Substance Abuse Testing in Correctional Facilities

The U.S. Correctional System is a network of agencies that keep watch over individuals who are in a state of incarceration, rehabilitation, parole or probation. The term “corrections” is now more widely accepted and used instead of the old term “penology”. Conversely, a prison is more appropriately referred to these days as a “correctional facility” instead of “penal institutions”.

The entire corrections system oversees a wide variety of programs, far more than what the public often perceives. The system is not limited to monitoring inmates in prison. It is also responsible for offenders who are on conditional release, as well as those who were never imprisoned but still require legal supervision. Aside from overseeing the confinement of inmates, the expanded responsibilities of a corrections officer include the reform and rehabilitation of said inmates, organizing educational opportunities and offering counseling services to prepare them for their reentry into society.

Encapsulating the entire corrections system in a few sentences give the impression of a cut-and-dry set of methods and procedures, but nothing can be further from the realities on the ground. The entire correctional system is plagued by many issues, not the least of which is the prevalent drug use by inmates across all facilities.

It’s no big secret that prison inmates somehow get their hands on illegal drugs despite all the security measures that are supposedly in place at state and federal prisons. Many feel that it is actually easier to obtain drugs inside prisons than it is out on the streets.

How exactly do drugs get within prison walls? According to the director of the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment – Dr. H. Westley Clark, “the imagination and creativity of people under lock and key boggles the mind” and Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation actually said that “the prison wall is not a boundary anymore”. These statements from people in and around the U.S. prison system give the rest of us an idea of just how widespread drug use in prison actually is.

How Do Drugs Get Inside Prison Walls?

Smuggling drugs in to jail is made possible by a tangled mix of inmate inventiveness, prison staff corruption and visitor complicity. The level of drug abuse in prison has remained constant over the last decade because of these factors, despite the government’s coordinated efforts to address the problem.

Officials blame visiting relatives for the bulk of drugs smuggled into prison. A visiting wife or girlfriend can pass tiny drug packets to an inmate via a passionate kiss or otherwise hidden in various other body cavities. Tiny heroin balloons passed-off as olive pits have been found concealed inside bottled olives. Drugs have been found inside re-sealed peanut butter jars, or underneath the cheese on a pizza. Drugs can also be concealed inside mail packets containing legal documents that are supposed to be exempt from more thorough inspection in prison mailrooms. Inmates going to off-prison work sites can also get a hold of their drugs from associates dropping the contraband off.

A spokesperson from the South Carolina Department of Corrections said that after the state installed metal detectors and X-ray machines at all medium and high-security prisons, drug smuggling tactics have “evolved”. Drug packets have been known to be launched over prison walls by makeshift launchers called spud guns or paintball guns.

Of course there is the glaring problem with corrupt prison staff who facilitate the smuggling of drugs themselves, as was the case with a certain wellness education officer at the Florida state prison who planned to smuggle-in hydrocodone, marijuana and cocaine in exchange for a $2500-payoff. Prison guards who man the X-ray machines can discreetly “look the other way”; or a cell search will yield nothing; or random pat-downs of even the known dealers and users can come up clean, etc. And why not? An inmate makes an estimated $7,000 a week from dealing heroin inside and if a “cooperative” prison guard gets even a fraction of that kind of money, it is still more than what an honest prison officer makes.

The drug trade inside correctional facilities is way more lucrative than out on the streets. For example, heroin can easily fetch up to 10 times the street price. Corrections officials say that prison gangs are behind the sky-high prices of drugs inside. In fact, gang-related drug deals are the top cause of prison violence, according to a Corrections Department agent.

Why is it Important to Test Prison Inmates for Drug Use?

Maintaining a drug-free environment cannot be more imperative anywhere else than within correctional facilities where drug-induced violent behavior from even a single inmate can potentially result to a full-blown disturbance of riot proportions. With the prevalence of drug use in prisons it’s no wonder state and local governments deem it only prudent to fight the war against this epidemic through a multi pronged approach:

  • Prevention – Correctional facilities put in measures to prevent the influx of drugs into prison premises (x-rays, metal detectors, physical searches, drug-sniffing dogs etc.)
  • Control – Correctional facilities control prison drug abuse by 1) stepping up drug testing of inmates and prison staff alike, 2) withholding visitor privileges for violators to further discourage the habit and/or 3) sending them to solitary confinement.
  • Rehabilitation – Correctional facilities offer rehabilitation programs to help inmates kick the habit and better prepare them for starting over in society once they are released.

