Recent overdoses highlight the difficulty of keeping drugs out of jails

The grey facade of a New Jersey jali against a grey sky

Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On the first Friday of this month, four inmates at the Cumberland County jail in South Jersey overdosed in their cells almost simultaneously.

Corrections officers making their rounds noticed the inmates were in distress and alerted medical staff, who saved all four men using the overdose-reversing drug Narcan.

Although this incident appears to be an outlier — other local jails have not seen recent spikes in overdoses by inmates — law enforcement officials said it highlights their ongoing struggle to detect new forms of drugs that have become ubiquitous amid the opioid crisis.

Warden Richard Smith, who oversees the Cumberland County jail, was not immediately sure how the drugs were smuggled inside in this case, but said there are a number of ways to sneak narcotics into a secure facility.

“There are times when inmates swallow balloons, then pass them when they go to the bathroom,” Smith said. “There are times when we have female inmates who are coming in off the street who may hide things internally.”

(The Cumberland County jail has also received media attention recently for its high rate of prisoner suicides. Six inmates have killed themselves in the last three years, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

With the boom in opioid use and the new forms those drugs are taking, Smith and other corrections officials said it will become harder to use old methods to detect new drugs.

Prescription opioids can come in as pills or powder, while others, such as fentanyl and Suboxone, can take the form of a patch or a thin film slipped under a person’s tongue.

“Crack cocaine and heroin were things that we had been dealing with for years and we had developed skills, methods to detect it before it gets into the population. We had it down pretty pat,” said David Owens, director of the Camden County Department of Corrections.

“The new opiates present a great challenge to us,” he said.

Corrections officials claim they are hamstrung by a New Jersey state law that only lets them strip-search inmates when they are accused of more serious crimes or when officers have a “reasonable suspicion” that an inmate is hiding drugs.

Jails have been resorting to other measures to detect contraband, such as drug-sniffing dogs and more sophisticated body scanners.

Sandra Mueller, warden of the Ocean County Department of Corrections, said officers are also taking better care to search inmates returning from court or work detail outside the jail, where they sometimes pick up drugs.

Many inmates also receive drugs in the mail, particularly the opioid-containing medication Suboxone, she said. It can be hard to detect and she wants to avoid any contact between those drugs and the corrections officers who search the mail. The county is considering using a service that inspects mail, scans it into a computer system and then sends electronic copies to the inmates, cutting out any physical contact they would have with it.

But Mueller said no single approach will succeed in catching all of the contraband inmates try to smuggle inside.

“I just firmly believe that none of them are the be-all-end-all and you have to have a combination, a multi-level approach,” she said.

That is one reason why jails, such as the one in Ocean County, have started offering drug treatment options to inmates as well.

Mueller, who estimates 40 percent of inmates have substance abuse problems, said the jail provides mental health and drug abuse treatment, as well as a detox program that includes Vivitrol, a medication that blocks the effects of opioids. Camden County offers similar services.

In Cumberland County, Smith said his staff is also taking a “holistic” approach toward helping inmates addicted to drugs, but that the opioid epidemic is even more severe than most people assume.

“You can read about it in the paper. You can see it on the TV,” Smith said, “But until you experience it face-to-face, it’s at that time when you really are able to get the full spectrum in terms of what we are dealing with.”

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