By JESSE PAUL, The Colorado Sun

DENVER (AP) – Prison staff had no idea what happened when an inmate suddenly lost consciousness at Limon Correctional Center in May.

It turned out that the man was overdosing on fentanyl which had been introduced into the Eastern Plains settlement. The drug is an opioid that is said to be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

The inmate’s overdose was fatal and an officer who responded to help was exposed to fentanyl and became extremely ill. The officer received Narcan, an opioid overdose drug.

“We are so, so grateful that the officer survived,” said Sherrie Daigle, the inspector general of DOC, whose office is responsible for investigating crimes within the state prison system and keeping drugs outside its facilities. “It could have been as bad as the offender.”

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The Limon case, which preceded the arrest of five prison staff on charges of drug trafficking at the facility, was one of three fatal overdoses in a Colorado prison in the past 13 months. The deaths highlight what the CDOC says is a narcotics scourge pouring into state facilities, including ultra-potent, hard-to-detect synthetic drugs that can be soaked up in paper and sent to inmates.

“We have found more drugs in the past two, two and a half years than there have been in the history of the Office of Inspector General,” Daigle said.

Data from the Department of Corrections shows a sharp increase in the amount of drugs seized from state prisons over the past four years.

In the first six months of this year, for example, the agency seized more than 400 grams of cocaine. In 2018, the agency seized 48.4 grams of the drug.

In the first six months of 2021, more than three times the amount of heroin seized compared to all of 2018. Seizures of methamphetamine, suboxone and prescription drugs, meanwhile, are expected to exceed their levels. 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The amount of drugs seized in the first six months of this year represents tens of thousands of potential doses, according to prison officials.

Daigle said it is difficult to say whether his office is improving in finding contraband drugs smuggled into state prisons or if others are found in institutions.

“Honestly,” she said, “I don’t know. I wish I could answer that question.

– How does the drug get in

The Colorado Department of Corrections is taking a number of steps to keep drugs out of state jails, including routine urine tests on inmates, monitoring phone calls, and screening everything. the mail.

But there are loopholes in the system that inmates have found and exploited.

Daigle said the prisoners asked their family members to buy a special type of high-cotton paper, then spray it with an oil containing synthetic cannabinoids, colloquially known as “spices.” The oil is colorless and odorless and cannot be detected during the mail filtering process.

Each piece of paper can hold up to 96 doses of drugs, which can sell for up to $ 40 each inside the prison. Inmates insert a paper clip or staple into a power outlet or electrical outlet to create a spark and smoke the drug-laden paper.

“The problem is, they don’t know what kind of dose they’re getting on this paper,” Daigle said. “They don’t know how much was sprayed over there. Even the people who sprayed it there don’t know what the dose is. So it’s extremely, extremely dangerous when the offender inhales that. They have severe reactions. And we recently saw an offender die of a spice overdose.

Recently, prison authorities have started to photocopy all incoming mail from inmates to combat smuggling by preventing inmates from obtaining the original documents.

“The problem is, we can’t photocopy legal mail,” Daigle said. “And now they’re trying to beat us by sending bogus legal mails.”

The CDOC is also asking the state legislature to help them resolve the issue.

The agency is asking lawmakers $ 300,000 for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, to establish a K-9 drug detection unit that would consist of four teams, each with a dog and a handler. The cost would decrease to $ 200,000 in fiscal year 2023-24.

State prison officials say the K-9 unit would allow them to quickly screen inmate mail and cells.

“By having the K-9, we shouldn’t have to go through every piece of paper or go through all of their properties because the dog will let us know if there is anything we need to look harder for.” Said Daigle.

State budget writers seem open to demand. “This is extremely problematic,” said State Senator Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City who is deputy chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.

But Moreno wants to see more data from the Corrections Department on which facilities have had the biggest problem with contraband drugs.

There are also concerns that four dogs for the state’s sprawling prison system may not be enough.

“I tried to be reasonable in my request to the legislature,” Daigle said. “I think four dogs will give us a good starting point. I would like to have some data behind us to support a request for more dogs. In the end, it would be wonderful to have a dog in each facility.

The CDOC has never determined how the fentanyl that killed the inmate in Limon entered the prison.

“We have not made an arrest in this case,” Daigle said. “We have not determined how the drugs entered this facility. We think it’s through the staff.

Five staff members were charged over the following months with drug trafficking in the facility, but unrelated to the overdose. (The Lincoln County Coroner did not provide the name of the inmate who died of the overdose, but confirmed the death.)

Daigle said his office is likely indicting a prison worker at least once a month for bringing drugs into an institution. (The CDOC employs about 6,000 people.) People who visit detainees are billed at about the same rate, “if not once a week.”

The other two overdose deaths in Colorado jails in the past 13 months have been in Fremont County. One was on November 30, 2020, at the Colorado Territorial Jail, while the other was at the Colorado State Penitentiary on July 16.

The inmate who died on July 16 died of a “spice” overdose, Daigle said.

The Fremont County coroner’s office did not respond to a request for information on inmates who died of overdoses, including their names.

Daigle sees increased efforts to keep drugs out of prisons to be an issue that affects not only the state’s prison population, but the community at large.

Family members of detainees can be collateral damage when loved ones behind bars run into debt with traffickers.

“Keeping drugs out of jail not only helps what’s going on inside, it’s also very important for family members who get extorted and who are sometimes threatened by drug dealers in the. outside, ”she said. “So the more we can keep drugs out of jail, it will help everyone in the community. “

– Prisons also take care of the problem

Prisons are not the only ones facing an apparent increase in drug smuggling problems. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, who is the chairman of the Colorado County Sheriffs, said the prisons are in the same boat.

“I can’t speak for every sheriff’s office and every state prison in Colorado, but I think I can speak generally in saying that the trends the Department of Corrections is experiencing are reflected in the county jails, ”he said. . “Over the past two months, we’ve had what we believe to be multiple fentanyl exposures at our facility to the point where we’ve had five deployments of Narcan within a two-day window for people with overdose traits.”

In Arapahoe County, an inmate was recently charged with distributing drugs and smuggling into the prison after handing over a counterfeit pill containing fentanyl to a cellmate who overdosed and died in June . Ernest Mares brought eight or nine small blue pills into the prison hiding them in his shoe, court documents show.

Reams said he also killed two inmates of methamphetamine overdoses at his facilities.

Reams said he brought drug sniffer dogs to work at his facilities and started handing body scanners to newly arrived detainees. “We tried to think of everything under the sun” to keep drugs out of the facility, he said.

The amount of illicit drugs arrested before entering his prison or found at his facilities has “increased exponentially over the last three or four years, I would say.” At first it was marijuana, but now it’s gone to cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl, suboxone “and everything”.

“I think the easier and smaller the dose of these drugs, the more addictive these drugs also become – this is a huge motivation for those who are addicted to drugs or want to profit from the distribution of the drug,” he said. declared Reams. . “I don’t think we can call overdoses in prisons an anomaly anymore.”

But Reams said he wasn’t necessarily surprised. In fact, he says, “that doesn’t make sense,” given that around 80% of the inmates at his prison are “involved in some sort of illegal narcotics or illegal drug trade.”

The CDOC estimates that around 70% of its inmates enter state prisons that are already addicted to drugs. Detainees receive treatment and counseling.

“Prisons are a microcosm of society,” said Daigle. “And really, it comes down to what the challenges we see on the outside are the same challenges we face on the inside.”

Copyright 2021 Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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