May 17, 2001

May 17, 2001 | Commentary on Crime

High Behind Bars

Even behind the barbed wire and guard towers of America's prisons and jails, a total triumph over drugs still eludes the nation. America's failure to keep drugs out of a place where almost nobody believes they belong illustrates the problems of the drug wars as well as the management crisis inside America's prisons.

Prisoners who want drugs get them. A 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study of drug use in local jails showed that about 10 percent of local jail inmates test positive for drugs - a percentage that slips only slightly in state prisons. Federal facilities do the best but, even there, motivated prisoners figure out how to get high. Since states can opt out of BJS studies or refuse to test inmates, the study probably understates the extent of drug use. Indeed, even the worst inmates can find drugs: Charles Manson got caught dealing marijuana in 1997.

Most prisoners want drugs. Bureau of Justice Statistics studies from 1997 and 2000 show that over fifty percent of inmates used drugs in the month before their arrest and more than a third committed the crimes leading to their arrests while under the influence of narcotics.

Even drug-war opponents, however, tend to agree that drugs should stay out of correctional facilities. "It's a matter of teaching prisoners to obey the law," opines Ken Haas, a University of Delaware professor and former state corrections system official. "I support legalizing drugs but if drugs are illegal in society, they can't be legal in prison." American prisons and jails have always banned alcohol and, increasingly, they ban cigarettes as well. Given that cigarettes once served as a universal prison currency, legalizing drugs inside prisons would require a massive about-face.

So how do prisoners get drugs? Well, generally not from visitors. Since the Supreme Court's 1979 Bell v. Wolfish decision, prison officials have had unlimited rights to search prisoners for drugs even to the point of performing rectal cavity searches after closely monitored visits. Given the serious penalties involved and the near certainty of searches, only the most foolhardy visitors dare to smuggle drugs.

Instead, guards serve as the primary conduit for drugs. According to accounts of inmate like Victor Hassine's Life Without Parole, the sequence of events works like this: First, a prisoner does small favors for a guard such as cleaning up a portion of the prison. In return, the inmate asks the guard to violate rules by bringing him a sandwich or candy bar. After a series of such favors, the prisoner asks the guard to bring in a dime bag of marijuana or tab of acid and threatens to tell administrators about the previous favors if he doesn't do it. Fearing for his job, the guard complies. Once this has happened, the prisoner has the guard on a leash: He or she can't report anything without facing serious consequences.

Poor prison management causes these problems. To begin with, guards' backgrounds make them susceptible to manipulation. Many come from the same neighborhoods as their charges, some have minor criminal records, and few have significant formal education beyond high school. Training often proves scanty, while a mixture of union rules and professional pride usually protects them from being searched. Allowing in some drugs, in any case, has become part of prison management. Liquor made from moldy bread and pilfered fruit juice ("pruno" in prison argot) has long been tolerated as a way of keeping inmates under control. If guards can overlook the powerful stench of in-cell stills, they can easily "miss" a few tabs of acid. Legal mood-altering pharmaceuticals like Prozac have likewise become important management tools for administrators in chaotic and overcrowded correctional facilities.

Better management could solve many of these problems but might not eliminate them entirely. Efforts to improve hiring standards, pay, and, most importantly, training for prison guards, would probably represent a good start. Regular, random drug testing also appears to drive down usage rates inside prison. The same logic holds so for criminals on the outside: A 2000 Urban Institute/UCLA study shows that regular testing linked with clear sanctions markedly decreases drug use for people on parole and probation. Finally, work programs, particularly those linked to private industry, can serve the dual purpose of keeping inmates busy and giving administrators leverage over those who step out of line.

Alas, it may never be possible to eliminate all drugs from prisons but America's manifest failure in doing so highlights a serious crisis in prison management.

Eli Lehrer is visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Originally published on National Review Online (05/17/01)