Located in Canon City, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, shown here in a Dec. 9, 2020, photo, is the state’s oldest prison. Built in 1871, it preceded the state’s admission to the Union by five years. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Prison staff had no idea what was happening when an inmate suddenly lost consciousness at the Limon Correctional Facility in May.

It turned out the man was overdosing from fentanyl that had been snuck into the facility on the Eastern Plains. The drug is an opioid said to be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

The inmate’s overdose was fatal, and an officer who responded to help him was exposed to the fentanyl and became extremely ill. The officer was given Narcan, an opioid-overdose reversal medication. 

“We are so, so thankful that the officer survived,” said Sherrie Daigle, the state DOC inspector general, whose office is tasked with investigating crimes within the state’s prison system and keeping drugs out of its facilities. “It could have been just as bad as the offender.” 

The Limon case, which came before the arrests of five prison staff accused of smuggling drugs into the facility, was one of at least three fatal drug overdoses inside a Colorado prison in the past 13 months. The deaths underscore what the CDOC says is a scourge of narcotics flowing into the state’s facilities, including ultra-potent, hard-to-detect synthetic drugs that can be absorbed into paper and mailed to inmates.

“We have found more drugs in the past two, two and a half years than they have in the history of the Inspector General’s Office,” Daigle said. 

Data from the Department of Corrections shows a steep increase in the amount of drugs seized in state prisons over the past four years. 

In the first six months of this year, for instance, the agency seized more than 400 grams of cocaine. In 2018, the agency seized 48.4 grams of the drug.

In the first six months of 2021, more than three times the amount of heroin was seized than in all of 2018. Methamphetamine, suboxone and prescription drug seizures, meanwhile, were set to exceed their 2018, 2019 and 2020 levels.

A Colorado Department of Corrections chart on drug seizures in state prisons.

The amount of drugs seized in the first six months of this year represents tens of thousands of potential doses, according to prison officials.

Daigle said it’s difficult to tell if her office is getting better at finding contraband drugs smuggled into state prison or whether more are finding their way into facilities.

“Honestly,” she said, “I don’t know. I wish I could answer that question.”

How the drugs are getting in 

The Colorado Department of Corrections takes a number of steps to stop drugs from entering the state’s prisons, including routine urine testing of inmates, monitoring phone calls and  screening all mail.

But there are gaps in the system that inmates have found and exploited.

Daigle said prisoners have been instructing their family members to buy a special kind of paper with high cotton content and then spray it with an oil containing synthetic cannabinoids, colloquially known as “spice.” The oil is colorless and odorless and can’t be detected during the mail-screening process.

Each piece of paper can contain as many as 96 doses of the drug, which can sell for as much as $40 each inside prison. Inmates insert a paperclip or a staple into a light socket or electrical outlet to create a spark and smoke the drug-laden paper.

“The problem is they don’t know what kind of dose they’re getting on that paper,” Daigle said. “They don’t know how much has been sprayed on there. Even the people that sprayed it on there don’t know what the dose is. So it’s extremely, extremely dangerous when the offender inhales this. They have severe reactions. And we have recently had an offender die from a spice overdose.”

Recently, prison officials have begun photocopying all incoming inmate mail to combat the contraband by preventing inmates from obtaining the original documents.

“The problem is we cannot photocopy legal mail,” Daigle said. “And so now they are trying to beat us by sending in false legal mail.”

The CDOC is also asking the state legislature to help them address the problem.

The agency is asking lawmakers for $300,000 next fiscal year, which begins in July, to establish a K-9 drug detection unit that would consist of four teams, each with a dog and a handler. The cost would decrease to $200,000 in the 2023-24 fiscal year.

State prison officials say the K-9 unit would allow them to quickly screen mail and inmate cells.

“By having the K-9, we shouldn’t have to go in and rifle through every single piece of paper or go through all of their property because the dog will let us know if there’s anything that we need to search harder for,” Daigle said.

State budget writers seem open to the request. “It’s hugely problematic,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

The Colorado Capitol on Dec. 10, 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But Moreno wants to see more data from the Department of Corrections on which facilities have had the biggest problem with contraband drugs.

