The war on contraband

An inmate is searched prior to being brought into general population at the Bonneville County Jail on Tuesday. John Roark / jroark@postregister.com

A body scan, used for training, shows a suspect that was carrying roughly 60 balloons of narcotics in their stomach is seen on the scanner display, the X-ray machine is in the background, at the Bonneville County Jail on Tuesday. All persons being booked into jail must go through the full body X-ray machine, which according to Lt. Michael Pickett emits the same amount of radiation as three hours worth of sunlight.  John Roark / jroark@postregister.com

An X-ray machine used to administer full body scans is seen at the Bonneville County Jail on Tuesday. The machine has been helpful in preventing contraband from entering into the general population. John Roark / jroark@postregister.com

A tablet that allows inmates to surf the Internet, play games, and video chat with friends and family is seen at the Bonneville County Jail on Tuesday. The Sheriff’s Office claims the tablets, which have replaced in person visitations, have helped reduce contraband from entering the jail. Lt. Michael Picket says there have been cases in the past of visitors who have drilled holes through the Plexiglas or removed screws to pass tobacco and other contraband to inmates during visits and these tablets prevent that.  John Roark / jroark@postregister.com

Confiscated contraband is seen on display in the break room at the Bonneville County Jail on Tuesday. Items include a crack pipe, a zip gun — a makeshift gun from a pen and strong rubber band — and a makeshift still for brewing alcohol from ingredients such as bread, fruit and Skittles. John Roark / jroark@postregister.com

Confiscated contraband is seen on display in the break room at the Bonneville County Jail on Tuesday. Items include drug paraphernalia, even dominoes that have been painted on and soaps that have been carved into figures.  John Roark / jroark@postregister.com

Whatever flaws may be attributed to the inmates of Idaho’s correctional facilities, a lack of ingenuity is certainly not one. 

Inside the Bonneville County Jail is a display of their inventions, where visitors can find shanks made from toothbrushes, screwdrivers, pencils, eyeglasses and any other object that could be worn down to a sharp edge. There’s a club made from tightly rolled paper, a zip gun, a blade made from an arm cast.

“Shawshank Redemption”-inspired classics like a book with the center cut out for secret storage and figurines carved from soap also are visible.

Most of these items are made with the tools available in the jail. Other times the inmates manage to sneak goods in, using every hiding place and method imaginable.

“That’s the number one way to sneak stuff in, is in the body cavity,” said Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Michael Pickett, the “contraband guru” of the Bonneville County Jail.

Contraband, according to Pickett, can be any item in the jail that is not being used for its intended purpose. Even items not meant as weapons, such as the soap figurines. Pickett said he sees contraband every week during searches, and the jail finds drugs three or four times a month.

The only items Bonneville County Jail inmates are allowed to have in their possession are pictures and paperwork. All other necessities are issued by the jail, and given out sparingly.

It used to be much easier to sneak items into the jail. Items could be hidden under the tongue, in the anal cavity, and if all else failed, in the stomach. Today, however, inmates go through an X-ray scan whenever they enter the jail.

“This definitely made a huge difference on the drugs brought into the prison,” said Correctional Officer Tyrell Parmer, who checks X-rays of incoming inmates at Bonneville County Jail.

Metal objects stick out in X-ray scans shown to the Post Register by the Sheriff’s Office, but any item can show up no matter where on or inthe incoming inmate it is hidden.

“There are no right angles or circles in the human body,” Pickett said.

Deputies are trained to recognize what an X-ray should look like with no hidden items and what items may look like when hidden on an X-ray, making it easier to recognize when someone is hiding contraband.

Occasionally inmates will have metal pieces on their clothing, metal fillings and other remnants of medical procedures. Deputies are taught to recognize these, but typically check the inmates to be certain.

Correctional officers do not undergo the same scrutiny when they come and go through the facility, but Pickett said all employees at the jail undergo training to make them aware of the consequences of sneaking contraband to inmates.

“We don’t have a screening process for staff, but all staff are subject to search if we so choose,” Pickett said.

None of Bonneville County’s correctional officers have ever been arrested for or caught trying to sneak contraband to inmates, but Pickett said there had been problems in the past with kitchen staff giving inmates cigarettes.

The X-ray even picks items swallowed by the inmates. An X-ray used for training shows a man who had swallowed around 60 plastic wraps containing drugs, each of them visible when scanned.

If it’s a single bag, the jail isolates the inmate until the drugs pass through. The person carrying the drugs needs to be monitored because stomach acid can eat through the plastic, putting them at risk for a potential overdose. For a large amount like that seen in the training X-ray, the drugs must be surgically removed.

The jail also has reduced contraband by restricting the face-to-face time inmates have with visitors. Visitation today is mostly conducted through online chat using a service called Telmate. Inmates are given access to a tablet computer with limited internet access so they can schedule visits with family member.

There’s a booth at the Bonneville County Jail where inmates used to be taken to speak to visitors through a plexiglass window. Today that booth is no longer used, and the window has been covered up.

Pickett said that window provided visitors a chance to pass contraband to inmates, and that there had been incidents where visitors brought tools to remove screws on the window, or even drill through the plexiglass. Pickett said the inmates and their families have complained, saying video chat is not a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but Pickett argues it’s helped keep drugs out.

The war on drugs

Local jails see more movement in and out than prisons, but drugs do make their way into state facilities as well.

“Over the past year, we have beefed up our efforts to stop the flow of contraband,” said Idaho Department of Correction Public Information Officer Jeff Ray. “Those efforts include tighter screening of staff and visitors as they enter our facilities. We are also testing more inmates for illicit drug use. We conduct both random and targeted tests.”

Prison inmates go through a full body search when entering, though the extent varies with the custody level of the inmate. At prisons with medium security and higher, employees have their bags checked when entering.

Correctional officers also undergo a background check before they are hired.

The last time a correctional officer was caught smuggling contraband to prisoners was in 2012, when Richard Perry Cable Jr. was arrested for bringing cigarettes and other contraband into the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Boise. He was charged with two counts of introducing major contraband to a correctional facility that same year,

Ray said Idaho prisoners do not go through an X-ray when entering Idaho prisons, though prisoners typically come from county jails after their sentencing.

In 2016 the Idaho Department of Correction seized drugs in 19 incidents. Department officials said they could not accurately weigh the amount of drugs in prison, but had seized a combined 107 grams of drugs during visitation last year.

Drugs do make it through security, however.

Ryan Xaviar Morgan, 24, who was sentenced in July for aggravated assault, said he had not been addicted to methamphetamine until he went to prison. Both Felicia Rodriguez and her attorney, Matthew Hamilton, argued during her September sentencing that serving prison time would expose her to more drugs and worsen her addiction.

Of 26,206 urinalysis tests performed on Idaho prison inmates from Jan. 1, 2012 to Nov. 1, 2017, 1,953 came back positive, about 7 percent. The majority of positive results came from either the Idaho State Correctional Center (892) or the Idaho State Correctional Institution. The East Boise Community Work Center sees the highest percentage of positive drug tests at 15 percent.

Pickett has seen drugs make it into the jail as well, along with every other item imaginable an inmate might want.

“It is never-ending,” Pickett said. “It is something we have to deal with every minute of every day.”


Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.


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