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FOX 11 Investigates: Combating drugs in Oshkosh prison

Oshkosh Correctional Institution works to combat the flow of drugs into the prison. (Mark Leland/WLUK)

OSHKOSH (WLUK) - Wisconsin prisons are filling up with more and more drug-related offenders. But just because they're locked up doesn't mean they're not getting high—and posing a safety threat for inmates and staff.

Inside the razor-wired topped walls at Oshkosh Correctional inmates spent more than two weeks this summer on lockdown. Prison officials confirm they brought in some 70 correctional officers and even drug-sniffing dogs to search the medium security facility for drugs.

What kind of drugs did prison staff find?

“We found we had fentanyl in here in the institution,” said warden Judy Smith. “We found some pills, a number of things we found.”

Smith told FOX 11 Investigates various searches and drug tests on inmates have turned up different drugs.

“Whether that's marijuana, whether that's cocaine,” Smith recounted.

FOX 11 Investigates filed open records requests and received Inmate Conduct Reports related to the drug investigation. The reports detail inmates smuggling and selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana, prescription pills and fentanyl within the prison walls.

The discovery of fentanyl this summer is particularly alarming. It's a synthetic opioid, which doctors say can be 50 times stronger than heroin. It can also be absorbed through the skin making it a danger to anyone.

“If it was one inmate that was using drugs that was doing something illegally, I have an issue with that because one inmate puts everybody's safety at risk,” said Smith.

But it's not just one inmate-- the crackdown discovered 30 inmates involved in alleged drug activity.

FOX 11 Investigates asked the Winnebago County District Attorney whether the number of inmates involved in drugs and drug dealing surprised him.

“It does, yes, that's scary. It's a scary thought,” said Gossett.

Winnebago County is where Oshkosh Correctional is located. When prison officials, working with local police, make a case of drugs being brought into the prison, it comes to Gossett's office for prosecution.

“They catch what they catch, and we get what they catch. But I guess it's anyone's guess how much gets through without being discovered,” explained Gossett.

No charges have yet been filed in connection with the latest drugs found.

But over the past two years, seven cases have been charged by the district attorney’s office involving drugs and other contraband smuggled into the prison.

One of those cases involved Judy Wallace of Madison. The criminal complaint details her confession to police on how she smuggled marijuana into the prison on four different occasions--getting the drugs past security and into the visitor’s room.

“It's not simply a way to get high, it's also something for bartering, in it has value,” explained Gossett.

Police say one gram of marijuana was selling for $50 in the prison. One gram of heroin went for $500.

In Wallace's case, the criminal complaint details how she arranged to pick up the drugs, in small “balloons” that were tied shut. She says she got them into the prison’s visiting area "in her underwear past security."

There she says she met with her boyfriend, inmate Bryant Williams. She would "buy peanuts from the vending machine," take "the empty wrapper into the bathroom," and place the drug-filled balloons "into the peanut wrapper." Then back in the visitation room Williams would take the wrapper and swallow the balloons "pretending to be eating peanuts."

He would later pass the balloons.

Wallace pleaded ‘no contest’ to the charge of delivering illegal articles to an inmate. She was sentenced to 6 months behind bars.

Warden Smith told FOX11 Investigates that case and others have prompted changes within the prison.

“You took the vending machines out?” asked FOX 11 Investigates.

“We did,” acknowledged Smith, “You try to look at things that happen and try to weigh out what you need to do.”

In the visitors' room, more eyes are now watching, and bathroom access is restricted. Even the legs on tables were shortened.

“Inmates would and their visitors would exchange contraband under the tables,” Smith explained.

Elsewhere in the prison, changes include restricting inmate movement, and more random K9 searches for drugs.

But are the efforts enough?

Prison staffers tell FOX 11 Investigates all prisons have drugs coming in. Denis O'Neill worked as a Correctional Officer for 26 years at Green Bay Correctional. He says inmates continually find new ways to get their drugs.

“It will be in a small balloon and through a kiss it'll be passed through and swallowed,” said O’Neill. “Unless the state goes to non-contact visits, they will still keep coming in.”

“Not in Wisconsin. That's not really something we can do,” said Smith, when asked about eliminating non-contact visits.

FOX 11 Investigates found Winnebago County also had problems with drugs in its jail. The sheriff's department installed a body scanner in 2015 after a near heroin overdose. Sheriff's officials say the $200,000 expense has paid off.

“Currently for this year to date we've had zero incidents of contraband in the facility,” said Lt. Amber Rozek with Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department.

If the body scanner works at the county jail, FOX 11 investigates asked Warden Smith if a body scanner could work at the prison.

“So that’s something certainly that we’ve reviewed and we’ve looked at. We have no immediate plans to do that at this point,” said Smith.

Smith indicated a body scanner would have to be approved by the Department of Corrections, and indicated the cost can be a drawback.

“It is a big cost, correct,” said Smith.

The problem isn't just with visitors. In recent years, two Correctional Officers at Oshkosh were also convicted in contraband cases--one in 2015 for bringing in chewing tobacco for an inmate, and one in 2016 for transferring money for an inmate.

And drugs have found their way in through the mail. Prison staff and inmates tell FOX 11 Investigates drugs have been found under stamps and labels, and in the creases of envelopes.

Oshkosh Correctional changed its incoming mail policy this past June. Officers now open the mail, and the envelopes are immediately shredded.

Deputy Warden Jim Zanon says criminals looking for a high will seek out new options when their supply source is cut off.

“You can tell sometimes when the availability of the street drugs starts to become less so then they start to move more of their prescription medications around in the institution,” said Zanon.

FOX 11 Investigates asked Smith if she thought all the changes made have been positive in keeping drugs out?

“I think they have. It's a hard thing to measure,” Smith said.

Smith added prison is a lot like society on the outside. They both can work eliminate drug abuse but it’s hard, if not impossible to stop.”

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