Gulf Correctional sees increase in contraband

Around Feb. 3, Gulf County Correctional Institution went into lockdown after larger than normal contraband drop was discovered – a cell phone, four lighters, four rolling papers, 172.2 grams of marijuana, 1,110 grams of tobacco and 32.5 grams of methamphetamines between the county’s two facilities.

It was Gulf Correctional’s second of three lockdowns over the past six or so weeks, according to Prison Warden Scott Payne, and the result of what he says is a troubling trend. He brought his concerns to the county commissioners.

“When we lockdown, that means no squads going out. There’s no movement whatsoever. That’s standard protocol pretty much statewide. That’s not my decision,” he said before the board at their Feb. 26 regular meeting. “We don’t like it. It’s a lot of stress on my staff. It’s a lot of stress on the inmates, but with the type of inmate population that we have, sometimes it requires that.”

The warden told commissioners that this recent influx in contraband is coming in through outside work crews, which are sent out to perform maintenance and other services around the community when the prison is not locked down.

Former inmates, he continued, are dropping contraband off at per-determined sites around the county where they know security is a little slimmer.

 “It’s these individuals, ex inmates, that are being released and … may live in Bay County. They may live in Gulf County, Calhoun County,” Payne said. “Contraband is so lucrative within a correctional facility. Like a pack of cigarettes, I think it costs six, seven bucks depending on what brand you smoke. In there, one cigarette can cost you ten bucks.”

“So, there’s so much money to be made if you can get a process in place if you’re an inmate. So, they get these ex-inmates, and they get paid anywhere from $300, $400 a drop because … if this (drop) were to hit our compound, you’re talking well in excess of $10,000.” 

Payne asked the commissioners to commit to increasing security and surveillance measures in areas of concern.

The warden said he had already had a conversation with Sheriff Mike Harrison and other local law enforcement, but controlling contraband drops through law enforcement efforts alone, he said, can often be difficult, since many of the items involved in these drops are completely legal outside of the prison.

Inmate crews play a vital role in the maintenance of county projects and property, according to the county’s Public Works Director Mark Cothran. They help with maintenance of county roadsides and facilities, which can sometimes become too much for the county’s public works department to handle on their own.

In October, Cothran told the Star that he had seen a decrease in the number of work crews being sent out over the past several years, the result of what he said was a myriad of causes – Covid-19, delayed judicial processes, understaffing.

Cothran also emphasized that increased surveillance measures would help inmate officers stay on top of these drops when it can otherwise be difficult, citing his department’s recent assistance with a Sheriff’s Office after one of the suspects behind the drops was caught on camera.

“They’re not smoking this stuff on the job. The inmake officers that I’m working with are not allowing this to be used at our facilities,” he said. “It’s not that our officers aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re bringing this stuff in on a Sunday at 11 o’clock at night… we need to catch them when they’re coming in to do this crap.”

The board did not vote on the matter, but they agreed to work to help the warden find solutions to the issue, inviting him to come back and discuss any developments as they arise.

Meet the Editor

Wendy Weitzel, The Star’s digital editor, joined the news outlet in August 2021, as a reporter covering primarily Gulf County.

Prior to then, she interned for Oklahoma-based news wire service Gaylord News and for Oklahoma City-based online newspaper during her four years at the University of Oklahoma, from which she graduated in May with degrees in online journalism and political science.

While at OU, Weitzel was selected as Carnegie-Knight News21 Investigative Fellow among 30 top journalism students from around the country. She also was senior editor managing a 12-person newsroom in coordination with Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit news organization in eastern Oklahoma.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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