The U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) constantly battles to keep contraband – weapons, drugs, cellphones and other items – out of its correctional facilities. The dangers of weapons are obvious, but cellphones can be equally perilous, having been used to plot escapes and the intimidation – or worse – of witnesses, or to enable criminal enterprises to be managed by their incarcerated leaders.
Contraband enters federal prisons in various ways. Sometimes prisoners manage to retrieve what accomplices have thrown or even catapulted over a prison fence, and there are even attempted balloon or drone deliveries. Despite searches, visitors may also manage to smuggle in contraband.
Prison staff can also exploit their positions and access to bring in contraband. Last June, Department of Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz issued a report on contraband in BOP facilities. It noted the agency “still does not have an effective policy for searching staff when they enter prisons,” and found that correctional officers and other staff rarely had to go through random pat-down searches. Even in high-security facilities, the Inspector General’s report added, staff was given about one such search every three months and could likely evade such infrequent checks.
The IG also noted, somewhat tartly, that it had been more than 13 years since his office had first raised the issue of inadequate employee searches with the agency. In response, BOP said it would “develop and propose changes” to its policies on staff searches, to include “a minimum frequency and duration requirement for randomly pat searching staff” and would improve staff training on ways to detect contraband.
The IG’s report gingerly noted BOP’s caution that changes in its personnel policies would have to be negotiated with its labor unions. There’s history behind that observation: In 2013, a stricter staff-search policy was put in place, after negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), but it was struck down two years later by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (for federal employees, the equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board), after the AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals complained the new search policy hadn’t been “fully negotiated” with it.
A more recent report throws a new light on the continuing problem. Early this year, Eric S. Patrick, a 42-year-old BOP employee at the high-security federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas, appeared in federal court and entered a guilty plea. He faces a possible sentence of 15 years. Patrick served as a chaplain at Beaumont FPI.
The actual charge was a single charge of bribery of a public official, but that doesn’t provide a very clear picture. What was really going on was that the employee was smuggling contraband — in this case, cigarettes, tobacco and rolling paper. A sweep of the prison in July 2015 confiscated two gallon bags worth from cells, — reportedly delivered at a charge of $1,500 per inmate. Having no collection basket available for those offerings, the chaplain set up a number of post office boxes under phony names for the loot.
While it’s more than a little out of the ordinary to find a chaplain confessing to contraband smuggling, the episode clearly points to the need for BOP leaders, staff and unions to get serious about doing their parts to address the continuing problem of contraband.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, Pris