Pubdate: Sun, 03 Feb 2002
Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Copyright: 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Author: David Hench


WINDHAM - Just past sundown, Peter Herring stretched out in a ditch beside 
River Road, alert and anxious after being tipped that a major load of 
contraband was bound for the Maine Correctional Center. The prison's 
investigator heard a car slow to a stop, a door open, and rapid footsteps. 
He glimpsed a dark figure, holding a small light cupped in one hand, 
flatten himself against a nearby embankment to study the perimeter security 

"He was dressed all in black. He looked like a Navy SEAL," Herring recounted.

As a patrol cruiser disappeared past a chain-link fence and razor wire, the 
black form sprinted 100 yards to a trash dumpster. He slipped a parcel 
inside, and seconds later was arrested by Herring. Inside the dumpster, 
tethered to a fishing line for quick retrieval, Herring found a satchel 
containing five pounds of loose tobacco.

Tobacco has become the hottest illicit commodity in Maine prisons since 
2000, when the Legislature banned smoking in state prisons.

Like other addictive drugs, tobacco commands exorbitant prices in prison. 
Some inmates have accumulated huge "tobacco debts" they are unable to pay. 
Many prisoners and even a few guards have been tempted into the illegal 
trade by the potential for huge profit.

Prisons like the one in Windham still cope with more serious drugs being 
smuggled in: prescription painkillers, methadone, heroin and 
methamphetamines. In addition, staff members have intercepted steroids, 
protein drinks and even tattoo equipment.

But tobacco has displaced much of the other contraband because it is so 

"The amount of marijuana and drugs like that we confiscate now has really 
diminished. There's more money in tobacco and a better market," Herring 
said. Most of the 620 prisoners housed in the Windham prison smoke 
cigarettes, when they are able to obtain them.

A cigarette can cost between $7 and $10 inside the prison, twice the price 
of a marijuana joint, Herring said.

Last week, he broke up a smuggling operation based at the Maine Youth 
Center, where an outside work crew is helping construct the new facility. 
He recovered bulk tobacco, rolling papers, cigarette lighters and precision 
scales used to divide up the tobacco much as drug dealers weigh out 
marijuana for retail sale.

The tobacco Herring seized last summer during the failed commando raid cost 
$150 on the outside, but would be worth several thousand dollars when 
distributed and sold throughout the prison population. The man who made the 
drop, Ernest Brown Jr., 21, admitted it was his third such mission and that 
he was paid $1,000 each time for his part in the scheme.

Kitchen crew members and other prisoners who were in on the operation also 
got paid, either in cash or tobacco.

"There's a huge market," Herring said. "I burn, on average, 80 to 110 
pounds a month. "

It's hard to know how much gets through, he said. "Every time you close one 
avenue down, five more open up."

Larry Cox, who is serving three years in Windham for his latest theft, has 
been involved in, as he puts it, this marketing end of the tobacco since 
the Legislature banned smoking to eliminate second-hand smoke from state 

"When they banned it, I said 'Wow! There goes the price of tobacco. Time to 
step in and make some money on it,' " said Cox. "It worked out pretty well 
for a while. A $13 can of tobacco would cost anywhere from $75 to $200, 
depending on how much is around."

"It's an addiction," he explained. "People will say, 'Sell the ranch. I 
need a cigarette.' They rack up debts. They can't pay, and prison being 
prison, they're going to get whacked."

Worried family members call Herring to say their boyfriend, husband or son 
is pleading for money to pay off a cigarette debt. Sometimes, prisoners 
request protective custody if they can't pay or if they collected money for 
tobacco that was intercepted.

Prisoners are willing to risk losing time off for good behavior - as much 
as two months a year - for a cigarette. Having so many criminals in one 
place leads to constant efforts to beat the system.

Some attempts are subtle, like green bags hidden in grass clippings by 
people on the outside. Others are bold, like the person who dashed up to 
the recreation yard fence and tossed a parcel of tobacco over the top.

