Ohio Prisons Are In The Midst of A Suboxone-Smuggling Crisis

By Paul Gaita 04/20/17

Random drug tests from December 2016 revealed that one in 20 inmates tested positive for Suboxone.

A closeup of Suboxone tablets being poured into a hand from a prescription bottle.
Photo via YouTube

Use of the opioid addiction recovery drug, buprenorphine (or Suboxone), has become so prevalent among inmates in Ohio's prison system that it appears to rival marijuana as the most contraband drug smuggled behind bars in the state.

Random drug testing of inmates showed that about one in 20 individuals tested positive for Suboxone, which reflects a growing trend among inmates over the last few years. The Suboxone trade has forced prison officials to increase inspections for drugs in an attempt to not only curb drug smuggling but also reduce incidents connected to the trade, including violence among inmates.

"Suboxone is a wonderful thing in its proper usage," said Ed Voorhees of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. "But it can be abused and perverted.

Suboxone is popular among inmates due to its size and efficacy: when soaked into small strips, Suboxone can be brought into prison through a variety of means, from concealment under postage stamps to the binding in children's coloring book pages. The drugs can enter the prison system through the mail or by visitors and even correction officers; in some cases, they are simply thrown over prison walls and retrieved by inmates. Once inside, the strips usually sell on the black market for about $100 per strip. Buyers simply place the strips on the tongue, where it dissolves and delivers a slow-acting dose of opioid.

Drug tests, conducted in both random and "for cause" fashions, reveal that Suboxone use among inmates has grown steadily since officials began testing for the drug in 2014. A random test conducted in December 2016 showed 59 inmates testing positive for Suboxone, while 68 tested positive for marijuana. "For cause" tests—which are conducted when officials have proof or reasonable cause to suspect that an inmate has used drugs—given during the same time period, found 128 inmates testing positive for Suboxone and 135 for marijuana. The numbers reflect a 4% increase over positive test results yielded in 2016, while test results in 2015 were 3.9% higher than the previous year.

Results differ each month and by institution: in November 2016, 40 inmates tested positive for illegal drugs, including 25 that used Suboxone, at the Belmont Correctional Institution in St. Clairsville, but of 296 inmates tested randomly at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, one in five were found to be using an illegal drug. Prison officials have implemented a number of preventative measures to stem the tide of Suboxone, including a black light system that detects drugs that are attached to paper or cardboard. According to Voorhees, the prison system will also add ion scanners that can locate trace drug residue on objects and people.

Such actions come at a considerable cost of time and manpower for prison officials. The black lights have to scan every piece of mail that comes through the prison, which can amount to thousands of items each year, and efforts like increased perimeter patrols and the addition of more lights, cameras and motion detectors requires funds and additional employees. "It creates a challenge for us," said Doug Mosier, a correction officer at the Mansfield Correctional Institution and a union steward with the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association.

The problems can also go beyond cost and time. "It causes thievery, and the inmates become increasingly more violent," he said. Incidents involving drugs are also a drain on prison resources by drawing officers away from the hundreds of inmates they supervise.

"We spend a great deal of time, effort and money to intercept and figure out the newest ways inmates are getting drugs," said Voorhees. "But just like the people on the street, people who do that can get really creative to convey their illegal drug trade. As long as there's that much money involved, they will find a way."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.