John Hamilton

The Last Blessing in Prison Decimated Over a Farce: A Year in Review (Success or Failure) – by John Hamilton

In April of 2017, the Virginia Dept. of Corrections (VADOC) implemented more stringent security measures in response to the uncontrolled influx of contraband (drugs and cell phones) covertly being brought into prisons. There are three distinct ways contraband may be smuggled; 1) by prisoner through visitation, 2) by staff circumventing security protocols requiring involvement by other complicit staff members, or 3) by both utilizing drones. I can attest to the fact that despite whatever the VADOC’s intentions were, a year later, the flow of contraband continues unabated.

What’s both shocking and profoundly sad is how government agencies like the Dept. of Corrections responds to public crises such as the opioid (drug) epidemic. The director, on down, placate to the public’s outrage and concern regarding overdoses in the news by merging their own contraband crisis, fabricating a concocted correlation of the two issues, when in reality contraband in prisons is a systemic, decades long problem. However, by making the subtle connection to the ongoing opioid epidemic, it presents an opportunity to request additional allocation of special funds beyond their already hefty budget.

Don’t be fooled, it’s all about the benjamins (money). Like most mega bureaucracies, The Dept. of Corrections is irresponsible with their budget and beyond wasteful. It’s equivalent to watching somebody, anybody, throwing hundred dollar bills into a fire pit and laughing as it engulfs in flames, only to disappear as quickly in a puff of smoke. This reality should sear the hearts and minds of all eligible voters because its your tax dollars they’re wasting.

The fact is prisons have always struggled with controlling the flow of contraband. The persistent problem is pervasive primarily because you have a habitual captive audience (prisoners) and poorly paid subordinates (staff) looking to supplement their income. In other words, as long as staff and offenders alike are willing to put their careers and lives in jeopardy, nothing will ever change.

The limited supply and high demand in prison inflates prices and exponentially increases the risks for those who partake. I want the readers to have a clear depiction of just how desperate prisoners are to continue their destructive ways and why staff are so willing to compromise their integrity. A single cigarette worth $0.20 some cents, in prison will sell for $10. A joint worth $3, in prison costs $25. Heroin street valued at $10, will go for $50 behind bars. And last, but certainly not least, cocaine assessed at $20, on the inside will tax you $100.

Greed is the bane of all evil. What does one expect when you hire exuberant youth, barely legal (21 or younger), uneducated, from impoverished communities, and then grant them unbridled power. For many this is their opportunity to return the disfavor imposed upon them growing up. For others it’s a stepping stone to something bigger and better, therefore, their time in a corrections job is finite, fostering apathy to the abuses they witness. Another way to look at it – absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Prior to the mandated reduction of phone rates in the VADOC, a 20 minute phone call could cost upwards of $9 for an instate call. I understood (but don’t condone) the deceptive practice to procure cell phones because it was cheaper than paying the extortion rates established in the corrupt, exploitative contracts. But since, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has scrutinized the contracts awarded to telecommunications companies, spurred by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) and others, revealed their unscrupulous practices, and kickbacks. Their efforts paid huge dividends for those incarcerated in Virginia prisons and their families by dramatically reducing rates. That same 20 minute, $9 call, is now less than $1, calling anywhere in the United States. In spite of the now affordable, reduced rates, cell phones continue to be detected statewide in prisons.

What the Dept. of Corrections has failed to adequately explain, much less justify, is why they removed all of the vending machines that contained hot meals and desserts? The last blessing that most prisoners had, for those fortunate to receive visits, was the anticipation of being able to sit down and have an enjoyable meal with their loved ones. Some who drive hours (one way) to bond with their family and friends, but now may only consume soda and candy bars. It’s a health crisis waiting to happen.

Many family members who visit are children and the elderly. Some who have diabetes and other ailments that this new arbitrary policy has been burdensome. The administration says it was a necessary hardship in order to curtail the flow of contraband. But the only thing accomplished has been alienating our loved ones from wanting to visit because of the extraordinary burden now placed upon them. It’s not just the removal of the food but also the increased security measures that our loved ones are now subjected to, including pototential radiation poisoning.

