Vermont corrections officials seek to curtail flow of drugs into prisons


MONTPELIER -- People smuggling drugs into prison are creative. They send drugs through the mail, put illicit material inside books or even throw them over prison walls. But most often, contraband comes in when prisoners are allowed to have visitors, state officials say.

Police in April busted two women who tried to smuggle drugs into the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, a current inmate and a prisoner who had recently been released from that facility. In the past few months, police have also investigated several other contraband smuggling attempts at correctional facilities.

The week after the St. Albans smuggling arrests, though the timing was coincidental, the Legislature passed a bill to crack down on smuggling.

The bill, S.218, asks the Department of Corrections to draw up stricter rules on searching people who enter correctional facilities. The rules may include prison guards.

Searching corrections officers is a prickly subject with the Vermont State Employees Association. Both the union and DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito agree the place to start is with visitors.

Pallito said he is working on rewriting visitation rules to punish inmates found to be participating in smuggling contraband by temporarily suspending their right to have visitors.

He will also consider temporarily suspending contact visitation rights for inmates who test positive for drugs in urine samples, he said.

DOC will keep track of whether those two measures cut down on the amount of contraband in prison, Pallito said. If that doesn't work, DOC may consider issuing clear plastic bags to staff for lunches brought into secure facilities, he said, although the rules haven't been written yet so those measures are not final.

Pallito said he doesn't want to resort to staff searches. Three or four employees a year are disciplined for bringing in contraband, he said.

"Frankly, we'll never be able to get it all," Pallito said.

Searching prison guards would cost money because DOC would have to pay them for the time it takes to search them every day, he said.

"The biggest challenge is, who's going to do it and the time it takes," Pallito said.

Cases of contraband in Vermont facilities occur a few times a year and are low compared to other states, Pallito said.

Correctional officers say contraband comes in on full-contact visitation days.

"If you want to solve this problem your focus needs to be on the visitation," said Steve Howard, the legislative director for the VSEA.

The opiate addiction treatment medication buprenorphine is the most common drug contraband found in facilities, according to DOC. The drug comes in tiny film strips easy to slip inside a letter or book.

Lawmakers reacted to news reports from one of Gov. Peter Shumlin's press conferences that quoted a former addict who said it is easier to get opiates in jail than on the street. Senators started asking Pallito questions about searches, he said, and the queries led to new legislation.

In the past, DOC searched inmates at its Chittenden County facility, but after female inmates complained, the searches stopped. When more and more inmates began testing positive for drugs, DOC reinstituted searches.

Pallito says the bill shows that legislators understand and support DOC's approach to cracking down on contraband.

"In the end, this bill is kind of like a finalization of allowing the DOC to do best corrections practices even though it may spur a lot of letters from inmates," Pallito said.

DOC will also have to identify the types and amounts of contraband and the methods used to transport the contraband into prisons and other DOC facilities, the bill says. Those include "perimeter breaches," mail and contact with visitors.

DOC must recommend to legislators by Dec. 1, 2015, strategies to prevent contraband from entering DOC facilities.

The bill also asks for a number of other reports from DOC, and authorizes other measures, including criminal background checks and drug tests before hiring employees, which the union also supports.

"Our members are professionals. They are put in jeopardy when someone is hired who has addiction issues that are unaddressed," Howard said.

Another part of the bill asks DOC to study its staffing, particularly the dependence on temporary employees. DOC employs about 40 temporary employees, Pallito said. Some fill full-time slots and some are replacements when others are on vacation.

DOC must submit a report quarterly to the Legislature on the number of temporary employees employed and the date of hire and hours worked by each, the bill says.

DOC must also develop three- to five-year plans to provide adequate permanent staffing to meet the needs identified at each facility and present those plans to the Legislature by Jan. 15, the bill says.

The DOC measures are contained within a more general bill about the state's reliance on temporary employees.

DOC has issued a request for proposals for a firm to conduct a staffing study, but the bill did not include money to pay for that study, so DOC will have to absorb the cost, Pallito said.

"I'm guessing it's going to be $100,000," he said.

The union supports the staffing study because it is opposed to the state's dependence on part-time employees. The staffing study is way overdue, Howard said.

"We have a situation that's spiraling out of control in corrections," he said.

DOC must also submit a report by Oct. 15 to the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee on security and safety concerns at state correctional facilities arising from public or private entities employing offenders through work programs.

Pallito said that section must have been slipped into the bill in the final hours of the legislative session because he was not aware of it and was not asked to testify about it.

He said he plans to ask the legislative corrections oversight committee about their concerns at its meeting in July.


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