Jail officials cracking down on contraband

A inmate uses the phone Wednesday in the annex of the Curry County Adult Detention Center. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Andy Jackson: CNJ staff writer

Commonly confiscated contraband in the Curry County Adult Detention Center includes letters between inmates, tobacco, drugs, crude knives, tattooing devices and ink, as well as dried fruit and vegetable cigarettes.

Curry County officials increased the number of inspections this month aiming to curb the flow of contraband, however, lack of manpower, space and the ingenuity of inmates makes eliminating contraband impossible, according to local and state corrections facilities officials.

“Contraband won’t be eliminated 100 percent,” said Curry County Undersheriff Doug Bowman, who is overseeing the jail while the county searches for a full-time administrator.

“Contraband is an ongoing problem to stay on top of and manage,” said Tia Bland, Public Information Officer of New Mexico’s State prisons. “It’s part of everyday prison operations,” she said.

A glass case in the detention administration area at the Curry County jail displays examples of contraband. Tobacco and marijuana hidden inside Bibles, deodorant and soap with the inside carved out, toothbrush shanks shaved down to sharp knives and makeshift tattoo needles with ink, have all been seized by guards in jail sweeps.

“The ingenuity of prisoners is the only limit to their ability to get contraband in,” said former Curry County jail administrator Don Burdine.

Since smoking was banned six months ago, inmates have turned to smoking dried spinach and banana peels rolled in pages torn from Bibles.

Lighters are prohibited, however, inmates have devised a creative way around the ban. Two batteries connected by a staple lights cigarettes rolled with all forms of content, Lt. Manuel Gallegos, a pod-area supervisor said.

Letters smuggled between prisoners take two forms, sexually explicit and coded. Guards at the Curry County jail seize five to 10 of these letters a day, Gallegos said.

“Love letters are considered contraband, because of their sexual content,” Gallegos said.

He said inmates also pass letters written in code — with numbers in lieu of letters. Similar written communications occurs in the state prisons, Bland said.

“Sometimes we pick up good information about what’s going on outside — often gang-related — names and addresses,” Gallegos said.

With six communal “pods” for less violent offenders, at least one pod gets checked randomly for contraband every day, Bowman said. Meanwhile, an annex that houses the more serious offenders in 27 individual cells is swept daily by Taser and pepper-spray wielding guards for prohibited materials, Bowman said.

There are cameras at almost every door and hallway in the facility, which are monitored by guards 24 hours a day. However there are “blind spots,” Bowman said.

Some of these unmonitored spots are inside pods, which is why it can be hard for guards to pinpoint prisoners making or using contraband, he said. When a prisoner lights up a spinach cigarette for example, “they can just throw it into the toilet” before guards are alerted to the activity, Bowman said.

The undersheriff said inmates also typically cover for each other.

Guards at the Curry County detention center are also randomly searched for contraband. Even in the face of termination and prosecution, there is monetary incentive for some employees to smuggle contraband in, Burdine said.

Burdine suspects inmates, visitors or even guards may be smuggling drugs into the facility.

One method is to place finger-sized balloons with drugs such as methamphetamine and marijuana in a body cavity.

“Prisoners on work release get pressured by other inmates” to do the deed as well, said Burdine, who resigned from the jail in September after a random search was conducted without his knowledge. He said he stepped down because he didn’t believe the County Commission had faith in his abilities.

Burdine also suspects visitors have left tobacco and drugs in bathrooms and trash cans in the waiting area of the adult detention center.

Anyone caught using and distributing illegal forms of jail contraband are prosecuted, Bowman said.