As drugs surge, New Hampshire takes away inmate perks

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire prison officials don’t allow inmates to get legal briefs through the mail; they’ve removed vending machines and board games from visiting rooms, and have barred prisoners and visitors from kissing.

The state insists the restrictions are necessary to stop drugs from entering the prisons.

Fueled by the ongoing opioid crisis, prison officials said that drugs in prisons are on the rise and that the numbers of inmates testing positive for drugs has more than tripled since 2014.

“I am responsible for maintaining a safe and secure facility for the safekeeping of all inmates,” said William Wren, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. “What happens if I know there is a way drugs are coming into my facility and don’t do something to stop it? Then, shame on me.”

New Hampshire is part of a growing number of states that are cracking down in the face of an opioid crisis. The opioid-substitute Suboxone, which comes in thin, translucent film form that looks like breath strips, is becoming a popular drug in prisons. One strip goes for as much as $300 behind bars.

Corrections officials in New Hampshire say visitors are coming up with increasingly innovative ways to get drugs inside.

In 2015, Maryland instituted a policy barring touching and kissing between inmates and their loved ones during visits, although a peck on the cheek and an embrace is allowed at the end. Several New Hampshire jails have introduce visits by video, which critics have suggested is more about saving money than fighting drugs. They’re doing the same in Maine.

“It’s really in response to contraband that was getting in. I felt that it was concerning enough for me just to cancel them,” said William King, sheriff of York County, in Maine. In-person visits were dropped there after a string of overdoses in 2015.

The restrictions have angered inmates and their supporters, with inmates at a Berlin, New Hampshire, prison refusing to eat for a day in protest over the police of no kissing and limited hugging.

Inmates in a Concord prison lit a small fire in protest that led to a three-day lockdown. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire has a 2015 federal lawsuit pending on behalf of a prisoner’s mother and 3-year-old son over a ban on greeting cards, picture postcards and children’s drawings.

“We all understand that drugs being smuggled into the prison is something that should be prevented. We have no doubt that Suboxone is a problem in New Hampshire prisons,” said Gilles Bissonnette, the group’s legal director. “But I don’t think the way to address that is to indiscriminately ban innocent speech including speech of a child to their loved one in prison.”

Others advocates argue the restrictions will lead to the breakup of families and prompt prisoners to start using drugs more.

“They are trying to plug the little leaks instead of the big ones,” Kirkman Cassavaugh III, who is serving a sentence of 40 years to life for a double murder, said in a telephone interview.

He complained that he no longer gets greeting cards over Christmas from his best friend and that visits from his grandmother have been stripped of much of their joy due to the limitations.

“My grandmother visits me once a week. When she comes up now, there are no cards, no board games, no food,” said Cassavaugh, who said he doesn’t do drugs. “We don’t have enough conversation to talk for three hours. So, she is going to travel four hours for what?”

Prisoners and their relatives, meanwhile, argue the restrictions have done little to stem the flow of drugs and are punishing them while ignoring the fact staff and suppliers are bringing in the drugs.

Wren said he was confident his 900 employees aren’t the problem and called on inmates to play a greater role in combating the smuggling.

“The problem is that a lot of inmates will complain about these restrictions, but they are doing nothing essentially to declare this to be sacred ground,” Wren said in reference to the visiting rooms. “Why not put some peer pressure on individuals who are utilizing the visiting room as a way of getting drugs in and say `Hey, you are impacting me and my life.”‘

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