WARREN, Maine ― When Knox County criminal indictments were handed down last month, one charge dominated the list: trafficking in prison contraband.
Accused are both inmates and civilians, who investigators say brought drugs ― primarily Suboxone ― into the Maine State Prison. Officials at the state’s only maximum-security facility have been cracking down on this type of crime since a special-investigations unit was created in 2012.
But as the opioid epidemic continues to grip the state, individuals struggling with addiction are being incarcerated alongside drug traffickers creating the potential for a supply-and-demand market within Maine’s prisons.
“That [problem] doesn’t stay in the community. Somebody who has that disease and gets incarcerated through a burglary case or a domestic violence case, they come into prison and they obviously still have the disease with them, and they’re desperately trying to find a drug. Then we have the traffickers,” Maine State Prison Lt. Lidia Burnham said.
Burnham heads up the prison’s Special Investigations Intelligence team, which is tasked with investigating crimes that occur between inmates inside the facility, such as drug trafficking, assault and gang-related crimes.
Since the beginning of 2018, Burnham’s team has pursued convictions in 52 drug-trafficking cases — and won them all.
“It’s hard to know if the drugs were always coming in and we’re just doing a much better job stopping it now,” Maine State Prison Warden Matthew Magnusson said. “I think it’s [the Special Investigations Intelligence team] that is leading to more cases.”
The drug Burnham’s team is finding the most these days? Suboxone, the brand name for a medication containing buprenorphine and naloxone that, if used as prescribed, reduces a person’s cravings by blocking opioid receptors in the brain.
It’s cheap, easy to find on the streets and very easy to conceal, according to Burnham.
Inside the prison, the drug carries a huge profit margin. While a strip of Suboxone costs about $20 to $25 on the street, Burnham said in the prison a strip can be sold for between $500 and $600.
“The profit causes a lot of temptation for somebody who maybe for all their life, or a part of their life, has been trafficking drugs for a living,” Burnham said. “The majority of the time, they will get between six to 12 months added to their sentence [for a trafficking charge]. So in their minds they justify extra time in prison for a profit of $10,000 or more. They take the risk.”
In the past seven years, Burnham said she’s seen a changing dynamic on how the drugs are being brought into the prison. While it typically used to be one prisoner and one civilian working together, “now it’s multiple prisoners and multiple civilians,” she said.
The two primary ways that drugs are trafficked into the prison are through the mail and through contact visits that inmates have with civilians. Magnusson wouldn’t go into too much detail about how they are finding drugs that flow into the facility, but noted that “Suboxone is easy to hide and hard to find.”
The investigations are a lot more nuanced than just conducting cell searches. Burnham said it requires a lot of observation on the part of her team, other corrections officers and caseworkers within the facility.
Disruption in routine is a key indicator of possible criminal activity, Burnham said. They look for inmates talking to other inmates they have never engaged with before, or spending more time than usual on the phone. In some cases, it can be a red flag if an inmate is sending large amounts of money to a civilian when they do not have a job.
“That catches our attention,” Burnham said.
However, when investigating drug-trafficking cases, Burnham said investigators are careful to recognize inmates or civilians who are “being strong armed” into cooperating with traffickers. Often times those inmates are struggling with substance use disorder.
“We clearly separate the people who are just using and the people who are scheming to bring large amounts of drugs into the facility. Those are the people we are going to prosecute and go after as hard as we can,” Magnusson said.
Working to diminish the flow of drugs into the facility is part of a two-pronged effort to help inmates who are trying to recover from substance use disorder, Magnusson said. The prison can offer access to counselors and peer-substance-use-recovery coaches, but if drugs are available within the prison, it diminishes that effort.
“We need to provide the resources for people to seek help, but also do everything we can to really dry up the supply of drugs that a small few attempt to get in here everyday,” Magnusson said.
Related: Why Suboxone helps this Mainer with his opioid addiction