Silhouette of a man behind a prison's cell door.
Photo by Gianluca68 on iStock.

One might say many things about prison are truly odd, while being oddly true.

In my prison, Dade Correctional Institution, in South Florida, there are a few mysteries I can’t seem to solve. 

For instance, disabled and geriatric inmates are transported from all over the state to a location where extreme tropical heat is normal.

Mystery: They are then housed in buildings without air conditioning that are located hundreds of yards away from medical, dining and educational facilities.

Here’s another one: Gang members are carefully identified and shipped hundreds of miles from separate locations to be housed together at my prison.

Mystery: They are then expected not to fight with other gangs, gang together or otherwise engage in gang activities.

And how about this one? Future service dogs and dog trainers are moved to a facility where they are housed with disabled people.

Mystery: The dogs are not used or trained with the actual disabled people they are surrounded by.

While there may be some irony, and perhaps a bit of humor, in these prison mysteries, there is no humor in one highly destructive mystery, or rather unsolved problem, that has plagued America’s prison system during my 30 years of incarceration at more than 20 state, federal and military prisons across the country. 

Drugs and alcohol played a direct role in all of my 13 felony convictions. The vast majority of people I have met in prison share the same root cause of incarceration. While you might think prison would provide reprieve from addictive substances, drugs and alcohol have become increasingly available during my time behind bars.

According to Bureau of Justice data, overdose deaths in state prisons have surged by more than 600% over the last two decades. During the same time frame, overdose deaths in county jails have escalated by more than 200%.

Those trends inside prison mimic what’s happening outside prison. Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have swelled for years now, reaching a crescendo in 2021, when the country tallied 107,622 overdose deaths — an all-time high and a 15% jump from 2020.

Outside prison, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered efforts to decrease drug overdoses by restricting access to substance use treatment and increasing social isolation. More potent drugs such as the synthetic opioid fentanyl have been the main driver of peaking overdoses — nearly 75% of overdose deaths in 2021 were from opioid use.         

Inside prison, the proliferation of synthetic drugs has also intensified the overdose problem. The small size of these drugs, and their potency, make them a perfect form of contraband to get smuggled into prisons.

Inmates are searched extensively through visual and technological means upon entry into our prisons, but prison staff is not vetted as thoroughly. In fact, the federal government has charged corrections officers with smuggling contraband into prisons in exchange for cash.

Once drugs enter a prison, demand is high. A large chunk of prisoners received $3,200 in stimulus money from the federal government. This flood of cash into prisons has, in my opinion, fueled an explosion in demand — and availability — of contraband.

In the end, smugglers prey and profit on a large population of people who are struggling with addiction.

To me, this remains the most serious, and saddest, prison problem — an ongoing American tragedy that, like a mystery, remains unsolved.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Eric Finley

Eric Finley is a writer incarcerated in Florida.