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The prison drug pipeline: Technology ends smuggling, but inmates still find a way

(Associated Press/David J. Phillip)

Visiting inmates is the closest families get to their incarcerated loved one, but technology is stripping the physical access to those behind bars. While unpopular for most families, the video visiting system ends the streamline or drug pipeline smuggling from visitors by 100 percent and allows officers to allocate more resources to prisoners.

Despite possessing or providing contraband to an inmate being a felony offense, First Lieutenant Mantrese Dodson at the Guilford County Detention Center said she saw it happen “all the time.”

“People would put the drugs on the ground for the inmate to pick up and think we wouldn’t see it,” she said.

Dodson called the method of smuggling, “drop it contraband,” a common technique used until the prison reformed their visitation process.

Guilford County, North Carolina began its transition to video-only-visitation in 2012. So far, according to Dodson, the move has helped its staff allocate resources better to cater to the growing number of inmates. With the population in the facility up almost 15 percent than last year, video visits have allowed the detention center to spend more time working with inmates rather than monitoring visitors.

“It has been really helpful. People who come to visit sign in on a kiosk,” Dodson said.

Visitors check in on a computer system located in the lobby and are taken to a video conferencing room. The inmates are in a room on a different floor where they are at the other end of the video conference. Dodson says at no point do the prisoners ever meet face-to-face with their visitors. As a result, smuggling is down from outsiders by 100 percent.

“It helps us better allocate our resources to the inmates. We don’t have to have a guard checking people in and monitoring visits,” Dodson said.

(Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) tours NC Detention facility, Left to right: First Lt. Dodson Captain Rollins, Sgt. Lanier, Rep Walker)

The lieutenant, who has worked in the detention center for seven years, applauded the facility for being ahead of the curve. Across the U.S., there are more than 5,000 prisons and jails, and only about 500 detention facilities that offer video visitation.

Despite the success that Dodson says she sees first hand, the Prison Policy Initiative has taken a stance against video visitation saying that it further isolates prisoners. The PPI also takes issue with some prisons who have moved to video and charges visitors per minute to communicate with inmates.

With the rate of inmates coming in with substance use disorder or addiction at an all-time high, eliminating the risk of substances getting into the prison is a top priority. And although Dodson says the video visitation has made a huge impact in ending the streamline of drugs into the facility, she admits that inmates will still go to great lengths to get drugs past the guards.

“They will sew the drugs into their clothes, or store them in their body parts,” Dodson said.

The smuggling technique is called ‘suitcasing.’ It has gone on for years and is extremely dangerous. Prisoners will store the drugs by swallowing them packaged and then the person will wait for them to pass through their digestive system to use once inside the facility.

“Inmates will store them in their body cavities,” Dodson said. They will also stuff the drugs in their anal cavities to try to get past the prison guards.

She said all of these tactics are not new and are often easy to spot. If an inmate is suspected of suitcasing drugs in their body, they will be sent to be checked by a medical examiner due to the risks of the drugs stored in their bodies.

Studies have shown that more than half of those arrested have drugs in their system when arrested. Officials at the North Carolina detention facility admitted they have seen a spike in opioid dependency upon arrival. In North Carolina, 50 percent of the states incarcerated are jailed due to a drug offense, which is slightly higher than the national average at 46 percent.

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