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A recovering heroin addict shows his prescription of Suboxone, a maintenance treatment for opioid dependence, in Burlington, Vt. in 2014.

For the First Time, Vermont Will Search Prison Staffers

The drug use that plagues the state now haunts its cellblocks.

For employees of Vermont’s seven state prisons, reporting for work each day has meant little more than walking through the door. No body searches, no metal detector, no need to empty pockets, backpacks, or purses. Being cleared to board a commercial airliner can be far more intrusive.

In fact, Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said, Vermont prisons historically have not had serious contraband problems, and, as a result, the system has never had a comprehensive search policy for its officers and other, non-uniformed employees entering its facilities.

But two recent developments, officials say, have persuaded Pallito and state lawmakers to tighten the laissez-faire security protocols: a difficult-to-detect drug being used by inmates, and the elaborate escape, in early June, of two murderers from the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, N.Y. The escapees, who were at large for three weeks before one was killed and the other captured, allegedly had help from prison employees who provided tools used to tunnel out of the prison.

Under new procedures submitted by Pallito and adopted in June by the Legislative Committee for Administrative Rules — the final step in approval — all prison staff members would be required to submit to screening methods similar to those used in airports. The protocols stop short of ordering pat-downs or strip-searches for the department’s 1,100 employees; bags and personal effects, however, would be subject to inspection.

But before Pallito can put the directive into effect, he may have to negotiate with the powerful Vermont State Employees Association, which plans to challenge it.

The union insists that it shares the department’s concern about contraband, but that it is worried about the impact the new procedures could have on staff shortages and the potential for disciplinary measures against employees.

“Our issues are not only searches but what happens if an employee does something innocent, like forgetting his car keys or cigarettes in his pocket?” said Ben Palkowski, the union’s legislative director. “Our concern is what happens in those instances.”

Sen. Dick Sears, a Democrat from Bennington who serves on the committee that approved the new directives, emphasized the need for safety.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to limit this stuff coming into our prisons,” Sears said. “The union is intent on fighting this, and I can’t figure out why. I think it’s an excellent idea, and I don’t see how they can argue against it. It defies common sense.”

At the heart of the contraband issue is buprenorphine, a difficult-to-detect substance that has become the drug of choice for state prison inmates.

“Buprenorphine is number one, by far, in terms of contraband,” Pallito said. “Because it comes in a strip, it’s so easy to hide. It can be cut into tiny pieces and still be used. It can be liquefied and dropped onto paper. And the trick is, drug dogs don’t usually smell it.”

Buprenorphine, a medication used to treat opioid addiction, is found in the drugs Suboxone and Subutex. It can be administered by dissolving a thin film, often smaller than a dime, under the tongue.

Although it produces milder effects than other opiates, like heroin, its availability and the ease with which it is smuggled have allowed it to proliferate inside Vermont prisons. Complicating the matter, buprenorphine is used by the Vermont Department of Health to combat the heroin addiction epidemic in the state, with more than 2,400 Medicaid patients given the drug already this year.

“We’ve had evidence that people are becoming addicted inside our prisons,” Sears said. “We received complaints from the department of corrections about Suboxone abuse; we’ve had issues with inmates' families being confronted to pay a drug debt from inside one of our prisons. We’ve had assaults inside our prisons relating to drugs.”

Gordon Bock, a Vermont prisoner-rights advocate, said the buprenorphine problem and the fight over the proposed new directives highlighted the absence of routine searches of employees. He blamed the powerful state employees union and political leadership that, in the past, did not want to face reality.

“The prison staff has been considered sacrosanct for as long as I can remember, above reproach,” said Bock. “The legislators and corrections people were in denial for a long time that the staff was smuggling in contraband. Now, I think they’re finally awakening to the reality.”

Commissioner Pallito, however, was careful to specify that the directive was not the result of suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the employees.

“Ninety-nine percent of our staff are well-intentioned,” Pallito said. “These new procedures aren’t aimed at punishing them. But we have to do everything we can to limit contraband in our facilities.”

Corrections experts and officials in other states expressed surprise that Vermont employees were not being searched routinely when entering jails and prisons. In neighboring New Hampshire, with a similar inmate population, all employees are subject to search while on state property.

“Our staff has to be searched and clear metal detectors before coming into a facility,” said Jeff Lyons, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. “We recently enacted a policy that all our employees must bring everything, such as their meals, in clear containers. They know they are subject to search at any time.”

While the reduction in contraband typically correlates with increased safety of inmates and staff, some Vermont corrections officers feel that the new rules would place additional stress on already difficult working conditions.

“We all agree that we don’t want illegal drugs in our prisons,” said Dave Bellini, a 37-year veteran of the Vermont Department of Corrections. “But we don’t have the staff needed to operate safely now, if they put this new directive in place we will be even more short-staffed.”

A March 2015 study by the Association of State Correctional Administrators recommended that the department hire 58 new officers, but budget constraints have made the hiring of that many new employees unlikely. The legislature has tried to address the staffing issue by hiring temporary officers, who work on an as-needed basis. Senator Sears downplayed the staffing problem.

“We gave the department temporary workers to make up for some staffing shortages,” said Sears. “This [the staffing issue] is a red herring. I think the union is just trying to find a reason not to do this.”

The new search directive is now in the final draft phase and, having passed the legislative committee, is scheduled to go into effect in August.