WATERTOWN — There’s no doubt that corrections personnel throughout the state’s penal system confront an uphill battle in keeping contraband from reaching inmates.
Drugs and weapons continue to find their way into prisons. A news item published March 25 in the Watertown Daily Times reported the following about an incident at the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility:
“The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said in a statement [March 24] that on March 9, an officer observed an inmate unsteady on his feet in the prison’s recreation yard. The inmate was brought to the infirmary for evaluation where the inmate allegedly reached into his pant pockets and pulled out an unknown object, which he swallowed. According to the union, officers frisked the inmate and found two Suboxone strips [used to treat opioid addiction] in his possession. Medical staff determined the inmate was under the influence of drugs, the union said.
“Ten days later, an officer processing a package mailed to an inmate found 14 pieces of paper that had been sewn into a pair of sweatpants. The paper, which was wrapped in plastic, was opened and had a white powdery substance inside. The substance tested positive for heroin, the union claims. The drugs were seized as evidence. The package was mailed from Waterbury, Conn.
“On March 22, an officer observed an inmate acting suspicious and intoxicated. The officer frisked the inmate and allegedly located two orange strips in his pant pocket. The inmate was placed in a special housing unit pending disciplinary charges. Also on March 22, staff was in a special housing unit to interview an inmate who was there on disciplinary charges. The inmate allegedly refused to cooperate with staff and was ordered by an officer to place his hands behind his back so handcuffs could be applied. According to the union, the inmate elbowed the officer in the face. A second officer came to assist and was punched in the face before staff administered pepper spray to the inmate. The inmate then became compliant. The two officers sustained minor injuries and were treated by facility medical staff, the union said.”
A March 27 article in The Daily News, our sister publication in Batavia, documented various items discovered inside packages sent to Groveland Correctional Facility in Livingston County: 20 orange strips of Suboxone found Dec. 28 hidden inside the seam of a towel in a package sent from Syracuse; 25 grams of marijuana and 30 orange strips discovered Jan. 6 in a package mailed from Jamestown; Suboxone inside food and personal items in a package inspected Jan. 20 sent from Port Henry; synthetic marijuana revealed through an X-ray conducted Feb. 18 on a box of food; 80 strips of Suboxone found Feb. 25 inside a pack of cigarettes mailed from Rochester.
Prison staff members at Marcy Correctional Facility in Oneida County “have seized Suboxone and K2, also known as synthetic marijuana, hidden inside mailed packages on 12 different occasions since Jan. 12,” according to a Feb. 25 article in the Rome Sentinel. Suboxone also was confiscated from inmates in early February at Mohawk Correctional Facility in Oneida County, Utica television station WKTV reported Feb. 9.
Over the past few months, representatives of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association have highlighted these disturbing incidents to persuade the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to reintroduce a secure vendor program implemented more than three years ago on a pilot basis. The policy — launched at Greene, Green Haven and Taconic Correctional facilities — compelled individuals to purchase items from select companies rather sending packages directly to inmates.
On Jan. 11, 2018, the New York Times reported that the “amount of contraband recovered in prisons increased 74 percent from 2013 to 2017, with the amount that entered through the package room increasing 64 percent …” Anthony J. Annucci, who served as DOCCS’s acting commissioner at the time, said prices would remain low as a result of to competition among vendors. But the pilot program had only six approved companies involved, which doesn’t offer the competition needed to keep costs down.
But the program faced backlash as soon as it was implemented. Families said items offered by these vendors were often at least twice as expensive as they were at local businesses. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered the DOCCS to withdraw the policy 10 days after it had begun.
It’s easy to understand why members of NYSCOPBA have urged Cuomo to bring this program back. Michael B. Powers, the union’s president and a member of the Ogdensburg City Council, has pointed out that corrections officers face increased threats of injury from inmates who obtain weapons of drugs. These are serious concerns that the DOCCS must address.
But a solution must not become a burden for people who have incarcerated loved ones. They have limited resources as well and often spend outrageous amounts of money to provide necessary items.
State authorities need to devise a method for items to be safely sent to inmates without gouging them or their families. Perhaps they could investigate why prices are much higher among the authorized vendors in the pilot program than what other companies charge. They also could use more vendors to ensure people have good choices when buying products.
It’s unacceptable that prison personnel must risk their well-being because contraband gets into the wrong hands. But it’s also unconscionable that people caring for loved ones have no options but to incur substantial debt for vital services as a result of predatory practices.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.