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WV jails seek ways to combat synthetic drugs

Synthetic drugs, pharmacological copycats of common narcotics, have been illegal in West Virginia for more than two years, but their appeal hasn't gone away in some circles, mostly because the drugs still are difficult to detect using traditional methods.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the state Regional Jail Authority, said synthetic drugs are a problem at all 10 state jails.

"It's on a daily basis here," said Mickey Skeens, physical clerk at Central Regional Jail.

DeLong said each jail has at least one officer charged with opening inmates' mail to search for contraband, looking through photos, envelopes and letters.

"Any means of bringing anything into a facility always creates an opportunity for contraband," he said.

Some jails have scanners to look for illegal substances, but none of that technology is foolproof.

"Each time we figure out what the recipe is and how to detect it, they change the recipe and we're back to square one," Skeens said.

And while officers catch most contraband, DeLong said, "with the synthetic drugs, they can do things that make that stuff almost impossible to detect."

"It becomes a constant battle between the good guys and the bad guys," he said.

Skeens said sometimes, individuals take the narcotic Suboxone, crush it up, mix it with water and paint it on a piece of notebook paper.

"It's almost transparent where you can't see the paper's been wet," he said.

The author will include a secret message within their letter to let inmates know where the Suboxone was painted. The inmates can then eat that part of the letter and get high.

There are other methods, too.

"They'll glue two pieces of paper together where you can barely see it, or cut a greeting card open and put it in the inside sleeve of it," he said.

DeLong said many jails see Suboxone attached to letters by way of transparent strips, similar to the breath-freshening strips made by Listerine and other companies.

He said the drugs cause problems in the jails, for both officers and inmates.

It's difficult to rehabilitate someone from a drug addiction if they're still able to get their hands on drugs, DeLong said. Drugs also become a kind of currency in jails, and illegal currency can lead to violent acts among inmates.

The best way to fight contraband is to limit opportunities to smuggle it into jails.

The Regional Jail Authority is considering eventually eliminating all physical mail from its facilities, other than legal materials.

By Oct. 1, Central Regional Jail will install the kiosk system "Lockdown," which allows inmates to send and receive emails. Similar systems will be installed in the state's remaining jails before the end of the year.

Skeens said eventually, those messages could replace ink and paper letters. Other states have instituted similar measures to great success, he said.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or Follow him at



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