High times doing hard time

Packed with dealers and substance abusers, Canada’s prisons have become a lucrative market for the drug trade


High times doing hard time

Packed with dealers and substance abusers, Canada’s prisons have become a lucrative market for the drug trade


High times doing hard time


Packed with dealers and substance abusers, Canada’s prisons have become a lucrative market for the drug trade


Complicating the debate over the merits of Canada’s parole system— and of the prison system itself—is the existence of a major plague affecting the population behind bars. It is the abuse of drugs on a massive scale, a problem that can make inmates even less fit to rejoin society than they were when they were imprisoned. Last year, John Edwards, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), announced a program of more rigorous monitoring and other measures to counter drug use in prisons. But as author Kevin Marron relates in The Slammer: The Crisis in Canada’s Prisons, to be published next month by Doubleday Canada, some prisoners and staff members fear that any

attempt to deal with the drug problem will actually result in more harm than good.

Canada is second only to the United States in the number of drug arrests per capita. We may have more serious drug problems than other countries, but we also may simply favor law en-

forcement over other ways of dealing with the problem. This tendency is illustrated clearly by the fact that there are more drug users in Canadian prisons than in treatment centres. It is also likely that prisons are increasing the number of drug users on the street. Many prisoners told me that they acquired drug habits in jail or moved from soft to hard drugs during the course of their sentences.

People addicted to drugs like heroin or crack cocaine will do almost anything to feed their habit. Many of the addicts who find themselves in prison have got there because of desperate crimes commit-

ted to obtain drugs or money to buy them. It is only to be expected that they will resort to any means to get drugs in prison. Other drug users, who have relied on drugs in the past to relieve stress or avoid problems in their lives, are likely to want them all the more to cope with the tensions of prison life. Occasional users and even people who have never taken drugs before are likely to be tempted to indulge while in an intensely boring and stressful environment. Peer pressure in the overcrowded jails may force some prisoners to take drugs in order to keep the trust of cell mates or others on their range.

Prisons are therefore a very lucrative market for the drug trade.

For some dealers, especially those who are well connected with organized crime, a prison sentence is a promising business opportunity. According to the 1994 report of the Expert Committee on AIDS in Prisons, drugs may increase in value by as much as 500 per cent when they are sold behind prison walls. In spite of the high prices, many prisoners find

ways of paying for drugs or obtaining them by other means.

The AIDS task force report, which was commissioned by CSC, also estimated that only five per cent of the drugs entering penitentiaries are intercepted by authorities. Since pills and small quantities of hard drugs are easier to smuggle, heroin and Valium are common commodities traded on the underground economies of the penitentiaries, though hashish remains the drug of choice for many prisoners and is also available.

Friends and relatives visiting individual prisoners or attending socials are the most common sources for the drugs that find their way into prison. Many members of CSC staff maintain that the only effective way to limit drug trafficking would be to cut off all visits in which outsiders may have physical contact with inmates. On the other

hand, the goal of eventually reintegrating prisoners in society is best served by preserving their contacts with family and other community members. In fact, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act requires that prisoners be allowed visits, except for reasons of safety or security.

The correctional service is therefore faced with the extremely difficult task of limiting drug smuggling in areas where two or three guards monitor up to 100 visitors a day who may remain in close contact with prisoners for several hours. Visitors often wrap drugs in balloons or condoms and conceal them in body cavities. Even baby’s diapers may sometimes provide a hiding place. The drugs may be exchanged while kissing or embracing. Prisoners may then swallow the condom containing the drugs or go to the washroom where they can conceal it on their own bodies.

Basic human decency as well as civil rights limit the options of prison staff in responding to such situations. By law, prisoners, as well as visitors, can refuse to submit to full body searches. Prisoners can be placed under 24hour observation in what is known as a “dry cell,” where there is no flush toilet and any concealed drugs can eventually be retrieved. But monitoring a dry cell is not a duty that guards relish, and staff cutbacks have made it difficult for institutions to provide the level of supervision required to do it on a routine basis.

Visits to prisoners are not the only potential source for smuggled drugs. No matter how secure a prison is supposed to be, there is a steady stream of outsiders passing in and out of the doors. Food and other supplies must be delivered. Tradespeople are required for repairs and routine maintenance. Numerous professionals and volunteers visit prisons for

many different purposes. CSC employees routinely pass in and out of prison gates without being subjected to even a cursory search.


