When Prohibitions Fail in Prison, How Can They Work in the World Outside?

Jailhouse black markets make a mockery of restrictions imposed in what are literally miniature police states.


Last week, Karl Jensen and Lisa Mary Hutchinson were sent to the lockup for smuggling a knife, drugs, and a McMuffin into the UK's Wormwood Scrubs prison. Maybe somebody still on the outside will toss a sandwich over the wall to help them pass the time. In a related story, at about the same time Larry Michael Webb and Holly Nicole Wagner were charged for mailing drugs to an inmate in Tennessee's Hawkins County Jail. The main distinguishing feature for the people involved in both incidents is that they were among the unlucky few traffickers in prison contraband who were actually caught

Drugs, booze, weapons, and (apparently) breakfast are only part of the vast world of smuggled goods that flow around the walls, bars, gates, and guards at penal institutions in response to strong demand and in defiance of legal and physical barriers. The illicit trade makes a mockery of restrictions and prohibitions imposed in what are literally miniature police states—and points to the impossibility of imposing similar controls in the larger and relatively free society outside the walls.

Given the role the War on Drugs has played in populating the nation's prisons, it's no surprise that all sorts of intoxicants retain their allure behind bars. Alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and the like may be strictly forbidden in prison, but they're widely available anyway. The Florida Department of Correction reports stumbling across over 13,000 grams of synthetic cannabinoid, 2,000 grams of the real stuff, as well as coke, booze (commercial and homebrew), and thousands of grams of other recreational substances in its institutions last year. During a 2013 mass urine-testing, California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that "nearly 23 percent of the inmates who voluntarily participated tested positive for one or more illicit drugs." The 30 percent of inmates who refused to submit samples might have made those results even more impressive.

Plenty of those buzzed prisoners are violent, or trying to defend themselves from other inmates who are. That's such a prison tradition that exhibits of improvised and smuggled weapons are standard attractions offered by corrections facilities for the edification of the public. The Texas Prison Museum touts "the craftiness and creativeness of inmates who manufacture weapons from materials found within the prison units." Florida advertised its similar exhibition with a press release asking, "Have you ever seen a prison shank (or homemade weapon), or a zip gun?" Shanks are the most common weapons inside prison walls, to the point that National Criminal Justice Reference Service researchers went to the trouble of testing new and supposedly unsharpenable materials for toothbrushes, razors, and broom handles. But guns are sufficiently common that several inmates were charged in 2014 with smuggling a pistol into Florida's Columbia Correctional Institution—not to settle a score, but to shoot themselves as part of a fraudulent lawsuit against the prison.

Florida Man gets around.

The self-inflicters of those wounds already had a history of smuggling drugs and cellphones into the institution. The prison yard trade in cellphones exploded over the past 15 years, as inmates discovered the joys of remaining connected to friends, family, and criminal associates. The 261 phones nabbed by California's correctional officers in 2006 soared to 2,811 in 2008, according to the state's inspector general, rising again to 15,000 in 2011, as revealed by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST). California passed a specific new law criminalizing possession of illicit cellphones in 2011, in hope that prisoners would be deterred by one more statute on the books. That didn't go far enough for a federal task force, which preferred jamming—which is illegal and might interfere with phone service outside prisons—or intercepting wireless phone calls—an approach the CCST warned hadn't been adequately tested and wouldn't stop text messages or incoming calls.

Corrections officials are forever tightening restrictions and trying new technology to make their walls and gates more resistant to forbidden goods. But a big part of the challenge for controlling contraband in prisons is the classic "who watches the watchmen" problem.

"Often the people doing the smuggling are guards or other corrections employees, who, motivated by greed, accept bribes from prisoners," Matthew Clarke noted for Prison Legal News two years ago. Last year, an "undercover investigator posing as a Correction Officer smuggled in a razor blade and large quantities of heroin, marijuana, and prescription narcotics at six facilities on Rikers Island" in New York City—goods that could have netted "$3,600 in courier fees" for a single trip according to the city's Department of Investigation. When guards can earn $300 for smuggling a single pack of cigarettes, thousands for running cocaine to inmates, and even make $100,000 just by smuggling cellphones, it's obvious that the restrictions on prisons are business opportunities for the people that enforce the rules.

That kind of cash motivates people and drives innovation. Drones have been used to smuggle contraband into prisons in Maryland, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and almost certainly elsewhere. The Economist reports that payments for contraband are often handled through banking apps on smart phones—part of the popularity of smuggled mobile devices.