There are also concerns that four dogs for the state’s sprawling prison system wouldn’t be sufficient.

“I tried to be reasonable in my request to the legislature,” Daigle said. “I think that four dogs will give us a good starting point. I would like to have some data behind us to back up putting in a request for more dogs. Ultimately, it would be wonderful to have a dog at each facility.”

Other overdose cases

The CDOC never determined how the fentanyl that killed the inmate in Limon got into the prison.

“We did not make an arrest in that case,” Daigle said. “We did not determine how the drugs got into that facility. We believe it was through staff.”

Five staff members were charged in the following months with smuggling drugs into the facility — though not related to the overdose. (The Lincoln County coroner did not provide the name of the inmate who died from the overdose, but confirmed the death.)

Daigle said her office probably charges a prison worker at least once a month with bringing drugs into a facility. (The CDOC employs about 6,000.) People visiting inmates are charged at about the same rate, “if not once a week.”

FILE – In this Oct. 15, 2015 file photo, Colorado State Penitentiary II, background, sits vacant inside a larger correctional complex, outside Canon City, in southern Colorado. Colorado authorities say have taken away all 15,000 computer tablets available to prison inmates in the state over security concerns. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

The other two Colorado prison overdose deaths in the past 13 months happened in Fremont County. One was Nov. 30, 2020, at the Colorado Territorial Prison, while the other was at the Colorado State Penitentiary on July 16.

The inmate who died July 16 died of a “spice” overdose, Daigle said.

The Fremont County Coroner’s Office did not respond to a request for information on the inmates who died from overdoses, including their names.

Daigle sees expanded efforts to keep drugs out of prisons as an issue that affects not only the state’s inmate population, but also the broader community. 

Prisoners’ family members can be collateral damage when their loved ones behind bars become indebted to dealers.

“Keeping the drugs out of prison not only helps what’s going on inside, it’s also very important for the family members who are being extorted and who are sometimes threatened by drug dealers from the outside,” she said. “So the more we can keep the drugs out of prison, it’ll help everyone in the community.”

Jails are dealing with the issue, too

Prisons aren’t alone in dealing with an apparent uptick in problems with contraband drugs. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, who is the president of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said jails are in the same boat.

“I can’t speak for every sheriff’s office and every jail in the state of Colorado, but I think I can speak generally in saying that the trends that the Department of Corrections is experiencing are very much mirrored in the county jails,” he said. “Just in the last couple of months we had what we believe were several fentanyl exposures in our facility to the point where we had five Narcan deployments in a two-day window to people who were exhibiting overdose traits.”

In Arapahoe County, a jail inmate was recently charged with drug distribution and bringing contraband into the jail after handing a counterfeit pill containing fentanyl to a cellmate who overdosed and died in June. Ernest Mares brought eight or nine little blue pills into the jail by hiding them inside his shoe, according to court documents.

Reams said he also has had two inmates die of methamphetamine overdoses in his facilities.

Reams said he has brought on drug-sniffing dogs to work in his facilities and started making newly arrived inmates go through body scanners. “We’ve tried to think of everything under the sun” to prevent the drugs getting into the facility, he said.

The quantity of illicit drugs stopped before entering his jail or found in his facilities has “gone up exponentially in the last, I would say, three to four years.” At first, it was marijuana, but now it’s transitioned to cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl, suboxone “and everything in between.”

Inside Denver’s downtown detention center. Oct. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite)

“I think the easier and the smaller those drugs get in dosage size and the more addictive that those drugs are also becoming — it’s a huge motivator for those who are addicted to the drugs or who want to profit from distributing the drugs,” Reams said. “I don’t think you can call overdoses in jails an anomaly anymore.”

But Reams said he isn’t necessarily surprised. In fact, he says, “it only makes sense,” given that about 80% of the inmates in his jail are “involved in some kind of illegal narcotics trade or illegal drug trade.”

The CDOC believes that about 70% of its inmates enter state prisons already addicted to drugs. Prisoners are offered treatment and counseling.

“Prisons are a microcosm of society,” Daigle said. “And really what it comes down to is the challenges we see on the outside are the same challenges we run into on the inside.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....