Prior to these unnecessary constraints, visitors would enter the facility, be signed in and frisked, walk through a metal detector (subject to strip search) and then assigned seating. The offender would enter visitation wearing their own clothes and be reunited with their loved ones, after having only been frisked. A nice conversation would ensue, followed by a nice hot meal (subs, hamburgers, hotdogs, pizzas, chicken wings, sandwiches, fries) and dessert (strawberry shortcake, ice cream, pies, and more). When it was time to say goodbye, visitors went through the same process to leave while offenders were additionally strip searched in order to intercept contraband prior to reentry into the facility.

After the new security measures were put in place, visitors are processed similarly, but now must also go through an airport body scanner, set on high (exposing all to radiation), showing every personal, intimate detail of the person being scanned and anything that they might be concealing. They’re also subjected to random strip searches. All offenders must now be strip searched prior to entering visitation. All of their personal clothes are removed, including undergarments. Offenders are issued briefs, socks, t’s, jumpsuit (zipped from behind), and shower shoes, then, and only then are they permitted access to the visitation room. Good conversations continue but there are no more meals, with less time granted per visit unless you’ve received approval for an extended visit.

Upon termination or completion of your visit the process is reversed for outside visitors but the offenders are subjected to increased security measures in an effort to eliminate contraband. Offenders are required to sit down on a device, and place their chin on a device that detects whether they are concealing anything in their rectal or oral cavities. Then they have to promenade around an electronic tower device that detects cell phones. Following all scan detections, a strip search is conducted in order to visually affirm what the scanners have already revealed. Our clothes are returned to us and we return to the compound.

In spite of all the money invested to eradicate the contraband issue and lessen the chances of an inmate overdosing, contraband is flowing, and overdoses continue, unimpeded by the tightened security. The one constant through all of this, is the unchanged policies governing staff. Any sane, rational, semi intelligent person recognizes the deferrence given to the staff. Perhaps this is partly due to the high attrition rate. Regardless, this seems counter intuitive considering the extreme measures put in place to prevent contraband, but then you ignore the biggest source for smuggling contraband – your own staff!?

Here are some numbers to digest. Virginia spokeswoman for the VADOC, Lisa Kinney, stated the policy changes were in response to the deaths of nine prisoners in 2015 and 2016 due to overdoses of heroin or fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. In 2016, drugs were discovered in prisoners’ mail a dozen times and found on 31 prison visitors. According to a recent interview, Virginia’s 35,000+ state prisoners receive 250,000+ visits and over 1.4 million pieces of mail every year. This would indicate to me the problem is not nearly as severe as prison officials claim.

The farce is the VADOC’s refusal to go after their own. This, of course, would require them to have to acknowledge their own culpability in the recent overdose deaths, to include their complicity in how contraband is coming into their facilities. Instead, it’s just easier to point the finger at us incorrigible inmates, continue wasting vital tax dollars, and destroy the one last thing in prison offenders look forward to, sitting down with our relatives and friends and enjoy a nice meal during visitation.

In response, the VADOC explained the new rules and restrictions were needed because “visitors pass contraband to offenders at visitation through things like potato chip bags purchased in the vending machines.” What they failed to share is nothing from that visitation room is to come back into the compound with the offender. Why weren’t these chip bags confiscated and discarded during routine strip searches prior to the offenders return to the facility? Laziness, perhaps. Lapse in security, definitely. But let’s not punish the understaffed, underpaid, undertrained employees. Let’s punish the inmates and their families, many whom contribute their hard earned taxes to such callous ignorance, ineptitude, and incompetence. When an agency wields such infinite power over the free and incarcrated alike, great care and responsibility is expected to be extended to those in their purview.

The unequivocal consensus is the VADOC has failed miserably in preventing anything. Some believe it places the spotlight on staff members complicity because contraband is just as readily available today, if not more so, than it was a year ago. Meanwhile, others believe the only thing accomplished is the disservice to Virginia families by the DOCs arbitrary overreaction to an existent problem that has persisted for as long as prisons have been in operation. Call or write the governor, your legislator, and director for the VADOC and demand the vending machines be returned, especially in light of the capricious reasons for why they were removed in the first place.

John E. Hamilton, #1442949
Virginia Dept. of Corrections
Nottoway Correctional Center
2892 Schutt Rd / P.O. Box 488
Burkeville VA 23922

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