The state of Colorado has enacted a law that requires all sorts of drugs to be tested for fentanyl, which is used in pain pills and heroin. But the number of inmates dying from drug overdoses rose significantly this year. The governor says he doesn’t know why but it could stem from increased potency of harder drugs on the black market like cocaine or methamphetamines, an increase in smuggled substances, or dealers purposely mixing different types together with no quality control.
The Colorado Department of Corrections is seeking funding from the legislature to establish a K-9 squad to identify drugs entering state prisons.
When a prisoner at the Limon Correctional Facility lost consciousness in May, prison authorities had no clue what was going on.
The individual had overdosed on fentanyl, which had been smuggled into the prison on the Eastern Plains. The substance is an opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
The prisoner died as a result of his overdose, and an officer who arrived to assist him was exposed to the fentanyl and got critically unwell. Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug, was administered to the officer.
“We are very, so grateful that the officer lived,” said Sherrie Daigle, the state Department of Corrections’ inspector general, whose agency is in charge of investigating crimes in the state’s prison system and keeping narcotics out.
“It could’ve been as nasty as the criminal.”
The Limon instance was one of at least three deadly drug overdoses within a Colorado jail in the previous 13 months, which occurred before the arrests of five prison personnel suspected of smuggling narcotics into the institution. The fatalities highlight a pandemic of narcotics streaming into the state’s prisons, including ultra-potent, difficult-to-detect synthetic substances that can be absorbed into paper and delivered to convicts, according to the CDOC.
“In the last two, two and a half years, we’ve discovered more narcotics than we’ve ever found in the history of the Inspector General’s Office,” Daigle said.
The quantity of narcotics confiscated in state prisons has increased dramatically over the last four years, according to data from the Department of Corrections.
For example, in the first six months of this year, the agency confiscated almost 400 grams of cocaine. The agency seized 48.4 grams of the substance in 2018.
More than three times as much heroin was captured in the first six months of 2021 than it was in the whole year of 2018. Seizures of methamphetamine, suboxone, and prescription drugs, on the other hand, were expected to surpass those of 2018, 2019, and 2020.
According to jail authorities, the quantity of narcotics collected in the first six months of this year represents tens of thousands of potential doses.
It’s impossible to know whether Daigle’s office is growing better at discovering illegal narcotics carried into state prisons or if more are making their way in.
“I honestly don’t know,” she said. I wish I had the solution to it.”
How do the medications go in?
Routine urine testing of convicts, monitoring phone conversations, and screening all mail are among the measures taken by the Colorado Department of Corrections to prevent narcotics from entering the state’s prisons.
However, convicts have discovered and exploited flaws in the system.
According to Daigle, inmates have been telling their family members to acquire a specific kind of paper with a high cotton content and then spray it with a synthetic marijuana oil known as “spice.” The oil is colorless and odorless, and it passes through the postal screening procedure undetected.
Apiece sheet of paper may hold up to 96 doses of the narcotic, which can be sold for up to $40 each within the jail. To produce a spark and smoke the drug-laden paper, inmates slip a paperclip or a staple into a light socket or electrical outlet.
“The issue is that they have no idea what dosage they’re receiving on that paper,” Daigle said.
“They have no idea how much was sprayed on there.” Even the folks who sprayed it on are unsure of the dosage. As a result, inhaling this is exceedingly risky for the perpetrator. They have really negative responses. And we just had a case where an offender died as a result of a spice overdose.”
To fight contraband, jail authorities have recently began duplicating all incoming prisoner correspondence to prevent convicts from acquiring the original papers.
“The issue is that we are unable to photocopy legal letters,” Daigle said.
“Now they’re attempting to outsmart us by sending in forged legal letters.”
The CDOC is also requesting assistance from the state legislature in addressing the issue.
The agency is requesting $300,000 from legislators for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in July, to create a K-9 drug detection unit with four teams, each with a dog and a handler. In the fiscal year 2023-24, the cost would drop to $200,000.
Officials at the state jail believe the K-9 unit will help them rapidly inspect mail and prisoner cells.
“We shouldn’t have to go in and go through every single piece of paper or go through all of their things because the dog will tell us if there’s something we need to look for more closely,” Daigle said.
