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Prison contraband seizures up, guards say more can be done

The union representing New York correction officers says new security methods are needed to reduce the amount of contraband smuggled into state prisons, while prison officials say more prohibited items are being seized than ever before.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that the number of incidents involving contraband at the state's 54 prisons more than doubled over the last decade, from 2,540 incidents in 2008 to 5,231 incidents last year. 

The agency said its efforts are helped by new technology, including a device that can detect small cellphones someone may be trying to smuggle to an inmate. It said the number of K-9 drug detection and interdiction units assigned to prisons has nearly doubled. 

"Staff has done a great job at searching for and identifying contraband before it gets into a facility, and the department continues to invest in additional tools to battle the problem,'' Department of Corrections spokesman Thomas Mailey said. 

However, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said the state's current contraband protocols aren't sufficiently curtailing attempts to smuggle drugs and weapons into correctional facilities. The union said "urgent measures'' are needed, but it did not provide any recommendations. 

"Contraband introduced into prisons continues to be a growing issue and presents dangerous and even life-threatening situations for correctional staff,'' union president Michael Powers said. 

On Tuesday, correctional officers inspecting inmate packages at the medium-security Bare Hill Correctional Facility in northern New York found 11 grams (0.4 ounces) of synthetic marijuana and 46 individually wrapped scalpel blades stuffed into green peppers, the union said. The discovery was just one of more than 300 contraband incidents last month involving incoming packages that were either mailed or taken to a prison by an inmate visitor, it said. 

The union supports legislation introduced in the state Senate that would broaden screening procedures at prisons and make other changes. One provision of the measure would allow guards to randomly search visitors' vehicles once they enter prison grounds. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Pamela Helming,  a Republican from Canandaigua, also wants to see K-9 units deployed at the entrance of every prison to deter attempts to smuggle in drugs. 

``You have to do something to make sure that both the officers and inmates are safe,'' said Helming, whose Finger Lakes district includes maximum-security Auburn and two other prisons. 

One advocate, Jack Beck, of the Correctional Association of New York, called Helming's legislation ``an exaggerated and punitive response that would undermine relations between families and inmates.'' 

The union's call for contraband protocol enhancements comes three weeks after the state rescinded a pilot program restricting packages to inmates. The program was suspended after inmate advocates said it was too restrictive, particularly when it came to the limited number of books a prisoner could receive from the outside.

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