Vt. to Search Corrections Workers as Part of Prison Contraband Crackdown

Later this month, the Vermont Department of Corrections is expected to institute a new policy, approved by state lawmakers, which will allow for the searching of correctional center employees in an ongoing effort to cut prison contraband.

"We think it's important to note we don't have a significant amount of evidence to suggest that our employees are introducing contraband," noted Mike Touchette, the facilities operation director for the Vermont Department of Corrections.

Touchette said the new rule will join several efforts introduced in the past year to year and a half, to continue an ongoing crackdown on contraband. Those other efforts include searches of prisons by Vermont State Police drug-sniffing dogs, and new training and intelligence-sharing for correctional officers, Touchette said.

The new inspections will see staff occasionally turn out their pockets and open their handbags or backpacks, Touchette explained. There will never be strip searches, he said. Even though the rule does allow for pat-downs, Touchette said those will not be implemented as a part of policy at this time.

"It's much too invasive for the types of things that we're trying to capture," Touchette said of pat-downs of staff. "And we're trying to find a good balance between controlling what contraband might be coming into a facility and maintaining the integrity of our workforce."

Contraband of one sort or another is detected in a Vermont prison just about every day, Touchette said. He said the prime type of contraband detected is opiate drugs, namely dissolvable strips of opiate medication that can be abused, such as the drug Suboxone.

Touchette said the state wants to detect more of those strips and other drugs in order to boost prison safety and health.

"Inmates who struggle with addiction — when they're surrounded by drugs inside of a controlled setting, their ability to recover is greatly diminished," Touchette said.

Touchette told necn he could only think of one confirmed case in the past 18 months of a Vermont correctional officer knowingly providing banned material to an inmate. “There have been a couple of cases here and there over the past couple of years,” he added.

Touchette did note that unintentional introduction of contraband is surely more common, such as an officer who may forget to leave his pack of cigarettes in the car, and those cigarettes are later discovered by an inmate and stolen. The new searches, conducted randomly, should detect such material, he said.

The new Vermont policy was in the works long before the brazen prison break last month in Dannemora, New York. That escape, of convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, involved significant amounts of prison contraband, New York investigators have said.

Prison tailor shop worker Joyce Mitchell pleaded not guilty to supplying Matt and Sweat contraband including saw blades and a punch tool. Corrections officer Gene Palmer has denied knowing the convicts were planning an escape when he allegedly passed them meat containing tools Mitchell is accused of hiding inside.

Other Clinton Correctional staff members have been placed on administrative leave pending a high-level state investigation.

At the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, Vermont, superintendent Greg Hale told necn that after contraband is found in a facility, its origins cannot always be determined. He said contraband may be brought in during family visits, tossed over the fence from the outside, smuggled in through body cavities, or through other, more wily means.

Hale said one of the craftier methods he has seen lately includes the hollowing-out of colored pencils to accommodate thin strips of drugs inside the tube created when the coloring material is removed from the pencil. He also said legit-looking legal documents sometimes secretly contain strips of opiate medication, hidden underneath staples inside a packet of documents so their recipient can use the strips to get high.

"This is one of the more popular ways they get them in," Hale said of the document trick. "We want to eliminate it; we're always looking for new tools to eliminate it."

One former inmate, who asked that necn not use her name because she is still on community supervision following her release from prison, claimed there is corruption among a handful of correctional officers, who get too cozy with inmates.

"In the women's jail there were a couple guards bringing in drugs for women," the former inmate said. "Pretty much in exchange for phone calls when they get out; for women they're pursuing."

The woman, who served time for heroin sales, said she thinks loved ones of prisoners are too often blamed exclusively for being the source of contraband. She claimed correctional officers are a part of the equation, too.

"Families will meet guards and give them money to pick [drugs] up or meet them to give them drugs to bring in and they get a price for bringing [the delivery] in," the former inmate told necn.

The former inmate said the upcoming policy change to allow for staff searches was a topic of discussion months ago, when she was still incarcerated.

"I know a couple of the guards that were bringing stuff in were like, 'Oh we're not worried about it, they're not going to search us,'" the woman recalled.

Greg Hale disputed the notion that corrections department employees are corrupt.

"I don't think it's a widespread problem at all," he said.

Hale acknowledged there is always a possibility of wrongdoing by a small number of employees in any line of work, and insisted the overwhelming majority of employees of the Vermont Department of Corrections are dedicated to making prisons as secure as possible.

Touchette said recent efforts to tackle the issue of prison contraband seem to be working. His department said only about 4 percent of Vermont inmates who were recently tested at random for illegal drugs failed the test. That was a significant improvement from a year ago, Touchette said, and actually bested the department’s internal goal for the test.

Touchette pointed out that searches of visitors to Vermont prisons has been a longstanding practice, but the new rule provides legal authority to inspect the property of department staff.

"We didn't have the effect of law behind us prior, and I think that'll help us moving forward," he explained.

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