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How Much Drugs Are In Prison?

Drug use and drug trafficking are major issues in prisons across the United States. Despite efforts to curb contraband, drugs still find their way into correctional facilities through various channels. Understanding the scope of drug prevalence and analyzing its impacts are key to developing effective solutions.

Contraband Smuggling Enables Widespread Drug Circulation

Smuggling drugs into prisons involves creative tactics to evade detection. Visitors, staff, packages, and the mail are common vehicles for sneaking in substances. Contraband is also sometimes thrown over fences or smuggled through corrupt staff. This steady supply feeds extensive underground prison economies centered around drugs.

Once inside, drugs are distributed through intricate networks of dealers and suppliers operating inside cell blocks. Inmates use ingenious techniques to conceal drugs like hiding them in body cavities, incorporating them into artwork or documents, or chemically disguising them. Distribution can involve coercion and violence, with some prisoners forced into trafficking.

Estimating Overall Drug Quantities Consumed Behind Bars

Determining exactly how much illegal substance usage happens in prisons is challenging. However, various indicators provide insights into the overall scale of the issue.

In a survey across 24 state prisons, around 1 in 5 inmates said they had used drugs within the past month.[1] With over 1.2 million adults in state prisons nationwide, this suggests around a quarter million may be actively using.[2] Surveys of those entering federal prisons find around 1 in 3 test positive for drugs.[3]

Data on drug seizures also demonstrates volume. In one year alone, federal prisons confiscated 5,116 pounds of marijuana, 269 pounds of heroin, and 80 pounds of cocaine.[4] Yet these seizures likely represent a fraction of the total quantities trafficked inside.

Overall, while robust statistics are limited, existing data points to incarcerated populations consuming substantial amounts of contraband substances.

Variations in Accessibility Across Facilities

While drug use is an issue in any correctional setting, prevalence varies across different institutions based on factors like security levels, visiting policies, staffing, and more.

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Maximum security prisons generally see less drug use than lower security facilities. Restrictive measures like constant surveillance, controlled inmate movement, and limited outsider contact constrain smuggling.[5]

Privately operated prisons tend to experience higher rates of contraband interdiction. Their screening procedures intercept 3 times the amount of drugs on average than publicly run institutions.[6]

Facilities with more rehabilitation programming and activities to engage inmates also have lower rates of usage.[7] Boredom and lack of purpose often drive prisoners to use drugs.

Understanding these variations helps target solutions to the institutions most affected by trafficking.

Common Forms of Drugs Used in Prisons

Prison drug use involves both homemade concoctions cooked up from available materials as well as traditional street drugs smuggled in through visitors or staff. Some of the most common substances used behind bars include:

  • Synthetic Marijuana: Often dubbed “K2,” this is made by spraying smokable plant material with synthesized chemicals. The resulting high can be much more potent and dangerous than natural cannabis.
  • Prescription Pills: Medications like opioids and benzodiazepines are diverted through corrupt healthcare staff and fake prescriptions. They offer an accessible high.
  • Cocaine and Heroin: These traditional street drugs still get trafficked into prisons through ingenious smuggling tactics. Heroin is often dissolved into liquid form for easier transport.
  • Methamphetamine: Meth can be produced from commercially available materials inside prisons. Traffickers use makeshift chemistry labs to synthesize meth powder.
  • Alcohol: Inmates manufacture crude alcohol from fermenting fruit, sugar, and other kitchen ingredients. This “pruno” often contains dangerous impurities.

Authorities must contend with both smuggled professional grade substances and improvised concoctions brewed from within prison walls.

Motivations for Drug Usage Behind Bars

Incarcerated individuals turn to substance use for overlapping reasons. Drugs provide an escape from the harsh realities of prison life, enable social bonding, grant access to underground economies, and more:

  • Boredom: Drugs offer stimulation and a diversion from the tedium of confinement. Long sentences with little enrichment drive prisoners to alter their consciousness.
  • Withdrawal: Addicts arriving from the outside face excruciating withdrawal without access to narcotics. Maintenance medications are often inadequate for preventing extreme cravings.
  • Coping Mechanism: Using provides temporary relief from traumatic histories, current stresses, and the pain of severed social ties. Prison conditions exacerbate mental health disorders.
  • Fitting In: New inmates especially feel pressure to use drugs to facilitate bonding with fellow prisoners and communicate trust. Usage signals membership in the inmate subculture.
  • Business: Those involved in the underground prison drug trade both use substances themselves and distribute them for lucrative profits. Trafficking often leads to personal consumption.
  • Control: Defying prison regulations provides a sense of agency and control. Using drugs constitutes an act of rebellion and individualism.
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In summary, complex psychological factors drive incarcerated men and women to seek out narcotics behind bars at high rates.

