June 24, 2018
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Knox County Sheriff says restrictions on strip-searches are ‘a safety issue’ at jail

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Four years after Knox County settled a $3 million class-action lawsuit over illegal strip-searches in the county jail, Sheriff Donna Dennison is worried that the resulting restrictions on such searches are enabling drug smuggling and endangering jail officials.

“Many of the people going into our jail are drug users,” she said in a press release issued late last week. “They know they are not going to be strip-searched so they easily [hide] drugs into their body cavities and walk right into the jail. More drugs make it in than are found. It is only a matter of time before weapons are smuggled in because our searches are restricted. It is definitely a safety issue.”

The sheriff acknowledged Monday that strip-searches are a “touchy subject” in her county, which endured a years-long civil lawsuit before a settlement was reached. She said in a telephone interview that while she may have said more in the press release than she should have, her point was to inform the public about the tough situation that law enforcement officials must deal with in the county jail.

“Sometimes we get upset and say things we probably shouldn’t,” Dennison said. “There’s so much stuff going on here … Maine’s got a huge [drug] problem. Huge. People are just addicted.”

While jail detainees taking smuggled and illicit drugs tend to pose more of a danger to themselves and other inmates, guards and jail officials can be endangered too, she said.

The worst thing in the jail right now is bath salts, she said, a synthetic stimulant that makes users act extremely erratically. The most commonly abused drug in jail is prescription pills.

Rather than try to change the law regarding strip-searches, the sheriff said that she would like to bring more attention to the need for more drug-treatment programs for addicts.

“A lot of the programs that are going now are full,” she said. “It’s a sad situation, all the way around.”

Bath salts, and its potential to trigger violence in users who are in county jail, among other locations, was not on the radar of most people in Maine or the country in 2007.

That’s when a federal judge ruled that more than 350 people were strip-searched illegally at Knox County Jail during an eight-year period and that each would receive about $5,000 in damages. The judge also issued a permanent injunction ordering Knox County Jail personnel not to strip-search detainees without a reasonable suspicion that the person possessed a weapon, a controlled substance or other contraband.

“We go by it,” Dennison said of the policy.

Maine law allows strip-searches of detainees charged with felonies that are violent, drug-related or involve weapons. Detainees charged with nonviolent, nondrug- or nonweapon-related infractions and those charged with misdemeanors are not subject to strip-searches unless there is a reasonable suspicion they are concealing contraband.

In Knox County Jail, strip-searches still happen under the state guidelines, though fewer are performed than before the lawsuit, according to John Hinkley, jail administrator.

“You need a very good reason to do a strip-search. These are very intrusive searches that have a very big impact on people’s privacy and dignity. Just because somebody is sentenced to prison doesn’t mean they stop being human beings,” Zach Heiden of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said Monday. “Courts in Maine and across the country that have looked at these practices have concluded that they’re overly intrusive, and that they do not, in fact, make jails safer.”

Dennison’s press release last week was prompted by a police investigation of an incident earlier in the week at Knox County Jail that involved a woman who allegedly had brought in several contraband narcotic pills.

“The inmate had smuggled the pills into the jail by use of her body cavities,” Dennison said in her release. “More drugs are making their way into the jail because of the court ruling prohibiting inmates from being strip-searched unless they meet certain criteria.”

Dennison wrote Monday in an email that it’s not surprising people try to smuggle drugs into the jails, considering the drug problems being experienced in Maine and the country as a whole.

“If there is a will, there is a way to get stuff in,” she wrote.

Inmates swallow balloons with drugs in them and also pack drugs in their body cavities. They also can receive contraband drugs from visitors, through the mail or when they leave jail to attend court or visit a doctor’s office. Inmates also are known to “cheek” the medications given to them by medical staff in order to save the pills for later or to provide them to another inmate.

“Our guards have a tough job and do well to catch what they can,” she wrote. She added that drug smuggling does not happen every day. “We do have inmates wanting to do right who want no part of this activity.”

But it’s very hard, and even impossible, to keep ahead of the inmates who don’t, said Hinkley, the Knox County Jail Administrator.

“We don’t catch them all. We know they come in quite frequently,” he said. “When they get high on drugs it becomes a safety issue for the staff.”

He said that law-abiding residents don’t understand the extent to which drugs, especially bath salts, are abused in Maine and have become a problem in jails.

“It’s scary stuff. People just don’t realize it,” Hinkley said.

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