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Drugs behind bars


WORLD Radio - Drugs behind bars

Understaffed prisons struggle to contain a rise in inmate drug overdoses

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MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: drug overdoses in prison.

SOUND: Seven inmates were taken to the hospital for fentanyl exposure.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Sound from K-I-N-G 5 News in Seattle.

Overdose deaths rose more than 600 percent between 2001 and 2018 in prisons and spiked almost 400 percent in local jails.

BROWN: What’s going on here, and what are authorities doing to intervene?

Part of the challenge is that many people who go to prison on drug-related charges lose easy access to drugs but not their addiction to them. WORLD Compassion reporter Addie Offereins explains.

ADDIE OFFEREINS: With prisoners, once they leave jail or prison, oftentimes, they've had no access to their drug of choice while they're incarcerated. Or if they have kind of, you know, undercover. It's been very intermittent. And so they lose a lot of that tolerance. They come out of prison, and they access these super potent drugs like fentanyl, and their body can't handle that it's a shock to their system and they overdose.

REICHARD: Some prisoners are getting fatal doses of drugs earlier in the game, while they are still in prison. Here’s Michael Hallett, a professor of criminal justice at the University of North Florida. He says a surprising number of inmates get drugs from an unlikely source…their prison guards.

MICHAEL HALLETT: You know, the fact is that not only are we having a dramatically hard time recruiting people to work in prisons, but even when we do manage to convince people to become correctional officers in, especially in maximum security prisons, they're so dramatically understaffed that they get coerced by the inmates to bring in drugs and other kinds of contraband not only for side money, but for their personal safety.

BROWN: The nation’s largest maximum security prison is the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Many of the prison staff are women, while the majority of prisoners are men. The number of job applicants for open positions continues to drop…so these prison staff are more vulnerable to coercion by inmates who threaten violence if their requests aren’t met.

But beyond drug abuse and reduced staff, prisons are failing to achieve their core objective when it comes to drug-related crime.

OFFEREINS: Originally, prisons and jails in the United States were meant for rehabilitation. But sadly, like Dr. Michael Hallett mentioned, he believes that American prisons today have become drug dens. And so he really wants to see the federal government get involved in this while at the same time lifting up and prioritizing these faith based programs that do look at an inmate holistically are able to offer redemption and a community.

REICHARD: In Chesterfield, Virginia, staff at a local jail took matters into their own hands. It connected inmates with volunteers from Helping Addicts Recover Progressively, or HARP.

MARLON TURNER: Thank God, I didn't add to the statistic of the mortality rate. But I still was walking dead.

REICHARD: Marlon Turner was once an inmate and an addict. But thanks to his time in HARP, he’s now free from his addiction. He’s also a certified peer recovery specialist with the program.

TURNER: You know, you have to equip someone, you have to add some things to take some things away.

BROWN: As the rate of overdose deaths continues to climb, a mix of federal and local solutions will be required to take and keep drugs away from prison inmates.

OFFEREINS: We can't dismiss incarceration or dismiss criminalizing drugs, totally. But then we have this issue that that place of rehabilitation and that place where someone is supposed to be taken out of their environment, which is jail or prison is so infiltrated with these drugs and is so crippled by its lack of staffing that that becomes a problem in itself.

BROWN: Addie Offereins is WORLD’s Compassion beat reporter. If you’re interested in learning more about this story, we’ve included a link in today’s transcript.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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