"It's like seagulls fighting for a french fry at McDonald's parking lot," 
Herring said. "Once it gets over the fence, it's a frenzy and the stuff 
disappears in so many different directions we don't have the ability to 
track it all."

Once, a suspicious food vendor found a crate marked "15 dozen eggs" on its 
way to the kitchen, stuffed with tobacco. Trash seemingly discarded 
alongside the road in front of the prison is just as likely to conceal a 
pouch of tobacco intended for a convict on a cleanup detail. Another 
shipment of tobacco was sent Federal Express to the prison industries 
program, supposedly containing supplies.

A loved one may pass contraband inside a balloon from their mouth to the 
prisoner's during a supervised, intimate kiss. An officer can get $100 just 
for dropping a $4 pack of smokes - obtained legally on the outside - on the 

"A majority of employees are working hard to combat the issues of 
contraband, but due to the value, particularly of tobacco, there's always a 
negative incentive for a person who might be enticed," said Scott 
Burnheimer, acting superintendent of the prison. One guard received $150 
for a pack of cigarettes.

A handful of guards were fired in recent months for helping smuggle 
contraband, including tobacco. Once a guard is compromised, the prisoners 
have leverage and that is unacceptable, says Burnheimer.

Mostly, the guards are working to identify what can be incredibly smooth 
smuggling systems, such as the one in which inmates working in a building 
outside the perimeter were shipping 2-pound bags of tobacco back into the 
prison dishwashing area. They stuffed them inside warming plates designed 
to keep lunch hot.

Investigators monitored the network, waiting to see who would move it into 
the prison population. Even with guards keeping watch inside the kitchen, 
it disappeared and was clandestinely reduced to smaller parcels for 
distribution at the meal serving line before guards found it again.

"It had changed hands four to five times within a couple minutes," Herring 

To beat the strip searches that are routine after outside contacts, 
prisoners will swallow balloons containing contraband and regurgitate them 

"We just don't have the manpower or ability to do cavity searches," Herring 
said. When officials suspect such a tactic, they keep a prisoner under 
watch in a dry cell with no toilet or running water.

Once prisoners have tobacco, they can be creative in smoking it. Without a 
match, they will short out an outlet to ignite a cigarette. They will smoke 
near a window, or surreptitiously in the recreation yard, when cold air 
makes everyone's breath look like smoke. Sometimes they will bail the water 
from a toilet, which opens the way for a strong draft into the sewer system.

Against all that creativity stand 148 correctional officers and Herring, 
the facility's only staff person authorized to make arrests. Herring also 
heads the facility's tactical team, conducts internal affairs 
investigations and oversees the four patrol dogs and their handlers.

The prison is exploring the feasibility of training a patrol dog to detect 
tobacco. The four dogs now working at the facility occasionally detect 
tobacco, but are trained primarily to find drugs or track fugitives.

The prison has invested $80,000 in video surveillance equipment to monitor 
the prison perimeter, different locations inside the facility and the 
visiting room. And prison staff also have new laws to help curb tobacco 

When Herring arrested Brown for sneaking 5 pounds onto prison grounds, 
there was nothing inherently illegal about possessing or delivering a large 
amount of tobacco. The man did 48 hours in jail for criminal trespass.

Now, a new law makes it a crime to smuggle tobacco into an adult 
correctional facility or to traffic in it inside a prison, punishable by up 
to one year in jail.

Still, tobacco smuggling to jails and prisons remains a problem, 
particularly in Windham. The prison's location in southern Maine means many 
prisoners are close to friends and family who will help them try to smuggle 
contraband. Also, the facility's sprawling layout and close access to a 
busy commuter road invite smuggling attempts.

The prisoners have 24 hours a day, seven days a week to think up schemes.

"We have an eight-hour shift to figure out what they're up to and put a 
stop to it. It's a cat-and-mouse game," Herring said.

Herring said when he discovers a bag of contraband on the grounds - every 
other day in the summertime - he replaces it with his business card.

"On it I write: 'If you have a problem, please call.' I have to tell you. I 
haven't gotten any calls yet."
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