The state budget writers seem to be receptive to the suggestion.
“It’s a major concern,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee’s vice chair.
Moreno, on the other hand, wants additional information from the Department of Corrections on which institutions have had the most problems with illegal substances.
There are also fears that four dogs will not be enough for the state’s vast jail system.
“In my plea to the legislators, I attempted to be reasonable,” Daigle added.
“I believe four dogs will be a wonderful beginning point for us. I’d want to have some statistics to back up my desire for additional dogs. At the end of the day, having a dog at each institution would be ideal.”
Other incidents of overdosing
The CDOC never found out where the fentanyl that killed the prisoner in Limon came from.
“In that circumstance, we did not make an arrest,” Daigle stated.
“We haven’t been able to figure out how the narcotics got into that facility.” We feel it was because of the employees.”
Five employees were charged with sneaking narcotics into the institution in the months after the overdose, however this was unrelated to the incident. (The convict who died of an overdose was not identified by the Lincoln County coroner, but the death was verified.)
According to Daigle, her agency probably charges a prison employee with smuggling narcotics into a facility at least once a month. (About 6,000 people work for the CDOC.) Inmates’ visitors are taxed at a same amount, “if not once a week.”
Fremont County was home to the other two Colorado jail overdose fatalities in the last 13 months. The first occurred on November 30, 2020, in the Colorado Territorial Prison, and the second was on July 16, 2020, at the Colorado State Penitentiary.
According to Daigle, the prisoner who died on July 16 died of a “spice” overdose.
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A request for information on the inmates who died from overdoses, including their names, was not responded to by the Fremont County Coroner’s Office.
Expanded attempts to keep narcotics out of jails, according to Daigle, is a problem that impacts not just the state’s inmates, but also the general public.
When loved ones behind prison become indebted to dealers, family members might face collateral damage.
“Keeping narcotics out of jail not only improves what’s going on inside, but it’s also critical for family members who are extorted and sometimes intimidated by drug traffickers on the outside,” she added.
“So the more narcotics we can keep out of jail, the better for everyone in the society.”
The problem is also being addressed in prisons.
Prisons aren’t the only ones coping with an apparent increase in drug trafficking. Sheriff Steve Reams of Weld County, who is also the head of the Colorado County Sheriffs Association, noted that prisons are in the same situation.
“I can’t speak for every sheriff’s office and every prison in Colorado,” he added, “but I believe I can speak for the majority of them when I say that the patterns that the Department of Corrections is seeing are very much replicated in the county jails.”
“We had what we think were many fentanyl exposures in our institution in the previous couple of months, to the point where we had five Narcan deployments in a two-day timeframe to persons who were displaying overdose symptoms.”
After providing a counterfeit tablet containing fentanyl to a cellmate who overdosed and died in June in Arapahoe County, a prison inmate was recently charged with drug distribution and bringing contraband into the jail. According to court papers, Ernest Mares smuggled eight or nine small blue tablets into the prison by concealing them in his shoe.
Two detainees died of methamphetamine overdoses in Reams’ institutions, he said.
According to Reams, he has hired drug-sniffing canines to operate in his prisons and has begun subjecting freshly arriving convicts to body scanners.
He claimed, “We’ve tried to think of everything under the sun” to keep the narcotics out of the facility.
“In the previous three to four years, the amount of illegal narcotics halted before entering his prison or detected in his facilities has gone up enormously,” he says. Initially, marijuana was used, but now cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl, suboxone, and “anything in between” are being used.
“I believe that the simpler and smaller those drugs get in dose size, and the more addictive those drugs become, the greater the motivation for individuals who are hooked to the drugs or who want to benefit from supplying the drugs,” Reams stated. “I don’t believe overdoses in prisons are any more an exception.”
Reams, on the other hand, said he isn’t shocked. Indeed, considering that nearly 80% of the prisoners in his institution are “engaged in some form of criminal narcotics commerce or illegal drug trafficking,” he adds, “it just makes sense.”
According to the CDOC, around 70% of offenders enter state prisons already hooked to narcotics. Treatment and counseling are provided to inmates.
Daigle said, “Prisons are a microcosm of civilization.”
“What it boils down to is that the issues we see on the outside are the same challenges we face on the inside,” she says.