Jails warn about contraband charges

MARIETTA – Numerous signs posted around the Washington County Jail warn incoming inmates-surrender any illegal contraband now or face a felony charge for bringing it into the jail.

Still, some people are not deterred from trying to sneak in drugs, tobacco and other prohibited items during their stay.

“There are rare occasions where an inmate reads that sign and they relinquish the items, but there have been quite a few cases this year where people have tried to sneak items into the jail,” said Lt. Ben Arnold, a supervisor at the Washington County Jail.

Earlier this month, a Marietta woman was indicted on four third-degree felonies charges of illegal conveyance of prohibited items onto the grounds of a government facility when she neglected to turn over a balloon containing 19 1/2 pills that she had hidden in a body cavity when she entered the jail on June 21.

Those felonies were in addition to two fifth-degree felony and two first-degree misdemeanor drug possession charges that Felicia D. Wallace, 23, of 1360 Silver Globe Road faced for simply having the pills in the first place.

If Wallace had given up the drugs when given the chance, she would have only faced the drug possession charges.

“A lot of inmates say they tried to sneak in drugs because they don’t want to give up the habit,” said Arnold.

While drugs and tobacco remain the most popular contraband items locally, prisons throughout Ohio are experiencing a massive upswing in the amount of cell phones successfully finding their way into prisons.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that state prisons have seized 319 cellphones in the year’s first seven months-just 21 fewer than were seized in all of 2012.

However, statewide prison seizures of drugs and alcohol and weapons dropped slightly from 2011 to 2012.

The Washington County Jail has likely been experiencing less contraband lately as well, said Arnold. This is in part thanks to Quick, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office’s drug sniffing K-9, said Arnold.

“The K-9 has been coming in once a week on average and that has made a difference,” he said.

The jail has also curtailed another method through which inmates with cleaning duties were accessing contraband.

“We would have visiting friends or relatives hide drugs or tobacco in the lobby or public restrooms and then when the inmates would clean those areas they would take them back into the jail,” said Arnold.

Jail employees discovered the method years ago and have since been performing thorough searches of public areas before inmates are allowed to clean, he said.

That leaves inmates to veiling contraband the old fashioned way-inside a body cavity.

Wallace was the fifth person this year to be caught sneaking items into the county detention facility.

In February, one woman allegedly swallowed a balloon full of pills before entering the jail and another woman reportedly transported marijuana into the jail. Both women successfully secreted the items into the jail, but the drugs were discovered after a confidential informant reported their presence, said Arnold.

In March, a New Matamoras woman entering the jail reportedly had 8 grams of heroin hidden in a body cavity. The woman, 28-year-old Alexandra Lemley, of New Matamoras, was a school teacher in Pleasants County, W.Va., at the time of her arrest.

“The officer who brought her in asked us to do a more thorough search because she’d been moving around a lot and acting suspicious,” said Arnold.

There are many guidelines as to how jail employees are allowed to search an inmate’s person. For example, employees are not permitted to perform body cavity searches on inmates. However, an employee of the same gender of the inmate typically observes the inmate showering before issuing a jail uniform and conducting a thorough visual search of the inmate’s person.

In fact, the search of a female inmate in 2009 was the catalyst for a piece of body search case law, said Arnold.

Deputy Lori Greathouse, a corrections officer at the jail, was one of the two female officers who found a condom filled with nearly 34 grams of cocaine hidden in a body cavity of Annie Burks.

Arrested for OVI, Burks contested that the search of her person was unreasonable under federal and state constitutions.

“She argued the evidence should be thrown out because we didn’t have probable cause to conduct a more thorough search of her person (than a standard pat down),” said Greathouse.

However, anyone who is about to enter the jail’s general population can be subject to a comprehensive visual search, said Greathouse. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding Burks’ arrest prompted a suspicion of contraband, she said.

“A man who was arrested with her had a weapon on him. And the arresting officer noted a syringe near the vehicle,” she recalled.

The Ohio Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state, saying officers had conducted the search and discovered the contraband legally.

While drugs pose a significant problem, tobacco is likely the item most frequently illicitly transported into the jail and it is not always found, said Arnold.

“Earlier this year, one inmate brought in approximately two cans of snuff, hidden inside plastic baggies in his prosthetic leg,” recalled Arnold.

Unlike drugs, tobacco is not an illegal substance and does not constitute additional felony charges. However, those caught sneaking it in are subject to disciplinary action within the jail, such as disciplinary lock down.

In conjuncture with the tobacco, small lighters are often sneaked into the jail.

“When inmates are living here 24 hours a day, they get creative about how to hide things. Years ago we found a man hiding a bag of tobacco inside his orange juice,” said Arnold.

In place of lighters, inmates use batteries from a remote control to generate enough heat to light tobacco products. In June, inmate Michael Hoffert, 30, was charged with a felony count of vandalism for reportedly tampering with an electrical outlet in an attempt to light some form of contraband, said Arnold.

Hoffert was observed tampering with the outlet on video surveillance, which is available in the dormitories where prisoners spend most of their time.

However, law prohibits video surveillance of the bathrooms, and that is likely where inmates attempt to use the drugs and tobacco, he said.

“Tobacco probably gets brought in a lot more than we find it. If they pull it out and smoke it, the evidence is gone,” he added.

Not only is concealing contraband illegal, it is also highly dangerous. Drugs stored in body cavities or swallowed enter the blood stream rapidly if their containment breaks or deteriorates. In some instances, inmates have been transported to the hospital after ingesting pills that they thought were securely contained, said Arnold.

“More and more they are making biodegradable balloons, which rapidly deteriorate and pose a huge risk,” he said.

Conveying prohibited items onto the grounds of a government facility is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to three years in prison.