Oklahoma inmate rehabilitation being stunted by an increase of contraband

Published: May. 3, 2023 at 10:59 AM CDT
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LAWTON, Okla. (KSWO) - “Quite frankly it just pisses the community and society off, or I think at least it should because that shouldn’t happen,” says District Six Attorney Kyle Cabelka. “I mean, theoretically most people probably think prison should be the most secure facility around, and I can say that that’s not the case at all.”

When you think of prison you typically think of isolation, and forget its main purpose is rehabilitation.

Deborah Hand lost her son Matthew twice. First, to the prison system. And then again, when he died behind bars this year. She thinks it was a fentanyl overdose, but all this time later, she’s still unsure.

“My child would be alive today if there weren’t drugs on the inside,” says Hand. “I still today, 3 weeks later, don’t really know exactly what happened, and I probably won’t for several months.”

Hand says he’d been trying to get his life together and called her every day from behind bars. But those calls suddenly stopped and a few weeks later the prison called to tell her he’d died.

Contraband has always existed inside the system. It’s anything that isn’t supposed to be there; like weapons, alcohol, and drugs brought in illegally, even makeup is considered contraband.

And for people like Matthew, who enter the system because of drug abuse, it means it’s even harder to get clean.

Kris Steele is the director of TEEM, a non-profit helping reintegrate inmates back into society. He says, “The Department of Corrections does the very best it can with the resources that it’s given, but funding for programming is pretty thin. Funding for treatment services inside our correctional facilities is pretty sparse.”

According to reports by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, officers have confiscated nearly 40,000 prescription pills, and more than 300 weapons, since 2018.

That’s just the stuff that has been found.

With concrete walls, barbed wire fences, and armed guards you would think attempting to sneak contraband inside would be a difficult task.

“But it all comes back to their ability to use a cell phone,” says Cabelka. “I believe that a cell phone is the most dangerous weapon a person can have in prison. Not only does it give them the ability to reach outside of the prison walls, talk to people on the streets, to either get drugs moved, to get people hurt or killed and still operate whatever type of business dealings or operations they’re doing.”

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections says officers have confiscated over 20,000 cell phones in the last 5 years. In fact, getting caught with a cell phone is its own separate offense, compared to getting caught with other contraband.

Kay Thompson, the chief of communications for ODOC, recalls a string of riots that occurred earlier this year: “Back when we had several facilities that started fights, and we had to go into a state-wide lockdown for a while; four facilities did that at the exact same time. So cell phones present that communication tool for them to be able to network and create security issues for all of the inmates.”

Cabelka adds, “We’ve had cases like that here in Lawton where it was very precise and you could look at the times when all of the attacks happened throughout the state and it was within minutes or seconds.”

Thompson says the goal isn’t to separate the inmates from their support system of family and friends.

“Prison is stressful, but we want to make sure that they are contacting the people who are good for them, and not contacting their associates in crime. Because if you stay in that situation you’re never going to get better from it,” says Thompson.

So we know contraband can be organized by using illegal cell phones, but how is it getting inside?

Thompson adds, “Contraband can be introduced into the facility through visitors, through the mail, through different shipments. People trying to use drones or other means to get things over the fence, dropping duffel bags.”

With the majority of contraband coming in from the outside, we ask Hand about her own experience visiting the facilities.

“No security, hardly at all. They didn’t have a woman to frisk you, they didn’t have a machine, they had a wand to make sure you didn’t have any metal on you. That’s not checking you for drugs,” says Hand.

However inmates’ family and friends aren’t the only people sneaking in contraband. Since 2018, 47 corrections employees have faced charges throughout the state of Oklahoma.

“There have been long-time corrections officers that have worked in the prison system for a long time that have been caught bringing stuff in,” says Cabelka. “There’s been a lot of new guards that it appears maybe that’s the only reason they got the job.”

So what happens if someone is caught with contraband? This could land people in prison for up to 5 years, or keep inmates behind bars for up to another 20 years. Since 2018, 229 inmates have had their sentences extended. However when it comes it altering an inmate’s sentence, some have nothing to lose.

Cabelka says, “Especially when it’s a life without parole type of case, there’s very little punishment that my office can enact, a court can enact on a guy that’s never getting out of prison anyways. And so sometimes, not always, but sometimes in cases like that, we choose not to file just because it’s kind of a waste of resources and time to file on a guy that’s short of the death penalty.”

So in a state that has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, how does the Department of Corrections plan to turn the issue around?

“They’re coming up with new and different ways to get in the contraband, so we have to come in and come up with different ways to stop it,” said Thompson. “It’s a continuous process. It’s a learning process. Working together with other law-enforcement agencies, doing more training. Just making everyone more aware.”

Even with all of the policies and procedures in place, the solution to stopping contraband is slightly more complicated. It takes more than ODOC themselves to make an impact. Since this problem affects all of us as a community, it’s going to take a community effort.

“We would love to have an end to contraband and a permanent solution. We’re working together law-enforcement-wide to make that happen, but we also need help from the public. The visitors, the family members to not integrate contraband back into the facilities. It’s definitely a team effort to make sure that contraband doesn’t enter into facilities,“ said Thompson.

“More needs to be done. More needs to be done to save these men and women that are on the inside so they can go home to their family. They’re not being rehabilitated, and some of them aren’t walking out alive,” said Hand.