Why you should care

Because life on the inside is a serious racket.

Copious amounts of tobacco, cigarette-rolling papers, duct tape, cheap cellphones and a few drugs should sound alarm bells — especially when they’re being carried around by an ex-con near a prison’s barbed-wire perimeter. Officials at U.S. federal correctional institutions know to look up for over-the-fence drops and sometimes even contraband-filled care packages delivered by drone. But what they’ve been failing to do is pat down prison staff, who can double or even triple their salaries by smuggling in controlled substances and goods.

A recent Department of Justice report shines a bright light on the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ dark track record in controlling the smuggling of drugs, cellphones and weapons to America’s most notorious. The DOJ report scolded authorities for these unacceptable practices and demanded changes. The resulting crackdown, experts say, will make it even harder to smuggle contraband into prisons. So business-savvy prisoners, and those who help them, are looking at an already major industry in U.S. prisons that’s set to explode even further.

The main source of contraband introduced into the system is through employees.

Contraband and the incarcerated have long gone hand in hand, from the smuggling of metal shards as tools of escape to modern treasures revolving around addiction and communication. A lack of data makes it hard to pin down exact figures, but researchers estimate that black markets account for nearly 23 percent of global GDP. And economist David Skarbek, who has studied shadow economies in correctional facilities, says smuggling behind bars is bigger business than ever.

All prisoners have jobs on the inside, but they earn mere cents per hour. “To be comfortable, you need about $40 a week,” says M.B., a serial burglar on parole from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, who prefers not to use his real name. To earn that kind of money, convicts often rely on prisons’ thriving black markets, which have been aided by serious holes in security. The DOJ’s nine-month probe into contraband interdiction efforts found outmoded security cameras with “blind spots known to inmates and staff” and unmanned lobbies with “poor physical controls.” It also said “no reported random pat searches occurred in 99.5 percent of shifts,” meaning it’s been fairly easy for guards to smuggle goods to the prisoners. The Bureau of Prisons says it will “develop and propose changes to the staff search policy” before the end of September.

Once new rules come into effect, federal inmates can expect to pay more for smuggled items, says former New York City corrections commissioner Martin Horn. After smoking was banned in New York City jails in 2003, he says, the cost of a single cigarette inside shot up from its street value to $20. Horn’s department began using the relative strength or weakness of the market for contraband smokes as an indication of how well they were keeping the goods out. “The more successful we were, the higher the price,” he says. But this profitability growth also breeds corruption, Horn says, making it worthwhile for prisoners to pay off prison staff to smuggle stuff in for them. “The main source of contraband introduced into the system is through employees,” says retired NYPD detective sergeant Chris Cincotta, a theory confirmed, at least anecdotally, by recent arrests. Corrupt guards can be paid cash by inmates’ contacts on the outside, or simply given prepaid, untraceable debit cards.

While cigarettes are still big business, e-cigarettes are now gaining a foothold on the inside.

The contraband being smuggled tends to change with the times. J.D., an ex-con released from Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) three years ago, says he paid as much as $25 for a cigarette on the inside, then doubled his money by reselling individual drags. And while cigarettes are still big business, e-cigarettes are now gaining a foothold on the inside. Marijuana is always popular among inmates, but now more synthetic drugs like K2 are increasingly in demand, and for a simple reason: They can’t be picked up by traditional drug tests.

Technology in prison advances as it does in the outside world, albeit at a far slower rate. “Prison-restricted” MP3 players can be purchased legally at the MDC’s commissary, for example, for $88.40. Inmates can download 15 “clean” versions of songs per day from a curated catalog, with prices ranging from 80 cents to $1.55 per song — unless, of course, they happen to know the enterprising Russian doing time for computer crimes, whom J.D. says managed to crack the players’ operating system, circumventing restrictions and undercutting prices by as much as 90 percent.

And while contact with the outside world has traditionally involved closely monitored, costly calls from prison phones, illegal cellphones have become coveted items at all correctional institutions. “We’re constantly finding five, six, 10 cellphones in a couple hours on sweeps,” says Joe Orlando, public information officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Contraband cellphones, which come in via drones, rectums and once even in a dead cat thrown over the fence, can cost up to $1,000 in prison.

Could cracking down on such subversion be a bad thing? Although one might assume that black markets in prison would stoke mayhem, Skarbek once wrote that jailhouse rackets can also help maintain order. “The violence associated with a Hobbesian jungle ignores the fact that self-interested people often have incentives to develop mechanisms to reduce conflict.”

But that argument is unlikely to hold water with authorities, who continue to classify more items as contraband each year. It’s a world of “enforced scarcity,” Horn says. “There have always been black markets in prison, but today it’s even worse because there are so many more things we prohibit.”

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