would require a massive about-face.
So how do
prisoners get drugs? Well, generally not from visitors. Since the
Supreme Court's 1979 Bell v. Wolfish decision, prison
officials have had unlimited rights to search prisoners for drugs
even to the point of performing rectal cavity searches after closely
monitored visits. Given the serious penalties involved and the near
certainty of searches, only the most foolhardy visitors dare to
serve as the primary conduit for drugs. According to accounts of
inmate like Victor Hassine's Life Without Parole, the
sequence of events works like this: First, a prisoner does small
favors for a guard such as cleaning up a portion of the prison. In
return, the inmate asks the guard to violate rules by bringing him a
sandwich or candy bar. After a series of such favors, the prisoner
asks the guard to bring in a dime bag of marijuana or tab of acid
and threatens to tell administrators about the previous favors if he
doesn't do it. Fearing for his job, the guard complies. Once this
has happened, the prisoner has the guard on a leash: He or she can't
report anything without facing serious consequences.
management causes these problems. To begin with, guards' backgrounds
make them susceptible to manipulation. Many come from the same
neighborhoods as their charges, some have minor criminal records,
and few have significant formal education beyond high school.
Training often proves scanty, while a mixture of union rules and
professional pride usually protects them from being searched.
Allowing in some drugs, in any case, has become part of prison
management. Liquor made from moldy bread and pilfered fruit juice
("pruno" in prison argot) has long been tolerated as a way of
keeping inmates under control. If guards can overlook the powerful
stench of in-cell stills, they can easily "miss" a few tabs of acid.
Legal mood-altering pharmaceuticals like Prozac have likewise become
important management tools for administrators in chaotic and
overcrowded correctional facilities.
management could solve many of these problems but might not
eliminate them entirely. Efforts to improve hiring standards, pay,
and, most importantly, training for prison guards, would probably
represent a good start. Regular, random drug testing also appears to
drive down usage rates inside prison. The same logic holds so for
criminals on the outside: A 2000 Urban Institute/UCLA study shows
that regular testing linked with clear sanctions markedly decreases
drug use for people on parole and probation. Finally, work programs,
particularly those linked to private industry, can serve the dual
purpose of keeping inmates busy and giving administrators leverage
over those who step out of line.
Alas, it may
never be possible to eliminate all drugs from prisons but America's
manifest failure in doing so highlights a serious crisis in prison