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I-Team: Suboxone strips most common contraband in Maine prisons, jails

The CBS 13 I-Team discovers the article of contraband seized most often by the Maine Department of Corrections is a drug used to treat opiate addiction.

PORTLAND (WGME) -- The CBS 13 I-Team discovers the article of contraband seized most often by the Maine Department of Corrections is a drug used to treat opiate addiction.

Rusty Swift said he's been addicted to drugs since he was 14-years-old, and drugs have gotten him in trouble more than once.

"I've had my contraband issues in this jail," said Swift, who was serving time at the Cumberland County Jail for a probation violation. "I've had my contraband issues in prison."

He's not alone. Louise Cook said she can tell contraband is smuggled in among the women, too.

"Everybody has a little tell," said Cook.

A public records request by the CBS 13 I-Team reveals heroin, marijuana, methadone, oxycodone and tobacco have all been intercepted by the Maine Department of Corrections, or DOC, but the number one item inmates try to smuggle is Suboxone Sublingual strips, which are used to treat opiate addiction.

Back in 2015, seven people were charged after police busted a group that was smuggling the drug into the Maine State Prison and selling each strip for hundreds of dollars.

Cumberland County Sheriff, Kevin Joyce, and half a dozen others, said their jails are combatting the same contraband.

"Most of our population have drug addiction issues and we're fighting that every day," said Joyce.

Inmates said the Suboxone isn't used to beat addiction, but to get high.

"Everyone wants to feel better, you know," said Swift. "This is not fun."

"We've discovered there's a market for that," Joyce said. "There are people that are willing to go out and basically take orders for drugs and then find ways to get it in."

The small, thin strips can be hidden in body parts, and in the mail, sometimes even liquefied and dropped onto letters, according to the DOC.

"We've banned cards from coming in," said Joyce. "We take photocopies of greeting cards."

Joyce said strips have been found in between sheets of cardboard and in the folds of envelopes. Contraband also prompted the jail to ban contact visits, leaving inmates to see loved ones from behind a sheet of glass.

"You can't see your people, kiss and touch your people and that's horrible," said Swift.

At prisons, visits are still in person, but come with strip searches. Being caught with contraband can lead to lost privileges and even criminal charges. In 2016, the DOC forwarded 36 cases to prosecutors.

"We're housing them. We're trying to keep them healthy. We're trying to do the best we can, but we're not fixing them," Joyce said.

With little to no help behind bars, Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist, said he's not surprised desperate addicts are going to great lengths to get a fix. He believes they should have regular access to medication, along with therapy.

"Without any question," said Publicker. "Any of the FDA approved medications should be used and we need to develop systems and understand, right now at any given time, the figure is over 80,000 prisoners in state and federal levels have opiate addiction and are not being treated."

Treatment requires money, so for now, Joyce said the best thing officials can do is keep drugs out.

"We're always trying to stay one step ahead of the inmates, but we know they're always trying to stay one step ahead of us as well," he said.

"It's a game, it's a game," Swift said.

CBS 13 also spoke with Swift and Cook about what it's like battling addiction both in and out of jail.

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