How Inmates Smuggle Drugs into Jail: A Report From the Inside
A forbidding presence on North London’s Caledonian Road, Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville, where the notorious Michigan-born murderer Dr Crippen was hanged in 1910, is surrounded by inner city housing on three sides. Women with children sometimes stand at the roadside, calling up to loved ones at cell windows high above the outer walls.
The prison typically houses a population of over 1,200 inmates, many of them seeking a chemical escape. But while alcohol and drugs are obviously banned, most prisoners claim that, if anything, drugs are easier to obtain inside the institution than “on the out.” “If I walk down my landing, I can get whatever I want,” bragged an inmate I spoke with on the topic; the wafts of marijuana smoke that sometimes pervade the wings support his claim. Necessity breeds invention and ethics aside, the ingenious methods used by inmates to obtain their stash are nothing short of impressive.
One method is to have someone toss a packet over the walls into one of the exercise yards. (Because of how close the jail is to housing, there’s no way to have these yards further from the perimeter.) Pairs and groups of men pace in wide circles, burning off pent-up energy, but at pre-arranged times, the formation can suddenly change. Sometimes two inmates will stage a fight to divert attention—then a package flies over the wall, occasionally disguised inside a tennis ball or even a dead pigeon. Prisoners quickly crowd around a newly arrived parcel, keeping officers (known as “screws”) back before they can arrive in sufficient numbers, and hiding the chosen recipient from view while he “plugs” the goods.
“Plugging,” for the uninitiated, means stashing things in nature’s hiding place: the rectum. Drugs aren’t hard to hide this way, but the practice can be extended even to homemade knives, padded carefully—if inadequately—in surround-wrap, and to cell phones (a technique Gordon Gekko would probably have avoided). Phones are necessary to coordinate deliveries, although some prisoners also want them simply to stay in touch, and even to update their Facebook statuses. The fact that Pentonville is so close to residential buildings frequently frustrates the jail’s security department—the signal-jamming technology that other prisons use to stop inmates from operating phones can’t be employed, since it would interfere with local residents' telephone use.
As you might imagine, plugging can be hazardous. Prisoners are occasionally shuttled to a nearby hospital so buried items can be retrieved, and at least one hapless inmate required internal stitches. Condoms and lubricant, made freely available to prisoners to promote sexual health, can be used to “smooth the passage” of cell phones, as a large North London robber, who was later “nicked” (busted) for carrying two phones in this manner, once told me. On the other hand, signal-detecting equipment and an X-ray chair (also employed in American jails) give an edge back to the regime, increasing the chances of detection.
Often the man who plugs the newly arrived drugs in the yard won’t be the final recipient of the package, but merely an accommodating mule. Officers who may have missed a delivery when it originally arrived can often work out its destination—the dealer—later on. “Sometimes,” says another ex-employee, “a line of druggies would flow up the wing to a particular cell like lemmings to get their stuff.”
Inmates also use “lines”—makeshift ropes of shoelaces or torn-up sheets—to pass supplies between cell windows when they're locked in. While the regime struck back against the over-the-wall bombardment in 2009, by hanging fine nets over much of the relevant airspace, the holes burned in these nets by flaming projectiles prove that the practice lives on.
Friends and family, who are persuaded to bring “gifts” when they visit, represent another entry route. Visits at Pentonville, a “B-Cat” jail (one category below maximum security) are “open.” This means they’re held over a table without the in-between glass that’s always shown in prison movies, unless an inmate has given officers particular reason for suspicion. But providing “bring-ins” is not for the faint-hearted: prominent posters warn misbehaving visitors of prosecution and jailtime. Visitors are routinely sniffed over by drug-detecting dogs and patted down by suspicious guards. Amy Winehouse, coming to see her incarcerated then-husband at Pentonville in 2009, was subjected to a search of her famous beehive hairdo (given that she’d been accused of hiding coke in her hairpiece on stage, this seems reasonable enough). Even a lawyer was once caught carrying drugs in the sole of his shoe. Those who survive the searches may make their deliveries via a sloppy kiss or a handshake, or by passing goods over the table, hidden under a chocolate bar or coffee cup. Cameras scan the visits hall, while vigilant officers survey the scene, ever-ready to alert colleagues to any potential exchanges. Friends and families also regularly conceal drugs in letters or gifts they mail to the prison—sewn into the waistbands of clothing they send in, or even hidden under postage stamps.
But the most significant sources of drugs, many prisoners claim, are wayward staff members, or “bent screws.” “You just need one corrupt officer,” said one inmate, “for the whole wing to have drugs.” A long-time resident recalled, “When I got put inside I straight away bumped into a geezer working here who’s a regular at my local [pub]—I got him to deliver me a bottle of vodka every Friday.” Searches and sniffer dogs are used on staff, but rarely; I feel confident I would have avoided detection if I’d chosen to bring in drugs. U.K. prison staff are often suspended and prosecuted for boosting their incomes by supplying drugs and other contraband, and "The Ville" has had its share. One high-profile bust was of an officer named Lisa Harris, who was prosecuted and imprisoned last year. She was caught smuggling a mobile phone to Daniel Lynch, an inmate she had become involved with, who was convicted of raping his ex-girlfriend and having sulphuric acid thrown in her face.
Pentonville’s prisoners routinely obtain all manner of illicit substances, from crack to steroids. Even methadone is sold and traded. Prisoners who are legitimately prescribed the medication sip the concoction in view of a watchful nurse, but don’t swallow it. Instead, they spit it out into a cup when they return to their cells a few minutes later. “Piss tests,” mandatory in all prisons in England and Wales since 1996, are given to randomly selected prisoners throughout the year, as well as to those regarded with particular suspicion. But because cannabis is detectable in the urine for much longer than heroin, for example, some argue that this testing only encourages prisoners to use harder drugs instead.
Unlike other drugs at Pentonville, which are imported from outside, alcohol is usually manufactured on site. Prisoners often make bootleg liquor by mixing fruit juice, water, bread, and sugar in a plastic bottle, which they leave to brew on one of the warm pipes that heat their cells during the colder months. Consequently, inmates grumble about liquor shortages during the spring and summer, but an air of anticipation is discernable every autumn, when the heat pipes are turned on, and prisoners start brewing their homemade hooch in time for Christmas.
Over the years, the prison's administrators have embarked on a series of strict initiatives to eradicate the problem. Sympathetic and dedicated staff members have also started in-house treatment programs and a refurbished detox wing was opened to house inmates trying to kick their habits. Despite these efforts, however, nothing yet seems to have worked. Drugs enter Pentonville and most other prisons as fast as ever. Wider society may be engaged in an often-questioned and never-ending “war on drugs,” but behind prison walls, the battle rages with an entirely different level of intensity. And in jail, like in the outside world, the drug dealers often have the upper hand.
Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix. He is a Brooklyn-based writer and recent arrival from London, where he co-founded award-winning prisoners' publication Voice of the Ville. He has also interviewed TV chef Andrew Zimmern and written about some religious reprobates for The Fix.