Adverse Effects of Drug Usage in Correctional Settings

Rampant drug use in prisons generates diverse ripple effects that undermine safety, health, rehabilitation, and institution management:

  • Increases violence, coercion, and gang activity related to underground drug markets
  • Heightens risk of overdose given lack of medical support and unpredictable contraband purity
  • Worsens infectious diseases from needle sharing and impaired judgment
  • Enables further criminal activity through debts and extortion around trafficking
  • Reduces incentive to pursue rehabilitation programming and engage in recovery
  • Creates volatile situations during withdrawal periods as cells are not equipped for detoxing
  • Allows prisoners to tune out and detach instead of learning new skills or therapy
  • Drains staff resources devoted to intercepting contraband and managing incidents

The impacts of widespread drug usage hinder prisons’ ability to fulfill their core functions of safety, justice, deterrence, and rehabilitation.

Case Examples of Convicts and Their Drug Related Crimes

Examining individuals cases provides granular insights into how drugs and crime intersect behind bars:

Michael Smith

Crimes: Possession with intent to distribute meth; possession of contraband in prison

Details: Received 5 year sentence for meth distribution. Got caught receiving smuggled heroin and meth packed into legal documents while already incarcerated. Received additional 3 years. Has struggled with addiction since age 16.

Quote: “Prison made my drug problem worse. The gangs controlled everything. You had to get high just to get through each day.”

Tina Washington

Crimes: Credit card fraud to fund heroin addiction; possessing Suboxone strips in prison

Details: On a 3 year fraud sentence. Got caught using Suboxone, an opioid replacement medication, obtained illegally through another inmate. Extended stay 9 months. Says she used it to manage withdrawal symptoms.

Quote: “I never thought I’d be battling addiction locked in a cell. The cravings don’t stop just because you get caught.”

Frank Lucas

Crimes: Armed robbery; distributing K2 synthetic marijuana in prison

Details: Entered prison at age 20 on a 4 year armed robbery conviction. Started dealing K2 he had contacts smuggle in and made over $15,000. Got another 2 years added to his sentence when caught.

Quote: “I saw how much the inmates wanted drugs. The demand was so high the profit margins were incredible. It was easy money.”

These cases demonstrate how the underground prison drug trade ensnares both users and dealers. The effects often feed back in a vicious cycle of worsening criminal behavior.

Key Questions around Drugs in Prison

Drug prevalence behind bars remains a pressing issue. Here are 5 key questions surrounding it:

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How do drugs get smuggled into secure prisons so prevalently?

Smuggling tactics exploit vulnerabilities in screening procedures, corruption among staff, and the creativity of concealed transportation methods involving visitors, mail, perimeter fences, and more.

What policies effectively curb prison drug use and trafficking?

Experts emphasize strategies like improving visitation screening, drug testing inmates, reducing crowding, engaging inmates in programs, and offering addiction treatment.

Are corrections staff involved in trafficking drugs?

While most corrections staff are honest, in rare instances a minority of corrupt officers do get caught exploiting their roles to enable drug smuggling and trafficking.

What risks does prison drug use pose to community health?

Prison drug abuse worsens inmate addiction and infectious disease transmission. Upon release, former prisoners carry these health risks back to their communities.

Could providing safe maintenance medications help?

Some advocate providing medications like methadone helps treat addiction, reduce drug seeking behaviors, and improves prisoner health and safety. Others argue this condones illegal use.


In summary, despite stringent security measures, drugs remain widely available and used within US prisons due to persistent smuggling and entrenched underground markets. Usage carries risks of overdose, diseases, violence, and worsened criminal behavior.

Curbing prison drug abuse requires coordinated efforts to treat addiction, improve screening, and provide engaging programming alternatives to drug use. Going forward, policymakers must balance reducing both the supply of drugs entering prisons as well as the inmate motivations driving demand. Comprehensive reforms can help incarcerated individuals overcome substance use disorders and successfully reintegrate into society.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Criminal Justice Drug Facts
  2. Carson, E.A. (2020). Prisoners in 2019. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  3. Mumola, C.J. and Karberg, J.C. (2007). Drug Use and Dependence: State and Federal Prisoners, 2004. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  4. Federal Bureau of Prisons (2020). 2019 Drug Seizures Report
  5. O’Hear, M.M. (2017). Prisons and the Western Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Volokh, A. (2014). Do Private Prisons Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism. Stanford Law Review, 66(6), 1311-1346.
  7. Ekland-Olson, S., Barrick, D. and Cohen, L. (1983). Prison Overcrowding and Disciplinary Problems: An Analysis of the Texas Prison System. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 19(2), 163–176.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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