06/07/2008 03:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Perks Of Prison

Someone asked me an intriguing question the other day. How come prisons have gangs and drugs inside?

If prisons are supposed to be among the most secure places in our society - if they are where we send the worst of the worst - then isn't it safe to assume they would be highly secure and safe from the troubles of the street?

Well, yes - and no.

Overall, prisons are pretty darned efficient in keeping the convicted IN. Where they loose the battle is over keeping OUT what doesn't belong.

My space here is too limited to completely describe the gang problems in our prisons. But, when wardens deal with inmate placement they usually decide to keep specific gang members together. To assign a member of the Crips to a cellblock full of members of the Bloods would be to invite someone's murder.

The problem with this is, of course, it's a great way for gangs to continue their activities while incarcerated.

And, every prison official I've spoken with, from Maryland to California and New York to New Mexico agrees its those gang members who conspire to make sure there is a steady stream of illegal drugs coming to their 'hood....even if the stash has to get by prison security.

In other words, gang member who go to prison get to keep their friends and feed their drug habits.

"Inmates have 24/7, 365 days a year, over all the years they're in here to think of ways to circumvent prison security measures," says retired warden Ralph Logan of the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Maryland.

Logan worked his way up through the ranks at the prison, serving the system for 29 years. He shakes his head in disbelief over the ever evolving ways convicts conspired to get their drugs.

His guards at E.C.I. discovered everything from marijuana to heroin hidden inside baby diapers, girlfriend's body cavities and in magazines and books visitors tried to bring in as gifts.

Rob Perry, the former Secretary of Corrections for New Mexico from 1997 to 2002 says powdered drugs are often sent through the U.S. Mail, packed tightly into the corners of envelopes or sent via greeting cards soaked in liquefied methamphetamine or cocaine. The prisoner simply melts the impregnated section of the card in their mouth to get their high.

An evidence supervisor from Santa Barbara, California told me guards confiscated a "crispy pair of gift socks" from a visitor to their prison and after testing they were found to be loaded with dried meth. I guess the idea was to wet down the socks and strain out the booty.

Asked to remember the most outrageous mode of drug transportation into their prisons both Logan and Perry had immediate answers.

Logan chuckled as he told the tale of a prisoner with a prosthetic arm. "He went to the hospital for treatment and adjustment and someone knew he was coming, left him a package somewhere in the hospital," Logan told me during a recent interview. When the prisoner was searched upon his return to E.C.I. the guards found he had, "smuggled (the drugs) back to the prison in the hollow of his arm!"

This kind of outside-the-walls coordination is not unusual according to Perry. His most outrageous smuggling story had to have required much preparation and some sophisticated machine tools as well.

"I saw a quarter," he told me about an item confiscated by one of his department's guards. "Someone had cut the thickness of the quarter in half and hollowed it out leaving a circular chamber inside. A tiny pin connected the two halves. There was black tar heroin inside."

It was obviously painstaking work and it was duplicated, according to Perry, on half a dozen quarters. The visitor who passed them was never located.

Dan Hanks, is a reformed ex-con who still remembers how he and his California prison gang got around the rules. "Prisons operate," he says, "because the inmates do the work."

"If you've got any kind of skill at all they assign you to a job that needs that skill (because) that saves them from having to hire a free man to do the job."

Prisoners run the laundry, order in goods for the kitchen, the library and the wood shop where they make furniture for state offices. There is a shipping and receiving department and it's often run by inmates. Think of the opportunities they have to coordinate incoming drug shipments with gang members on the outside.

It's estimated that it costs an average 34 thousand dollars a year to house a prisoner. Unless we're prepared to spend about double that the situation is not going to change.