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Nation & World

Prisons put new limits on inmate visits to help stamp out drugs

WASHINGTON – In New Hampshire, a new rule bars inmates and their visitors from hugging for more than 3 seconds. In Virginia, prisoners now must change their underwear before and after receiving a visitor. And states across the country are placing new limits on what kind of mail inmates can receive.

All of the changes are designed to keep drugs, especially opioids, out of prison.

Of particular concern is Suboxone, an addiction-treatment drug whose razor-thin strips, designed to be placed under the tongue like breath strips, are easily hidden. The drugs can help tame withdrawals for those already addicted to opioids or provide a mild high to those who are not.

Once affixed to something, Suboxone strips leave a pale yellow outline. Prison officials have found the strips hidden under postage stamps and concealed by crayon drawings. In visiting rooms, people have transferred the drugs to each other during embraces and hidden them in packages of food from on-site vending machines.

Drugs have long been a problem in prisons, but the opioid epidemic is straining the resources of prison staff in a way other drugs have not. Prison officials say they cannot stand by as the drugs cause overdoses and spur gang activity. And, they say, they have generally moved to limit inmates’ contact with the outside world after it’s been shown as an avenue for drug smuggling.

But critics question the effectiveness of the strategies they are employing, and say they unfairly restrict the rights of prisoners and their visitors while ignoring the possible role of prison staff.

New Hampshire rolled out its policy in January, spurred by four overdoses earlier that month, one of which was fatal. In addition to the time limit on hugs, the state banned kissing between inmates and visitors and removed board games and vending machine food from visiting rooms.

Inmates in one prison protested the new rules with a hunger strike. At another New Hampshire facility, inmates set trash on fire, and corrections staff used pepper spray and a Taser to quell the rioting.

“We don’t have corrections officers sitting there with a stopwatch,” said Jeff Lyons, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. But, he said, staff will break apart a hug if it goes on too long, and inmates are expected to keep their hands visible throughout a visit.

In 2015, the state tried to stop Suboxone coming through prison mail by banning greeting cards, drawings and colored paper. The state is still battling the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire over the policy, which the group’s legal director Gilles Bissonnette said is “particularly punitive to inmates who have a child family member who can only communicate through drawings.”

In Virginia, where inmates usually wear jeans and button-up denim shirts, a rule that took effect in April requires male prisoners to change into jumpsuits that zip in the back before they can go into a visiting room. The new policy also requires them to change into new underwear and the jumpsuit while in view of staff and to undergo a strip search before and after visits.

Across the U.S., drugs and alcohol are responsible for 1 percent of inmate deaths, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drug tests of roughly 10 percent of California inmates in 2014 showed nearly
8 percent tested positive for drugs, with 4 percent showing opiate use.

Amid criticism of expensive video visits and research that suggests prisoners who maintain contact with relatives are less likely to reoffend, prison officials say they are reluctant to curb in-person visits.

But they insist that some new restrictions are necessary.

“We are responding to a serious situation. We try to be open and allow prisoners as many privileges as we can, but when they start abusing those privileges we have to take action,” said Lyons, adding that the state catches visitors trying to sneak drugs into prison about once a month. “If we weren’t seeing drugs coming into mail room and visiting rooms, we wouldn’t have taken action like that.”

Some prisoners complain that the actions of a few have resulted in the loss of privileges for many.

Cassavaugh said his visits with his 82-year-old grandmother are a lot less rewarding now that they aren’t allowed to eat snacks and play cribbage. He’s collecting signatures on a letter to the governor protesting the new rules.

“I don’t want her to make that four-hour round trip for a three-hour visit that isn’t that enjoyable,” he said. She has already cut her weekly visits back to every other week.

In any case, Cassavaugh said, the measures are no match for addicts who will try anything to get the drugs they crave.

“We got nothing but time. If that’s what your thing is then that’s all you think about,” Cassavaugh said of drug users in prison. “A good number of people in here have substance abuse issues, so at that point they’re going to sit down and brainstorm. ‘How can we get this? How can we get our fix.’ They don’t care about the consequences.”

California spent nearly $15.3 million on a pilot program to curb drug and contraband issues, only to see mixed results.

Under the three-year program, which ended last year, 11 prisons received additional drug-sniffing dogs and ion scanners similar to those used at airports. Three of the prisons also used full body X-ray scanners for inmates and video surveillance of visiting rooms.

A study of the pilot program found positive drug test results dropped by 23 percent at the three prisons that received the more intensive efforts, but there was no change in the number of positive drug tests at the other prisons. And, overall, there was no change in the number of incidents of prison violence.

The state is now planning to use more drug-sniffing dogs in all of its facilities, though Steven Raphael, a University of California, Berkeley professor and one of the study authors, said the study did not indicate that method would be more helpful than any other.

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