Prison drug raid is first of many, state says
By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
Correction Commissioner George Little said that this week's raid on West Tennessee State Penitentiary sends a message that contraband will not be tolerated in the state's prisons.
About 300 agents from at least three state agencies swarmed the prison early Thursday morning. Officers used drug dogs and electronic detection devices to help in the search for drugs, alcohol, weapons, cell phones and other banned items.
Little said yesterday that officers found several cell phones, weapons and "substances we are testing to verify exactly what they are." Department of Correction spokeswoman Amanda Sluss had said Thursday that drugs were taken from inmates, but she didn't know the amount.
"Ours is a zero-tolerance stance," Little said. "We want people to know we're going to do everything that we can do within our power to ensure that the facilities are safe and secure."
The unprecedented operation, which lasted most of Thursday, had been planned since April when some members of the General Assembly criticized the department for not cracking down on contraband. Then Correction Commissioner Quenton White described to lawmakers inmate drug rings operating from inside state prisons, something he said would not be possible without the assistance of some prison staff members.
One lawmaker called the prison system budget flawed because it did not include money designated for a contraband crackdown.
The legislature voted to add $481,000 to the Department of Correction budget to pay for six drug-dog units to detect and deter drug trafficking in state prisons. Even though their training is not quite complete, Little said some of those dogs were used during Thursday's operation and were instrumental in finding items.
"It was a practical exam for them," said Little, adding that the dogs and their handlers are expected to be in full operation later this month.
There was one arrest Thursday. Little said a woman at the prison to pick up an inmate being released was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia when it was discovered she had a crack pipe. Little said it was unclear if the woman was trying to smuggle it in.
As for staff, Little said there were no arrests or disciplines. Overall, he called the operation a success and said there would be more of them.
"It may not always be on the same scale, but we are going to do this," Little said. "We learned a lot by working together."
Besides the safety and correction departments, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and drug dog teams from Nashville, Memphis, Jackson and Martin police departments participated in the shakedown.
West Tennessee State Penitentiary is the largest in the state system. It has about 2,500 inmates and more than 800 staff members.
Tennessee has 15 prisons spread across the state, housing more than 19,000 inmates. •