Magazine article Insight on the News

On Dope Row: An Exclusive Insight Investigative Report Reveals That Scores of Inmates Are Dying of Drug Overdoses in America's State Penal Institutions, While Administrators Deny That Their Prisons Have a Drug Problem. Here Are the Numbers, and Why According to Prisoners and Guards the Illegal Drug Trade Is Flourishing Behind Bars

Magazine article Insight on the News

On Dope Row: An Exclusive Insight Investigative Report Reveals That Scores of Inmates Are Dying of Drug Overdoses in America's State Penal Institutions, While Administrators Deny That Their Prisons Have a Drug Problem. Here Are the Numbers, and Why According to Prisoners and Guards the Illegal Drug Trade Is Flourishing Behind Bars

Article excerpt

When the phone rang at 11:30 a.m. and it was not her fiance, Sharon Weidenfeld figured he had been caught. They had spent days in long, painful conversations in which he swore to her that one more high was all he wanted. "I told him over the weekend he was an addict," she says quietly, "and there is only one way an addict can say for sure he's getting high for the last time you die."

As a veteran Maryland private investigator, Weidenfeld had cracked dozens of cases from lost family heirlooms to serial killers, but in the case of her 31-year-old fiance, Donald Wade Blankenship Jr., she felt helpless. She listened hard that weekend, attempting to guide him away from focusing on the addiction while he begged her for understanding.

Then the call came. "Have you heard anything?" Blankenship's friend asked sadly. "They just took Donnie out of here. They're taking him to Laurel Regional Hospital. His heart isn't beating."

"He must have OD'd!" Weidenfeld said, breaking down. She rushed to the nearby hospital in time to catch the Anne Arundel County, Md., paramedics who had brought him in. "How is he?" she demanded as crisply as she could. They claimed they didn't know. "That's when I knew he was gone" she says.

A few minutes later, a compassionate doctor held Weidenfeld's hand in a private room. "I know he's not alive" she blurted.

"He didn't make it" the doctor quietly replied.

"I fell down to the floor;' recalls Weidenfeld. "I was hyperventilating, I was just heartbroken. It didn't seem like it could be real"

Blankenship's heart stopped on April 9, 2001, a week before his 32nd birthday. Incredibly, he had obtained drugs and fatally overdosed on heroin in his cell at the Maryland Correctional Institute (MCI-J), a medium-security prison in Jessup that houses 1,100 inmates. He was serving an 18-year sentence for drug-related robbery and theft.

Despite the cages, bars, walls, razor wire, sophisticated electronic and physical surveillance, armed guards and meticulous design of modern penal institutions, this assuredly was not the first of the estimated 1.1 million inmates serving time in U.S. state prisons to have died from overdosing on illicit drugs.

In fact, a nine-month investigation by INSlGHT has found that during the last decade at least 188 men and women died

of drug overdoses in state prisons, 68 percent of these between 1996 and 2000. Moreover, INSIGHT has learned that many of these deaths, and widespread trafficking in dope inside the prisons, could have been prevented if state prisons had aggressive and competent drug-screening policies, not to mention better access to treatment programs. Meanwhile, some correctional officials do their best to cover up this growing disaster, some going so far as to claim that urinalysis drug testing that often fails to detect heroin use shows drug addiction in prisons to be declining.

But the stonewalling and concealment of fatal overdoses uncovered by INSlGHT, together with inmate and parolee confirmation of the traffic, suggest that some state prisons have become institutionalized crack houses and weed and opium dens. The fact that drugs appear to be so readily available to prison populations raises a series of questions to be answered by oversight investigators: not only how illegal drugs get into supposedly secure facilities, but what the states are (and are not) doing to protect and treat addicted inmates before releasing survivors back into society. And, why are related data being hidden, by whom and who benefits?

Surprisingly, INSIGHT'S investigation not only found that many state-prison systems refuse to track drug overdoses, but that authorities often fail to tally the amount of confiscated drugs, arrests or convictions related to prison drug trafficking. Moreover, this investigation discovered, there are few rules at the state level -- and apparently none at the federal level -- that require accountability or even compatibility for such record collection. …

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