Drug testing is a critical component in the fight against drug use and abuse among inmates. It helps identify users so that corrections officers can take action to curtail substance abuse and the violence that often results from it. Drug testing is also an integral part of the entire rehabilitation and probation process that each inmate undergoes. It helps officers monitor compliance to the rehab programs until such time said inmates are deemed rehabilitated enough to go back into the community and try to reclaim their lives outside the prison walls.

Drug Abuse Statistics for Inmates

    • Random drug tests on Florida inmates from 2008-2009 yielded 1,132 positives, showing no change from the 1.6% rate of positive test results from 10 years ago.
    • The Bureau of Justice statistics reported in 2011 that out of the 1.5 million prisoners spread out across all federal and state correctional facilities, a total of 330,000 were serving time for drug abuse.
    • In California prisons, some 1000 drug seizures are reported annually.
    • The New York State Department of Corrections states that the annual rate of positive drug results for inmates have remained between 2.9%-3.8% for the past decade.
    • In a 1998 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), almost 43% of prison inmates who are regular drug users are in there for violent crimes like manslaughter, murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery and aggravated assault.

Types of Drug Tests Used in Correctional Facilities

Correctional facilities prefer to use drug tests that provide quick, on-the-spot results without compromising on accuracy. Urine and saliva drug tests are generally the methods of choice since they are both easy and convenient to use, and there are a wide variety of test panels to choose from depending on which drugs are being tested for, especially when using urine samples.

      • Urine Drug Test – Urine testing is the most technologically advanced drug testing method. There are many available urine drug test kits that allow prison staff to perform sample collection and proceed with the actual testing without any specialized training. Sample adulteration concerns are addressed by implementing observed collection, especially with test subjects who will most likely try to cheat a test. Inmates go to any lengths to avoid a urine test they have no hope of passing, like ingesting their own urine to induce vomiting so that they’ll get sent over to infirmary and miss the test.
      • Saliva Drug Test – Saliva testing has steadily increased in popularity over the last decade. It is much less invasive and sample collection does not require a separate private collection room. There are also many available instant saliva drug test kits that are as simple to use (if not more so) than urine test cups or dip sticks.
      • Hair Drug Test – Hair testing may not be as commonly used in a prison environment but they are available for special cases when long-term use needs to be established. Hair drug test kits can provide a 90-day drug use profile for inmates.

Prison Specific Issues Related to Inmate Drug Use, Abuse and Treatment

Psychological studies have shown that treating inmates of their drug problems while they are incarcerated AND after they are released help to 1) keep them off drugs, 2) keep them out of prison and 3) keep them employed. However, there are quite a few issues that hinder the corrections system from achieving higher success in addressing inmate drug abuse and treatment.

In 1997, only 1/8 of State prisoners and 1/10 of Federal prisoners participated in prison drug treatment programs, despite a CASA report that in 1996, 75% of State prisoners needed treatment for substance abuse. Following are the issues/factors that contribute to the limited availability of drug abuse treatment for inmates:

      • Budgetary constraints
      • Space limitations
      • Limited number of counselors
      • Lack of volunteer participants
      • Frequency of Inmate movement
      • General corrections problems
      • Problems with provision of aftercare
      • Legislative barriers

The very nature of life in prison can drive even inmates who enter the system as non-users to seek the temporary escape that drugs offer. Many others are already addicted to certain substances when they enter the system. The U.S. Correctional System recognizes this fact and accept that drug testing of inmates is part and parcel of the entire incarceration and rehabilitation process.

Day-to-day prison operations dictate that drug testing procedures be quick, simple and within state or federal budget limitations. Here at Confirm Biosciences, we offer a wide range of drug testing products ideal for use within a prison environment by personnel who need not have specific skills training to do the job right.