How hope keeps drugs out of prisons

By · Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Over the past 21-plus years, I have served time in prisons of every security level. While I was locked inside the walls of a high security penitentiary, I saw significant problems with drugs. The problems were not much less in medium-security prisons, or in low-security prisons. Ironically, when administrators transferred me to minimum-security camps, in 2003, I did not know of any problems with drugs.

The fact that drugs are a problem in prison baffles some. With solid concrete walls and rows of high fences surrounding secure prisons, people wonder how drugs penetrate prisons at all. Yet the barriers that surround the prison are not effective deterrents. Much more effective deterrents, as is evidenced by the lack of drugs in minimum-security camps, are programs that inspire hope.

Policies that extinguish hope result in prisoners who focus exclusively on living inside the institution. Since they do not see opportunities to advance their release dates or influence their lives in positive ways, they engage in activities that ease their time inside the prison.

Secure prisons are large, confining thousands of felons together. Hundreds of staff members work in the institution, some of whom are susceptible to corruption. Those staff members have access to inmate files and can read about which prisoners are reliable to participate in illicit schemes.

To supplement their income, corrupt staff members may agree to mule drugs through all of the security procedures and pass them along to their trusted conspirators. That is one of the most common ways that drugs enter prisons. Other prisoners use creative techniques to breach security. They have conspirators outside of prison work together with them, for example, to pass drugs through the mail or through visits. The walls and security measures have not been effective in keeping drugs out of prison.

In minimum-security camps, on the other hand, administrators do not have as much trouble keeping drugs out. Some may find this surprising, as minimum-security camps do not have fences or walls surrounding the prison. Despite their openness, camps run without much threat of contraband. The reason that camps run more smoothly is that prisoners inside have hope. They are closer to release; they participate in programs that enable them to interact with society; they have a higher degree of freedom. Since they do not want to lose the privilege of serving time in the camp, most prisoners abide by the rules.

To lower problems with contraband and violence in higher security prisons, administrators ought to reevaluate policies that extinguish hope. They should consider using incentives to encourage good behavior in addition to the numerous policies available to punish bad behavior.

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One Response to “How hope keeps drugs out of prisons”

  1. Claire says:

    Thanks for posting this story. My son died of an overdose in jail, and I always wondered how that could happen – how drugs could get in. I think your point about hope being the best antidote is very insightful.