Drug-laced paper secretly brought into Cook County Jail is dangerous for inmates

Jail programs are still able to use reading and writing materials, and individuals in custody also receive legal mail and documents from their attorneys, after it is screened for drugs and contraband. There is no ham-fisted ‘book banning’ or denying legal material.

SHARE Drug-laced paper secretly brought into Cook County Jail is dangerous for inmates
The Cook County Jail in 2020.

The Cook County Jail in 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As opioid overdoses and the scourge of powerful fentanyl have overwhelmed our communities, the Cook County Jail has not been immune. The public rightfully asks us to confront this and adapt, and we have done so.

With this already overwhelming problem, though, we are also facing a new threat: paper laced with deadly household chemicals that can be smuggled through the mail, visitors, volunteers, staff and even defense attorneys.

We are finding these dangerous drugs — powerful synthetic cannabinoids mixed with nail polish remover, rat poison or pesticides — sprayed and dried on children’s drawings, Bible pages, store-bought cards from sweethearts, legal files, and pictures of friends and loved ones.

We find handwritten recipes for making drug-laced paper all over the jail — apparently passed among those in custody, who then tell someone on the outside how to cook up the concoction in their kitchen. Our officers are approached by people willing to pay thousands of dollars to smuggle the paper in. And apparently unwitting defense attorneys and volunteers are handed paper to bring into the jail that appears innocuous but is really contaminated with deadly drugs.

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Given the ease of making drug-laced paper, its incredible profitability and the inherent difficulty jail staff have in stopping its spread, it is little wonder this is a growing and disturbing trend across the country, as the number of people dying from overdoses is rising in numerous jails and prisons.

Despite these significant challenges, we are making progress — stopping the contaminated paper from getting in, finding it when it does and arresting those involved. That is thanks to strong, but reasonable actions we’ve taken to combat this menace while minimizing unnecessary negative impacts. Among those changes: we have started an internal campaign to warn those in custody about the dangers of drug-laced paper, we have specially trained teams thoroughly searching mail, we have increased search practices in the jail, and we have limited the amount of paper that comes in from staff, visitors and attorneys.

Importantly, we are working closely with experts in the field of substance use and the jail’s medical provider, Cook County Health, to explore new and innovative ways to address this problem.

A disinformation campaign about ‘banning books’

This is hard and complex work, with lives at stake. So, we need everyone to understand the scope of the problem and to work with us on solutions. Sadly, some criminal justice advocates have embarked on an intentionally misleading disinformation campaign aimed at scaring the public into thinking the jail is banning books or withholding important legal documents from those in custody.

Let’s be clear: we have not changed our policies on how many books or magazines individuals in custody can have. The long-standing policy at the jail has been to allow three books at a time along with magazines, personal photos, a religious book, stationery, stamped envelopes, etc. The jail has not changed this policy.

Our programs, the most in the country, are still able to use reading and writing materials. We have gone to great lengths to ensure this by implementing new screening protocols instead of ham-fistedly banning all paper. Individuals in custody also receive legal mail and documents from their attorneys, after it is screened for drugs and contraband. They hold it. They read it. They keep it.

Another thoughtful effort to minimize poisonous paper was our introduction of tablets for defendants. Far from what has been alleged, approximately 82% of defendants have access to tablets every day for numerous hours. These tablets have both learning apps and security cleared communication apps.

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All this work is in addition to my long-standing belief in the importance of drug use treatment and overdose prevention. Those 82% with access to tablets can access substance use treatment programs every day, an option that will soon be available to everyone. The jail provides medication-assisted treatment for those struggling with opioid use disorder, along with counseling and intensive drug treatment programing. Every tier in the jail is stocked with the overdose reversal drug naloxone, and those leaving custody are provided the lifesaving drug if they want it, along with direct connections to treatment programs in their communities.

America’s deadly drug problem is widespread, complex and ever-evolving. Sadly, however hard we try, it doesn’t stop at the jail’s doors. To save lives we all need to appreciate the complexity of this problem and work together to fight it.

Tom Dart is the sheriff of Cook County.

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