By COURTNEY HESSLER
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Overdoses at Western Regional Jail have escaped headlines, but a national expert says the issue of drugs within the incarceration system is not new or unique to West Virginia.
In the last week of April, several female inmates suffered overdoses from an unknown drug, according to Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
Messina said the number of overdoses was three, but Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli said he thought the number was at least double that and came from a female arrestee who had hidden 15 grams of heroin in a body cavity.
Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia and former Maryland police officer, said drug addiction is best treated outside of incarceration, but any type of treatment helps. Rehabilitation and staying ahead of the drug trade is key to keeping drugs out, he said, although many facilities across the nation are understaffed to handle either.
“Security has really tightened,” he said. “They are aware of some of the tricks of the trade, if you will. It’s just the matter of keeping track with the new and improved methods that inmates are getting these items.”
Western Regional Jail’s murky recent history
The Barboursville facility opened in 2003 with a maximum capacity of 520 inmates. It currently houses inmates from Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln, Mason and Putnam counties, but most of them are Cabell County residents.
The overdoses in April are the first reported by media since May 2015 and succeed two deaths within the past six months.
Bradley Wilson Siders II, 28, of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, was jailed on March 1 and died at St. Mary’s Medical Center the next day. Donnie James Charles Jackson, 25, of Huntington, died Dec. 21, 2016, while being booked at the facility.
Both were credited to a “medical episode,” and detailed accounts of what led to the deaths, including if they were drug related, have not been disclosed. Messina previously said the deaths were still under investigation.
Since August 2016, three former Western Regional Jail employees have been charged with felonies related to illegal activity at the facility, with two correctional officers charged with drug- and contraband-related offenses. Messina pointed to a zero-tolerance stance against contraband in the facility when addressing those arrests.
Addiction by the numbers
Dr. Michael Kilkenny, medical director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, has stated a low estimate of people facing active addiction in Cabell County is 10,000 people, about 10 percent of the population. Numbers for the remaining four counties with inmates at the facility are unknown.
Regional Jail Director David Farmer previously said of more than 44,000 inmates booked into West Virginia’s 10 regional jails in 2016, more than 43 percent had a substance abuse problem and 19,000 were placed in a detoxification or withdrawal program.
According to 2012 statistics from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, fewer than 20 percent of those under supervision who needed drug treatment received it nationwide. Drug addiction numbers nationwide have skyrocketed in the years since, however, due to an epidemic of opioid abuse.
Drug abuse in jail and prison system not new, unique
Burke said drug abuse within the jail and prison system is a national problem.
“The problem with drugs in prison is not a new one. I mean, that has been going on for many, many, many years,” he said. “The difference might be perhaps the types of drugs that are coming in. It follows very similar to what is going on in the streets.”
The drug problem has been apparent in area facilities outside of Western Regional Jail.
William Alexander Mauk, 27, of Ashland, an employee of the Boyd County Detention Center, was jailed after his shift ended Friday morning after he was accused of accepting packages from non-incarcerated individuals and delivering them to inmates inside the center.
In April, eight female inmates from that facility had been transported to a local hospital after overdosing on what is believed to be heroin. Authorities believe one inmate, Felicia Hayes, had hidden the drug deep inside a body cavity where it was not detected.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addicts continue to use while incarcerated because continuous use of addictive drugs changes how the brain functions, which causes the addicted person to use drugs in spite of the adverse health, social and legal consequences.
NIDA states continuous treatment while incarcerated and after reduces the risk of recidivism as well as relapse.
DMAPS taking steps to battle drug use in system
Several steps have been taken by the jail and prison systems in West Virginia in recent years to help combat drug use, including ending contact visits years ago with family and reducing the type of mail inmates can receive.
Burke said a lot of the issues could be addressed by hiring more employees.
“I don’t know if ill-equipped is the right word, but I certainly think understaffed is. Inmates have interesting and creative ways of getting drugs into the prison area,” he said. “That’s where the resources need to go – in more of the prevention aspect.”
It’s not just addicts sneaking drugs into the system, he said. The drugs can be used as a source of barter.
“Then it becomes a matter of finance,” he said. “How much are they willing to pay or trade to get those drugs? That’s become the commodity.”
DMAPS originally reduced the type of mail inmates could receive, outlawing prisoners from receiving printed articles or news clippings, in fear drugs could be mixed in with ink. This year it was announced the mail policies had changed. Now any mail inmates receive is photocopied, including pictures. The original mail is then shredded, except for photographs, which are stored with inmates’ belongings confiscated when they entered the jail.
Farmer called the move “phase one” in the continuation of the prevention of drugs entering the system.
Mail restrictions have long been debated across the country. The National Institute of Justice is conducting a pilot project in residential correction settings to determine if Mistral sprays are effective at identifying drugs on mail and other items without having a negative impact on safe operations of the facility so inmates can keep original items.
Beyond revising its mail protocol, Farmer said the correctional agencies continue to attack substance abuse through treatment and recovery services for its offenders.
As of March 24, the prison system had nine Residential Substance Abuse Treatment programs offering six-month to one-year inpatient treatment. A male and female RSAT unit opened last year for inmates at the Southwestern Regional Jail in Logan, West Virginia, but no rehabilitation beds are located at Western Regional Jail.
Inmates could be shifted to the Southwestern Regional Jail at a judge’s order, however.
In total, the program offers 551 treatment beds with a program completion rate of 61 percent.
Farmer said as part of its Justice Reinvestment Act, West Virginia has committed millions of dollars to fund community-based treatment and recovery services, both residential and outpatient, for offenders returning to society via parole, probation or supervised release.
Messina said jail procedures also include “searches and intelligence-gathering” to prevent drug use, but did not detail the protocols and procedures taken.
Reducing other contraband is a big part of the issue, Burke said.
“If a cellphone comes in, the inmates can still wheel and deal because they now have access and communication with the outside and also with other people with cellphones on the inside,” he said. “That’s also another way of having the drugs move around the facility, through communication.”
Using a signal jammer could stop the effectiveness of cellphones, but also brings concern for law enforcement who cannot communicate via phone in the same area.
While cellphone use within the facility is unknown, one inmate revealed at a Wayne County murder trial last summer that inmates often communicate by talking through the WRJ ventilation system, or “venting.”
Society could end the cycle
DMAPS also recently announced it was creating a grant to help fund drug treatment facilities throughout the state with monies received from a $36 million lawsuit settlement with drug companies accused of neglect in pumping millions of pain pills into the state.
Burke said society plays a large part in the issue, and programs like this could help.
“The question is so much deeper and broader than drugs in a prison. This is a societal issue outside the prison,” he said. “It all takes place outside of the prison before it even gets in. That’s where we need to address the issue – before it gets in.”
Burke said he believes prisons and jails are not the right institutions to deal with drug addictions.
“What are we doing as a society to help those people get off the drugs?” he said. “It does zero good if they are addicted and remain addicted, even in prison settings. They are eventually coming out, and they are coming out addicted. It becomes a cycle.”