ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When a New Mexico woman stuck a broom straw through a hole in a speaker that separated her from her inmate husband at a prison visitation room, officials at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, N.M., knew what was happening.
The prison officials rushed the pair in an effort to stop what they believed was an attempt to smuggle drugs, even if it was just a minute amount.
Connected to the straw was an orange-colored string that authorities say was laced with Suboxone, a narcotic used to treat heroin addicts by suppressing withdrawal symptoms.
Prison officials in New Mexico, and elsewhere across the country, say efforts to smuggle Suboxone are on the rise. In recent months, state corrections department officials say they have seen attempts to smuggle in broken or smashed traces of Suboxone to inmates who are looking to either use the drug, or sell it. Among the states that have reported such cases are Maine, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.
In some instances, family members have tried to pass the drug inside balloons through a hug or kiss; others have placed Suboxone on the back of stamps or children’s coloring books. In other cases, guards have been accused of taking part in elaborate contraband rings.
Prison officials have begun watching out for new ways that inmates try to get their hands on the narcotic, which gives users an intense high similar to heroin.
“They try everything,” said Dwayne Santistevan, administrator of New Mexico’s Security Threat Intelligence Unit for the state’s prison system.
As a drug that treats opiate addiction, Suboxone is considered to have a lower potential for abuse than methadone, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The drug was approved by the FDA in 2002, requires a doctor’s prescription and must be prescribed at a doctor’s office instead of at a treatment clinic.
No one is sure why Suboxone has become a growing presence in prisons.
Corrections departments say it’s too early to calculate the number of busts, and that the narcotic is just one of many drugs officials seek to intercept. Officials believe it may be partly because the drug can be relatively easily obtained from doctors.
But Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said it “definitely is the drug of choice now.”
“I can’t seem to remember recently when a drug bust we had didn’t involve Suboxone,” he said.
New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said states such as New Mexico, where heroin abuse is a serious problem, are especially vulnerable since it has among the most heroin addicts in the country.
Some doctors prescribe Suboxone to patients claiming to be addicts, and prisons are also home to a number of inmates struggling with heroin addictions, he said.
“We definitely need an educational effort because this affects us all,” Marcantel said. “And we’re not alone in fighting this.”
In October, for example, Pennsylvania officials broke up a prison drug-smuggling scheme using postage stamps to conceal Suboxone. Four people in the Bucks County Prison were charged with conspiracy.
The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency charged four people in March 2011 in connection with a drug smuggling operation involving Suboxone.
Authorities said an 18-year-old woman allegedly tried to smuggle Suboxone in the waistband of her pants as part of the scheme.
Ponte said Maine officials also have had to watch magazine subscriptions since inmates were sending magazines received directly from sources back to family members so they could send them back laced with Suboxone.
Maine prevents magazines in prisons other than those coming straight from magazine distributors.
“I’ve been around a long time,” Ponte said. “And this was a new one to me.”
Officials in a Cape May County jail in New Jersey last year broke up a smuggling ring after finding Suboxone-laced coloring book pages with depictions of Snow White and Cinderella and the words “To Daddy” scribbled on top. Three inmates and two women faced charges in that case.
To battle the jump in Suboxone smuggling, New Mexico prison officials are training guards on how to look for the drug in mail, during inmate visits and other interactions. Officials say they also are looking into new technology to help spot the drug, though they were reluctant to give details over fears that inmates may try to circumvent new efforts.
Prison officials worry that if steps aren’t taken now to stem the leaks of the drug into prisons, the narcotic might flood jails and make it harder for officials to root it out, especially since it is easy to hide and smuggle.
In the meantime, Joe Garcia, warden for the Central New Mexico Corrections Department, said jail officials just have to be alert for the next innovative attempt to get Suboxone behind bars.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Garcia said. “But the important thing is to not let our guards down.”