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PLN article cited in article about prison contraband smuggling, Nov. 10, 2015.

When Prohibitions Fail in Prison, How Can They Work in the World Outside?

Jailhouse black markets make a mockery of restrictions imposed in what are literally miniature police states.

Drugs, booze, weapons, and (apparently) breakfast are only part of the vast world of smuggled goods that flow around the walls, bars, gates, and guards at penal institutions in response to strong demand and in defiance of legal and physical barriers. The illicit trade makes a mockery of restrictions and prohibitions imposed in what are literally miniature police states—and points to the impossibility of imposing similar controls in the larger and relatively free society outside the walls.

Given the role the War on Drugs has played in populating the nation's prisons, it's no surprise that all sorts of intoxicants retain their allure behind bars. Alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and the like may be strictly forbidden in prison, but they're widely available anyway. The Florida Department of Correction reports stumbling across over 13,000 grams of synthetic cannabinoid, 2,000 grams of the real stuff, as well as coke, booze (commercial and homebrew), and thousands of grams of other recreational substances in its institutions last year. During a 2013 mass urine-testing, California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that "nearly 23 percent of the inmates who voluntarily participated tested positive for one or more illicit drugs." The 30 percent of inmates who refused to submit samples might have made those results even more impressive.

Plenty of those buzzed prisoners are violent, or trying to defend themselves from other inmates who are. That's such a prison tradition that exhibits of improvised and smuggled weapons are standard attractions offered by corrections facilities for the edification of the public. The Texas Prison Museum touts "the craftiness and creativeness of inmates who manufacture weapons from materials found within the prison units." Florida advertised its similar exhibition with a press release asking, "Have you ever seen a prison shank (or homemade weapon), or a zip gun?" Shanks are the most common weapons inside prison walls, to the point that National Criminal Justice Reference Service researchers went to the trouble of testing new and supposedly unsharpenable materials for toothbrushes, razors, and broom handles. But guns are sufficiently common that several inmates were charged in 2014 with smuggling a pistol into Florida's Columbia Correctional Institution—not to settle a score, but to shootthemselves as part of a fraudulent lawsuit against the prison.

Florida Man gets around.

The self-inflicters of those wounds already had a history of smuggling drugs and cellphones into the institution. The prison yard trade in cellphones exploded over the past 15 years, as inmates discovered the joys of remaining connected to friends, family, and criminal associates. The 261 phones nabbed by California's correctional officers in 2006 soared to 2,811 in 2008, according to the state's inspector general, rising again to 15,000 in 2011, as revealed by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST). California passed a specific new law criminalizing possession of illicit cellphones in 2011, in hope that prisoners would be deterred by one more statute on the books. That didn't go far enough for a federal task force, which preferred jamming—which is illegal and might interfere with phone service outside prisons—or intercepting wireless phone calls—an approach the CCST warned hadn't been adequately tested and wouldn't stop text messages or incoming calls.

Corrections officials are forever tightening restrictions and trying new technology to make their walls and gates more resistant to forbidden goods. But a big part of the challenge for controlling contraband in prisons is the classic "who watches the watchmen" problem.

"Often the people doing the smuggling are guards or other corrections employees, who, motivated by greed, accept bribes from prisoners," Matthew Clarke noted for Prison Legal News two years ago. Last year, an "undercover investigator posing as a Correction Officer smuggled in a razor blade and large quantities of heroin, marijuana, and prescription narcotics at six facilities on Rikers Island" in New York City—goods that could have netted "$3,600 in courier fees" for a single trip according to the city's Department of Investigation. When guards can earn $300 for smuggling a single pack of cigarettes, thousands for running cocaine to inmates, and even make $100,000 just by smuggling cellphones, it's obvious that the restrictions on prisons are business opportunities for the people that enforce the rules.

That kind of cash motivates people and drives innovation. Drones have been used to smuggle contraband into prisons in MarylandOklahoma, South Carolina, and almost certainly elsewhere. The Economist reports that payments for contraband are often handled through banking apps on smart phones—part of the popularity of smuggled mobile devices.

No doubt, officials will innovate in turn, stepping up their own efforts to cut off the flow of the forbidden to the inmates supposedly under their control. Whatever successes they may enjoy, history suggests that black market networks will stay a step ahead of them, ensuring a continued flow of intoxicants, electronics, weapons, and fast food from eager sellers to willing buyers, no matter how high the walls are raised or how intrusive inspections are made.

There's a lesson here, of course.

Officials contemplating inflicting a new round of prohibitions on the society around them might be well served to stop and consider the failure of such measures in the tightly controlled confines of penal institutions. When bars and unannounced searched become spurs to innovation, and tight rules become business opportunities for crooked guards, what's the chance of enforcing restrictions in the world outside of prison walls?