An administrator at one prison told me that it was counterproductive to be too efficient at stopping visitors from bringing in drugs.

“Drug dealers are very ruthless,” he said.

“They will go to any length to try to get drugs in. If you cut down on the personal avenues, the pressure is going to increase on staff.”

Prison reform activist Clare Culhane pointed out to me that drugs used to get into the old British Columbia Penitentiary in the days when all visitors were required to remain behind glass screens. She said she once asked the warden how he thought the prisoners were getting their drugs and he merely looked out of the window to see if it was snowing. A prisoner at Matsqui said to me, “If visitors are not bringing drugs in, staff will. If not staff, the walls are not that high.”

Prisoners with the means to do so can buy drugs with funds transferred directly to drug dealers using third parties on the street.

Sometimes inmates will beg or borrow mon-

ey from friends or relatives for this purpose. Inside the prison, there is little cash available and the economy operates on a barter system. Cigarettes are hoarded and used as a currency for drug purchases. Major debts or purchases could be paid off with stereos, clothes or objects filched from workshops. Services like tattooing may also be traded and some prisoners perform sexual favors for money or drugs.

Prisoners who allow others to “front” them drugs or other goods when they first arrive may find their debts growing rapidly beyond all proportion. They may soon find themselves pressured to hide items of contraband in their cells or to persuade their visitors to smuggle in drugs. Those who build up heavy debts risk being badly beaten, or even killed, if they cannot pay.

The drug trade is often controlled by powerful, well-organized groups with strong underworld connections on both sides of the bars. Not only can they have prisoners killed inside the penitentiary, but they are also sometimes capable of threatening the lives of relatives on the outside. Depending on the prison, its location and the demographics of its population, there may be one dominant group, several groups catering to different clientele and respecting one another’s turf, or different elements vying for control in often vicious turf wars. A spectacular example of this was in Montreal, where members of two rival biker gangs deliberately committed crimes in order to get into the provincial Bordeaux jail in the fall of 1994, and then engaged in a violent war over control of the prison drug trade.

The large-scale drug dealers, however, generally want to have a peaceful prison environment in order to pursue their business. When there are serious conflicts, institutions are usually “locked down,” with prisoners confined to their cells. Lock-downs frustrate the drug dealers because they disrupt trafficking within the institution and cut supply sources, since visitors are not allowed in.

In one aggressive attempt to dry up the drug trade, the federal maximum security Edmonton Institution purchased a dog that had been trained by Canada Customs to detect drugs. Staff members explained to me that the chocolate-colored Labrador, which they called Max, was used for cell searches and placed in a cage in a corridor outside the prison visiting area. Visitors would sometimes have to walk between a fan and the dog’s cage. Whenever the dog appeared to detect drugs, the visitors would be asked if they would consent to be searched. Those who did not consent would be asked to leave and not allowed further visits.

When there is a major social event at Edmonton Max, as the prison is known, officers stationed at the entrance are accompanied by police. They have a list of the people authorized to attend. When they are suspicious, they direct vehicles to a separate parking lot and ask permission to search the vehicle using the drug dog. Many vehicles drive away as soon as they see the police and the dogs.

Craig, an unofficial prisoners’ representative, told me drugs were still readily available, but more expensive. He said this was' perhaps a

result of the stricter controls, although it was hard to be sure because drug prices on the street had also gone up. In any event, he said, the practical result was that there was more extortion and intimidation, since prisoners were having to go deeper into debt to buy their drugs.

In other prisons, some staff members told me that cracking down too hard on drugs can cause more problems than it solves. Many violent and volatile prisoners are calmer when they have drugs. In the absence of drugs, prisoners are likely to resort to making “brew,” a highly potent, often sickening alcoholic beverage concocted in makeshift stills from kitchen scraps or whatever the prisoners can find. Several veteran guards informed me that brew can make prisoners more crazy and reckless than almost any hard drug.

The CSC’s Edwards told a parliamentary committee last April that prisons were already seeing the benefit of new anti-drug policies, such as strengthened search procedures, better

screening of visitors, more extensive drug testing and tougher sanctions. But, in what was perhaps a huge understatement, he admitted that the drug problem had not disappeared entirely and was unlikely ever to do so. He said, ‘When you confine some of the country’s biggest drug dealers and many serious drug users within the same four walls, it shouldn’t be too surprising that they will continue trying to ply their trade.” □