Local law enforcement urges public to aid in fight against prison contraband

The Port St. Joe Police Department discovered more than a quarter kilo of cocaine wrapped in small black-taped packages in a city bathroom less than a month ago, along with more than 600 grams of tobacco and a tube of petroleum jelly.

It was not the first time local law enforcement had come across such a drop, left for inmate work crews to insert into their bodies and smuggle into the Gulf Correctional Institution. Port St. Joe Police Chief Jake Richards said he feels like he and his staff have worked something “inmate-related” every day since this summer.

“Since around July, we have been getting ‘bombs,’ which is just street jargon for these packages getting left to be smuggled into prisons,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just tobacco, but most of the time it’s a mixture of tobacco and basically any kind of drug you can get out on the street, and it’s usually large amounts for a prison.”

“We’ve had 127 grams of fentanyl. We’ve had a couple hundred suboxone strips. People come in the middle of the night, usually on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights because the work crew clean the bathrooms and the parks on Mondays and Thursdays. They put these packages in spots that the inmates can pick them up. So we’ve been working diligently trying to bust the people who’re doing it.” 

Gulf Correctional has long been battling the influx of contraband at the facility. Earlier this year, the prison experienced a series of lockdowns after large amounts of prohibited materials, including cell phones, marijuana and methamphetamine, were discovered in the facility.

This mirrors a statewide trend, with prison facilities documenting an increased amount of contraband being discovered, even despite recent  visitation restrictions and other Covid-19 protocols. 

In their most recent annual report, for the fiscal year 2020-21, the Florida Department of Corrections reported that 334,361 grams of tobacco, 21,407 grams of marijuana, 19,471 grams of K2 (synthetic cannabinoid), 3, 251 grams of cocaine, 1,653 narcotic pills, 903 prescription pills and 22,779 grams of other drugs (including heroin and methamphetamine) were discovered within Florida prison facilities. 

This only represents the materials actually discovered within the prison, and does not account for undiscovered contraband, an unknowable figure, or discoveries made before the contraband entered the facility.

“This has been an ongoing problem,” said Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison. “As the price of the narcotics rises within the prison system, the more desire there is for inmates to smuggle contraband in.”

Nationwide, the premium for contraband materials in prisons, even those that are legal in the outside world, is at an all time high.

Last year, investigators discovered that a pack of cigarettes in a Kansas prison was being sold for $350. New model cell phones have been discovered to sell for more than $5,000 in U.S. prisons.

Richards said that these high premiums are present in Gulf C.I..

“A thumbnail size piece of marijuana in prison is like $200, where out here on the streets, someone wouldn’t even really sell you that little,” he said. “You’re talking millions of millions of dollars on contraband drops.”

According to Richards, a large proportion of the contraband smuggling in Gulf Correctional is facilitated by gangs, including the Bloods, the Crips and the Mexican Mafia.

Prior to the closure of Gulf Correctional’s Forestry Camp and Annex in recent years, inmate work crews would operate out of one of the lower security facilities in Gulf County. Now, all Gulf County inmates are housed at the prison’s main facility just outside of Wewahitchka.

“The whole problem comes from the work camps getting shut down and the work release inmates getting sent to the big prison,” Richards said. “Now you have these short-term inmates up there with the long-term inmates, many of whom are gang members… These guys are basically blackmailing the short-term inmates who are able to go outside the prison and work to pick these packages up, insert them inside their bodies and bring them back into the prison.”

But inmate work crews perform necessary work for the greater Gulf County community, including maintaining public facilities.

These tasks would otherwise have to be completed by paid employees of the city or county, a measure local officials say would strain resources and likely result in an increase in taxes.

With the prison on lockdown earlier this year and inmate crews unable to make their usual rounds, many city and county projects fell significantly behind schedule. Richards said ensuring that inmate crews are able to perform their necessary work is a top priority of local law enforcement.

“The city and the county rely on inmate work crews so much, and if we just sit around and do nothing about it, one day they’re just going to say ‘we’re not giving you any more inmates because of the contraband problem,’” he said. “And then the city’s going to have to go hire four, five people to do the job that the inmates were doing…They’d have to raise taxes. It hits top to bottom.”

The PSJPD and GCSO encourage members of the public to report suspicious behavior or discovered contraband drops to local law enforcement.

“Most of these have been solved in the past from citizens actually seeing something that they bring to our attention,” said Harrison. “We really encourage the citizens to let us know something, either by calling the police or sheriff’s office to report it, reporting it on the GCSO app or by calling Crime Stoppers.”

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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