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‘Zombie’ Drug No Laughing Matter in Florida Prisons

Rows of prison cells, prison interior.

Inmates, corrections officers, and the Florida Department of Corrections agree: Synthetic drugs are a serious problem in the Florida prison system. Inmates are using these drugs regularly enough that it is normal to see them walking around like “zombies,” passing out into their food trays, or having a seizure and foaming at the mouth.

Unfortunately, a former employee at Tomoka Correctional Institution Work Camp reports that the situation is seen as a joke by both inmates and employees alike. However, drugs are killing inmates in Tomoka Correctional Institute and in other facilities across the state, and action needs to be taken now.

The drug most commonly found in Florida prisons is a synthetic drug that most often goes by the name K2 or Spice. Experts estimate that this substance causes the bulk of the hundreds of overdose death that happen among inmates annually (as many as 500 deaths total are expected in Florida prisons this year). It is the same drug that caused the 70+ overdoses in Connecticut over a four-hour period this month, and families are scared that their loved one will be the next victim of the drug.

Hard to Treat

Unlike the overdoses caused by opiate drugs like heroin or painkillers, there is no medication available that can stop an overdose caused by K2 and save the life of the individual in crisis. Synthetic cannabinoids sold on the street and smuggled into prisons do not have a specific chemical makeup, which means that they can contain any number of compounds and chemicals. For medical professionals arriving on the scene to help, there is no way to know exactly what was ingested and respond accordingly. To make matters worse, many inmates try to cover for each other or otherwise stop corrections officers from finding out what is happening in order to avoid punishment, which can further delay or stop them from getting the care they need.

Understaffed, Underfunded

The budget has been an ongoing issue, not just in Florida but in prison systems across the country. The budget set aside to run state-managed prisons has been cut and cut until there is very little left to manage the basic care and upkeep of inmates and the buildings they live in. This has led to a host of problems, including:

  • Not enough staff members: With low budgets, there is not enough money to provide the amount of staff needed to ensure that prisoners and visitors are not smuggling contraband into the facility, much less to intervene immediately and effectively when mental health or medical issues flare up.
  • Low-paid staff: Not only is there not enough money to hire enough staff, the staff members who are employed by the prison are underpaid. This means a high turnover rate and an increased likelihood that staff members will seek to augment their income by smuggling cellphones, drugs, alcohol, and other contraband into the prison.
  • Little to no mental health or drug addiction treatment for inmates: When there is not enough in the budget to pay employees well and manage the grounds effectively, there is almost nothing allotted to mental health treatment or drug addiction treatment services for inmates – even though a significant portion of the inmate population struggles with drug abuse issues and/or mental health issues that often played a role in the crimes they committed to end up in correction facilities.
  • Lack of oversight: With everyone on staff stretched thin, there is not enough time to continually train employees and update training as needed or for upper-level employees to be everywhere they are needed at once. This means that those in charge may not be available to recognize a problem in its early stages or to be proactive when addressing issues that are increasing in severity.

Where Do We Go from Here?

It is not just the inmates who are struggling due to the conditions of Florida corrections facilities but also corrections officers and the families of all involved. Exposure to drug use and violence on a daily basis is difficult, and for families at home who never know what to expect, it can add to the stress and trauma associated with imprisonment.

Is your loved one living with an addiction while incarcerated? Are you concerned that jail or a return to jail may be coming next for your family member? The time is now to learn more about treatment options that can help turn things around for the whole family.

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