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Jail inmates now getting drug-soaked paper through mail, jails moving to stop it

Never underestimate the ingenuity, or desperation, of drug-addicts. In southwestern Virginia, jail officials have intercepted photos and other papers soaked in liquid suboxone, a substance used to treat heroin addiction, and have even temporarily banned inmates from receiving photos through the mail while they adopt new drug-detecting techniques.

The superintendent of the Western Virginia Regional Jail in Salem, Va., told that inmates get the pictures, or other correspondence, and chew the paper to get high. And it’s not easy to detect, Superintendent Bobby Russell said. The liquid drug leaves only a slight yellow stain on white paper, and on photos it can nearly impossible to notice, Russell said.

And it’s not just suboxone that’s coming in via the mails. “You can do this with a number of drugs,” Russell said. “You can do it with crystal meth. You can do it with drugs you can liquefy.” The regional jail has already banned non-white paper and papers with drawings because of the problem. LSD has for decades been dabbed onto small pieces of slightly heavier weight paper, often with a distinctive logo, and then chewed by users.

The New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin, Va., has been seeing drug-soaked paper for years, Superintendent Gerlald McPeak told, and non-white paper and drawings are also banned there. Greeting cards are also banned at New River Valley because liquid drugs were being injected into the raised or embossed parts of cards, McPeak said. New River has also found oral strips of suboxone hidden in mailings, and has ten suboxone criminal cases pending, officials said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged similar bans in New Hampshire, where Christmas cards were stopped from entering, and in Virginia the ACLU is also considering a challenge, saying it violates the inmates’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Sending drug-soaked cards or letters to jail is not totally new. A San Mateo County, Calif., man was charged last September with sending birthday cards soaked in methamphetamine to fellow gang members in the county jail. Two men in Broward County, Fla., pleaded guilty last year to mailing hallucinogenic drug-laced postcards into the jail. In Huntsville, Ala., the Madison County, Ala., jail also has been intercepting drug-soaked letters, including a greeting card with suboxone strips.

“It’s infrequent,” said Mitch Lucas, president of the American Jail Association. “With the advent of these kinds of drugs, we routinely find them. It’s one of the easiest to look for. If you add something to the blue part of an envelope, it’s not going to look the same. In a lot of larger jails, we have a dog come in and check the mail. These are things we’re accustomed to doing.”

Capt. Jim Murphy, head of investigations for the New River jail in Salem, told me Thursday that the suboxone strips resemble the breath-freshening strips that were popular some years ago, except they are orange instead of green. But they can be painted or soaked onto cards in ways that aren’t easily recognized, Murphy said, or hidden between pages of a larger mailing.

“Its intended purpose is to help people withdraw from heroin and opiates,” Murphy said. “But apparently it doesn’t work well.”

The western Virginia jail is considering bringing in an electronic mail-screener which says it can detect drugs with near-infrared light, and hopes to eliminate its bans when the machine is working. Murphy said the New River jail is often tipped to the mailings by informants, and that he wouldn’t want to rely on technology. “The best way is good surveillance and a good staff,” Murphy said.