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Published January 21, 2014, 08:49 AM

Cracking down on contraband is normal part of 'jail business' in Cass, Clay

FARGO - Razor blades, drugs of all kinds, homemade hooch, toothbrush handles sharpened into deadly weapons – these are just some of the illicit items local jailers find while searching inmates and their cells.

By: Archie Ingersoll, Forum News Service, INFORUM, Forum News Service

FARGO - Razor blades, drugs of all kinds, homemade hooch, toothbrush handles sharpened into deadly weapons – these are just some of the illicit items local jailers find while searching inmates and their cells.

Cpl. Kris Kevorkian of the Cass County Jail keeps a collection of this sort of contraband stored in a green lockbox. Now and then, he takes it out to teach new correctional officers what to look for during pat-down searches, a process inmates often try to thwart.

“As soon as you get to a point where you’re getting to find something, they’ll start talking. They’ll move a certain way. They’ll do something to try to conceal it, try to throw you off,” Kevorkian said. The trick is “just being consistent, being thorough each time.”

The issue of contraband behind bars was spotlighted by the case of five Cass County inmates charged this month with sneaking methamphetamines and prescription drugs into the jail and trading them for sodas and bags of pretzels. The case came after two other instances of drug smuggling by prisoners in the fall.

The extent of this problem is unclear because Cass and Clay counties do not keep statistics on the amount of drugs or other prohibited items found in their jails. Anecdotally, jail officials say it’s a constant effort to keep contraband out of the hands of inmates and that finds of banned objects are routine.

“We do so much of it that we don’t really track it,” said Capt. Judy Tollefson, administrator of the Cass County Jail.

What is contraband?

The definition of contraband in a jail is broad because inmates are not allowed to have much beyond clothing, bedding, books and toiletries. Even artwork is against the rules. Some of the most common creations are bracelets made from the cotton threads of sheets, Tollefson said.

“We have inmates who are very artistic, and sometimes it’s a shame to take what they’ve done,” she said. “We take those because it’s one more area for them to conceal things in, such as pills or something small.”

A general rule is that inmates cannot have anything that’s been modified from its original state. This includes self-made weapons.

Toothbrushes with finely honed handles are the weapons most often found, said Julie Savat, administrator of the Clay County Jail, adding that she’s never heard of one used to inflict harm. Tollefson said most fights between inmates are limited to fists.

Razor blades are issued to inmates for shaving, and they have to return them when they’re finished, but that doesn’t always happen. Kevorkian’s collection includes a comb with razor blades attached to it. “Essentially, you could use it as a knife,” he said.

From time to time, officers come across skinny, finger-length handcuff picks made from paper. “Anything that’s out there they’ll be able to manipulate it,” Kevorkian said.

Officers occasionally find hooch that inmates concoct with sugar, fruit and bread. “It’s pretty disgusting, and they hide it in a garbage bag,” Savat said. “It’s pretty easy to find in a cell search.”

Cass County Jail officers, sometimes with help from drug-sniffing dogs, do at least two random cell searches per shift in each of the jail’s eight housing units, which hold a total of about 220 inmates, Tollefson said.

At the Clay County Jail, which has a capacity of 96 inmates, there are a minimum number of searches done each week, Savat said. “We just try to be diligent so everybody can be safe,” she said.

Inmates caught with contraband can face punishments ranging from loss of telephone privileges to less time outside their cells. When warranted, jail officials will pursue criminal charges.

That’s what happened in the recent case of the five inmates accused of bringing drugs into the Cass County Jail. All five women were charged with ingesting a controlled substance, a misdemeanor, and possessing a drug as an inmate, a felony. Two of them face felony counts of drug dealing.

Tollefson can’t say with certainty how the drugs were brought into the jail. One of the women charged told investigators she hid the drugs in her vagina before returning from a work-release program, according to court papers.

Tollefson said the case may lead to minor adjustments in jail practices, but not wide-sweeping changes.

“I think we have some pretty solid policy and protocol,” she said. “There are certain parts of people that we just can’t freely see, and that’s not going to change.”

Searches

Kevorkian said every time work-release inmates return to the jail, they need to undress completely, and their mouths are checked.

When inmates are initially booked into either jail, correctional officers search them for contraband an arresting officer might have missed. These searches regularly turn up drugs, paraphernalia and knives. Once a small handgun was found, Kevorkian said.

Jail officers can conduct a strip-search if they suspect a person is hiding contraband.

“If we can articulate that they might be concealing something on their person, we’ll take some extra steps and that usually involves asking them to … be in a squatting position and then cough to see if that brings anything forward,” Tollefson said.

To do a cavity search, a warrant is required. This issue arose in April, when Cass County Jail officers believed an inmate was hiding a hard object in his digestive tract and using it to crack cell windows. A search done at a hospital revealed that the inmate had stashed a heavy-duty plumbing hose clamp inside himself, court papers stated.

Kevorkian said that during the booking process, jail officers once detected a smartphone wrapped in plastic hidden internally on someone. Where exactly, he wasn’t sure.

Tollefson said a juvenile inmate managed to sneak a cellphone past officers a few years ago. Savat said no cellphones have ever been found during searches of the housing blocks in the Clay County Jail.

Neither jail has had a case of a correctional officer helping an inmate get ahold of contraband.

“That’s something that is specifically covered during various stages of training, so officers don’t succumb to temptation, or put themselves in a position of being vulnerable to an inmate con game,” Tollefson said in an email.

The problem of contraband in local jails has been around for years. The Forum archive shows that a group of inmates were charged in 1999 with slipping marijuana and cigarettes through a broken glass block on the second floor of the old Cass County Jail.

The work of cracking down on contraband is expected to continue indefinitely.

“That’s jail business,” Savat said. “That’s just the way it is.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734

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