Pubdate: Sun, 12 Nov 2006
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2006 Times Colonist
Author: Richard Watts, Times Colonist
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Drugs are a fact of life in jail, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Inmates' lawyers say drugs are a way to keep peace between cells.

But it's a problem that reduces inmates' hopes for rehabilitation --
and a better life on the outside.

The prison guard at Wilkinson Road jail knew something was up when
inmates gathered up the biggest bag of canteen goodies she had ever

Paula Colford, a 15-year corrections officer at the Vancouver Island
Regional Corrections Centre, told a coroner's inquest that canteen
items -- candy bars, sausage sticks, juice boxes -- form a currency of
exchange in prison. Colford suspected a drug deal was going down when
she saw the pile growing.

So she refused to pass along the treats to David (Bugsy) Nelson, the
inmate in the neighbouring living unit, who asked for them even when
he became agitated.

And it turns out Colford was likely right about the drug deal. It
failed to connect and Nelson, a petty criminal from the Campbell River
area, apparently decided to sample some of his own wares.

The 27-year-old man was found dead in his bunk, blood leaking from his
mouth, on the morning of March 24, 2004. Medical analysis showed
Nelson died of a heroin overdose.

At the coroner's inquest into his death, held in Colwood earlier this
year, prison officials conceded drugs are a constant concern, creating
conflict and posing a risk to the safety of inmates.

Drugs also undermine the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs.
With 85 per cent of inmates having a history with drugs or alcohol
abuse, allowing drug use inside a jail or prison is

But drugs get in regardless of the presence of drug-sniffing dogs and
ion scanners capable of picking up their molecular traces.

Incoming prisoners manage to smuggle them in despite strip searches.
They succeed even though the suspicion that arrivals might have
swallowed a balloon carrying drugs allows prison officials to
segregate them for up to 72 hours while feeding them laxatives.

Balloon filled-drugs are also smuggled in via the other direction.
That is, prisoners insert them into their anus before heading into
prison, a technique that can escape even a full-body cavity search.

The drugs get inside even though prisoners in provincial prisons are
denied contact with visitors from the outside. Once they are locked
up, contact between inmates and visitors happens through a Plexiglas
barrier through a telephone handset.

Often, a drug-packed tennis ball is simply launched over the prison

The extent of the problem is impossible to measure. Prison records
don't differentiate among types of seized contraband, whether they're
illicit drugs, weapons or even cigarettes (now barred from provincial

Knowledge of the problem, however, is longstanding.

In 1997, the Attorney General's Ministry commissioned former Vancouver
police chief Bob Stewart to write a special report. His report -- A
Review of Drug Interdiction Programs in Correctional Centres --
concluded drugs are being taken into prisons through smuggling methods
restricted only by imagination.

Defence lawyers, representing inmates, voice suspicions that drugs are
tolerated for the sake of maintaining a degree of peace. The result,
however, is a place that offers little prospect of rehabilitation and
often makes worse an inmate's chances for a better life.

"As one of my clients said to me, 'I went into prison an alcoholic. I
came out a heroin addict.' " Tom Morino, a Victoria lawyer with a
large legal aid practice, said in a courthouse interview.

One 40-year-old former inmate, in and out of prison since his teens
with 80-odd convictions to his name, most driven by drug addiction,
agreed the drugs are tolerated by guards to maintain a peace.

But the ex-inmate, who asked his name not be published, said this is
self-defeating since most prison violence stems from drug debts.

Now clean, he said he can't understand why prisons don't make drug and
alcohol counselling mandatory for all inmates. After all, sex
offenders get mandatory counselling and they make up only a tiny
portion of the prison population. Substance abusers are the huge majority.

"You can plant the seed," he said. "The only way the crime is going to
stop is if you see a better way."

A 42-year-old long-term prisoner in the federal system, who also
didn't want his name publicized, said he believes the corrections
system is hypocritical. What prison and penitentiary officials won't
do, he said, is admit that drugs are there and then adopt supportive,
pro-active programs to deal with addictions.

"They have this false sense of righteousness, this fake belief they
can somehow stop the drugs," he said.

Prison officials insist zero tolerance for illegal drugs is the right
approach. However, there is a recognition of the drug problem that
borders on resignation.

For example, at the inquest into Nelson's death, a corrections officer
grinned while testifying that one inmate insisted he knew nothing of
drugs on the living unit during the investigation into Nelson's death.

"And [he] said this with a straight face," corrections officer Ken
Cornish testified and shook his head.

Dennis Finlay, spokesman for the federal Correctional Service in
Canada, Pacific Region, acknowledged a level of drug use among the
2,000 inmates in the region's 10 federal institutions.

But Finlay said the only way to ensure federal prisons are drug-free
would be to make inmates serve their sentences in isolation. Such
treatment would mean inmates would never be ready for release back
into the community.

"We could isolate [inmates] from the community completely, but the
cost when they return will be high," Finlay said.

Rawn Phalen, warden of the Vancouver Island Regional Correction Centre
on Wilkinson Road, told the inquiry into Nelson's death the problems
for provincial institutions are even tougher than for federal prisons,
where the average sentence of six years results in a more stable
inmate population.

The longest sentence served at a provincial institution is two years
less one day. The average sentence is only three months. Furthermore,
a provincial jail such as Vancouver Island Correctional Centre is also
a remand centre, where people are held in custody for just a few days
while their bail conditions are worked out.

Of the 310 inmates who inhabit the Wilkinson Road jail at any one
time, about half are on remand. (Nelson

himself was a remand prisoner, facing six charges ranging from driving
while prohibited to assault and mischief.)

For Wilkinson Road officials, this translates to the arrival and
departure of 30 to 40 inmates a day.

It's not unusual for an incoming prisoner to stock up and swallow a
balloon of heroin or cocaine to smuggle inside, something to tide him
over and barter for favours.

Phalen said it's believed one offender deliberately breached his
parole conditions to be returned to jail and smuggle in the heroin
that was passed to Nelson.

Despite the breakdown in that case, Phalen insists prison officials
are determined to keep drugs out.

Corrections officials are always on the lookout for better ways to do
this, but Phalen noted that two mandatory, internal investigations
into Nelson's death produced no suggestions for improvements.

The jury sitting at the coroner's inquest into Nelson's death came
back with two recommendations:

a) Put drug-sniffing dogs at Wilkinson Road;

b) Allow inmates to enter a methadone program once inside, something
denied them unless they were on methadone before incarceration.

Phalen said drugs are a reality that corrections officials have to
combat as best they can. "You are taking a lot of drug-seeking people
and putting them in one place," Phalen said.

"And just because you are putting them in prison doesn't mean they are
going to stop their drug-seeking behaviour."
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