Officers play cat and mouse at the jail to find contraband

Published 4:49 am Sunday, December 6, 2009

The philosopher Plato once said necessity is the mother of invention and inmates may know this better than most.

With little way to get the things to which they became accustomed in society, inmates come up with ways to make the things they want. Those inventions can be weapons, tattoo guns or picture frames.

Most times the items that inmates want most need to be smuggled into the jail. Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Shane Tucker said curbing jail contraband is a cat and mouse operation, which involves jail personnel finding weaknesses used for smuggling and plugging them.

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“A lot of it is reactive, we try to be proactive with it,” Tucker said.

Items can be smuggled into the jail in a variety of ways, such as in books, magazines, soap and clothes. Jail Administrator Julie Flowers said one incident involved a hollowed out bar of soap with a cell phone inside. Cell phones also have been found inside hollowed out legal documents addressed to inmates. Jail Warden Butch Raby said legal mail can be searched only if the inmate is present.

Tucker said cell phones could be, and have been, used by an inmate to plan an escape, since all jail land line calls are recorded.

Magazines, Bibles and other publications also have been used to smuggle in tobacco, marijuana and other contraband. Flowers said for this reason Bibles are now provided by the jail and newspapers and magazines are no longer allowed. Pages from the Bible also are used as rolling papers, Raby said.

Inmates have been known to smoke dried turnip and collard greens when they are short of tobacco or marijuana.

“When they do that we know we’ve been doing our job,” Raby said.

Electronic devices such as DVD players and CD players are not allowed because they contain electric motors that can be used to make tattoo guns. Many inmates may use a stinger, or two electrical wires plugged into an electric socket, to manufacture a tattoo gun. The heat from a stinger can be used to solder electrical connections between the motor and a battery, or even light cigarettes. Inmates can combine the motor with a needle and a pen to make a tattoo gun. Needles for the guns are sometimes made out of staples.

Use of stingers and other jail-made electrical devices has the staff constantly repairing outlets and replacing fuses. Tucker said so far no inmate has been electrocuted by such a device.

To make ink for the tattoos, inmates collect cigarette ashes and mix them with water. Flowers said female inmates use cigarette ashes to make their own eyeliner and lipstick. Colors for the makeup and tattoos come from crayons.

Other everyday items can be used to plan an escape, such as toothpaste and soap. Tucker said the two items can be mixed together to make a mortar substitute, which inmates will use to conceal their attempts at chipping away the wall.

Everyday items are also used to produce weapons. The handle form a common plastic eating utensil can be sharpened to make a shank, which is a type of knife. The mortar mix of toothpaste and soap also can be used to make shank handles. Tucker said jail personnel found a shank with a handle and a sheath made from the mixture.

So far none of the jail staff have been attacked with a shank, but inmates have used pens and unsharpened plastic utensils to attack staff members.

The most unlikely of items also can be used to make foods common on the outside. Raby said female inmates once made a pizza in the microwave, using ramen noodles for the dough and Doritos and cheese as toppings.

“You could call them domestic engineers, you could,” Raby said.

Chip and plastic bags have been used by inmates to make art. Tucker said the inmates have been known to use those items to make crosses and picture frames. They will fold and twist them in such ways that they actually use the colors in the material to make patterns in their creations.

Alcoholic drinks have also been made inside the jail. Using fruit or juice from their daily meals, the inmates add bread and sugar to make a drink called “buck”. Raby said inmates caught making “buck” lose their commissary privileges and can be put in lock down. Flowers said production of “buck” is a problem, since it contains more alcohol than is in commercially available drinks and creates drunk inmates.

Inmates found with the other illegal items also lose privileges, such as television, coffee and microwave access. Violations can lead to additional time in jail, anywhere between seven to 15 additional years. Commissary privileges are lost at times due to possession of contraband. Even though the jail provides each inmate with the things they need, such as toothpaste and other hygiene products, they are not of the highest quality. Access to the commissary allows the inmates to purchase the quality items, using funds added to their account by family members.

“We provide them what they need for hygiene, but we sell what they want for hygiene,” Tucker said.

Correctional officers, those officers that work in the jail with inmates, have the toughest job in the Sheriff’s Department and undergo the least amount of training. Tucker said there are times when one correctional officer has to enter a zone with 60 to 70 inmates inside. Correctional officers are required to take a 96-hour course. Road deputies undergo about 400 hours of training.

Even with the aches and pains of operating a facility full of convicts, there is still the effort to meet each inmate’s physical, medical and spiritual needs.

“They’re here for a reason, but they’re still human beings,” Tucker said.

While the Item sometimes receives letters from inmates claiming mistreatment from lack of food and no reading materials, Tucker said that each inmate receives everything they need, including 2,900 calories a day, access to religious services and medical care.

At times inmates released from jail don’t fit into the clothes they came into jail with because of the additional pounds they put on while in jail, Raby said.