No doubt, officials will innovate in turn, stepping up their own efforts to cut off the flow of the forbidden to the inmates supposedly under their control. Whatever successes they may enjoy, history suggests that black market networks will stay a step ahead of them, ensuring a continued flow of intoxicants, electronics, weapons, and fast food from eager sellers to willing buyers, no matter how high the walls are raised or how intrusive inspections are made.

There's a lesson here, of course.

Officials contemplating inflicting a new round of prohibitions on the society around them might be well served to stop and consider the failure of such measures in the tightly controlled confines of penal institutions. When bars and unannounced searched become spurs to innovation, and tight rules become business opportunities for crooked guards, what's the chance of enforcing restrictions in the world outside of prison walls?

NEXT: John Kasich Explains "The Problem with Marijuana"

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  1. I think you answer you own question in the last paragraph 2chili. There’s a lot of money in prohibition.

  2. Good article.

  3. OT:

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    1. They’re just not as good as you would be running a gulag. Don’t blame you for going off topic.

    2. Exams for large classes are often held in smaller groups at multiple locations around a university.

      I also don’t understand why you think this is of interest to Reason readers; Carson is as nutty as Sanders.

    3. You seem to have erroneously mistaken Hit & Run commenters for supporters of Ben “Black Jesus” Carson. Being a socialist, though, you are probably quite used to being wrong.

    4. Go post it on RedState. And get stuffed.

      Why do you think we like Team Red? Because we hate you? Are you that stu–

      Never mind.

  4. Hmmm, I thought this website was

    The entire dumb article is based on a straw man: No one said that drug prohibition in prisons was 100%. But because some drugs get in, according to the author, drug prohibitions are a failure. His evidence? Some cases where drug prohibition succeeded.

    The reality is that drug prohibition is nearly perfect. And lots of people with predisposition to drug abuse are straight.

    1. not sure if troll or just really dumb

    2. Ha ha ha. It’s not April 1st yet.

    3. Please lay of the synthetic cannabis, and go back to the natural type.

    4. Sorry meant to say that drug prohibition IN PRISON is nearly perfect (in the sense that there is very little drug use).

      I have worked in prisons. In comparison to the streets, drug usage is almost nil. Drug screening in California is reported to be 1.6%. This is in a population very prone to substance abuse. Is 1.6% equal to zero? No. No one claimed it was.

      Now you can argue whether drug legalization is a good or bad thing – obviously it will be a little of both. But the above argument is a straw man.

      1. Since you’re obviously not going to read the article:

        “During a 2013 mass urine-testing, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that ‘nearly 23 percent of the inmates who voluntarily participated tested positive for one or more illicit drugs.’ The 30 percent of inmates who refused to submit samples might have made those results even more impressive.”

      2. You have just confirmed that people who work in prisons really are as stupid as we thought.

        1. Never a doubt.

  5. While I’m sympathetic to the argument, exaggerating doesn’t really help:

    reports stumbling across over 13,000 grams of synthetic cannabinoid, 2,000 grams of the real stuff,

    That’s about 28 pounds of synthetic canabinoids, and about 4 pounds if real cannabis, for a population about 100000 inmates. That’s really very little. In fact, it’s so little that I suspect you got the numbers wrong.

    The US seized an average of 3 million pounds of cannabis per year just along the Mexican border, or about 900 pounds per 100000 Americans, and seizure at the Mexican border is likely to be less effective than among prisoners. That would mean a more than 100 fold reduction in drug seizures, and by inference, probably drug use in prisons compared to the general population.

    I’m all for legalizing drugs. Please don’t spoil arguments against the war on drugs with such poor argumentation. If you want to make an argument about the effectiveness of the war on drugs, check your numbers, and then analyze them carefully. I don’t think that from a libertarian point of view, effectiveness should even be much of an issue to begin with.

  6. The incentives for counting drug finds inside prison is even more perverse than it is outside of prison, since much of the smuggling is being done by the “watchers” in the first place. Considering that is the amount they admit to, the actual amount is probably orders of magnitude larger.

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  8. Good article, but hard to take seriously against the mental image of some dude lobbing McMuffins over the prison walls.

    1. Maybe Banksy will paint it on a prison wall?

  9. I have no such doubts about our beneficent TSA.

  10. People give up their freedoms for the promise of safety. Do they think government run prisons are safe, where there are no freedoms. The USA has so many laws, rules, and regulations it is one vast prison, where the prisoners have the keys to their cells.

  11. The powers that be are not interested in actually solving public problems (with prohibitions and such). They’re really interested in maintaining and expanding their power–so turning the whole of the USA into a giant prison is more in line with their goals than actually fixing society’s ills.

    Hence the continual creation of new laws that criminalize all sorts of behavior combined with weak to nonexistent enforcement of existing laws.

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