Synthetic Marijuana kills in Florida’s Prisons
Meal times at Tomoka Correctional Institution Work Camp look like a scene straight out of the “Walking Dead,” a former employee of 10 years told the Miami Herald.
“Everywhere you turn, inmates are walking around like zombies,” said officer Keith Raimundo, who quit in June amid disagreements with the administration and mounting frustrations with how the facility was run. “Every other inmate coming into the chow hall is high.”
The scene at the mess hall follows a predictable script, Raimundo told the Herald: Red-eyed inmates shuffle in to get their dinner and sit down to eat, uncoordinated limbs struggling to place food in their mouths. Frequently, he said, someone “falls out,” common vernacular for an overdose. The inmate might faceplant unconscious into his food tray, or slip from his seat, foaming at the mouth, twitching, all of his muscles seizing. At Tomoka, it’s too common an occurrence to be alarming.
“Everybody thinks it’s funny,” said Raimundo. That includes the inmates and officers, he said.
But it’s not funny. It’s deadly. And it’s not just Tomoka.
“It is a statewide issue. The number of incidents at Tomoka is not disproportionate with the rest of the state,” said FDC spokesperson Michelle Glady in a statement.
The past two years have each been the deadliest in Florida prison history, consecutively. And 2018 figures to be worse yet. Total deaths this year are on track to exceed 500 for the first time, a previously unthinkable threshold. And every year, more younger people are dying. The spike in mortality is paralleled by a dramatic rise in “accidental deaths,” up from 12 in 2016 to 62 in 2017. Those are mostly drug overdoses, according to the department.
The top killer, according to an internal FDC audit: synthetic marijuana, more commonly called K2 or Spice. It’s the same drug that just made national headlines when 70 people overdosed in 24 hours in New Haven, Conn., home of Yale University.
Synthetic marijuana is a misnomer, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While synthetic cannabinoids are supposed to trigger the same receptors in the brain as THC, the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high, the chemical makeup of K2 is unique from traditional marijuana. Unlike its natural counterpart, synthetic marijuana can cause aggressive behavior, hallucinations, heart attacks, seizures like the ones Raimundo described as “falling out,” and death.
“That stuff is killing people left and right,” Raimundo said.
There is no single chemical makeup of synthetic marijuana, so in practice, it can be made of almost anything. In prison, it often contains traces of roach spray and rat poison.
“There are dozens of different chemicals that are used as synthetic cannabinoids,” said Dr. Tegan Boehmer, of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. “They are very dangerous because there are a lot of unknowns.”
The few death investigation summaries made available online by the department offer a partial glimpse of the problem. Last year, at Franklin Correctional Institution, Eugene Martin fell forward suddenly out of bed, dead from K2. At Mayo Correctional Institution, Hakim Ramatoola had a seizure and died after smoking K2 described by others who participated as “the worst ever.” Jarquez Jones died at Santa Rosa after smoking an unusual-looking black K2. Jamil Wright overdosed at Martin Correctional. Ruben Harris and Calvin Johnson at Holmes Correctional Institution. Jesse Johnson at Okaloosa Correctional Institution. All in the last half of 2017. And the list goes on.
The department does not keep statistics on non-lethal overdoses. Still, it acknowledges that overdoses related to synthetic marijuana use have gotten so frequent in Florida prisons that the FDC created an informational video about the dangers of the drug and showed it to all 96,253 inmates. Incoming inmates now watch it as part of their intake process.
Officials hoped more awareness of the deadly side effects would cause inmates to think twice before lighting up.
“It was a joke,” said Raimundo who spoke with Tomoka inmates about the video. “I don’t know if it really stopped anybody because they were laughing about it.”
Studies by the CDC note that synthetic cannabinoids can become addictive over time. “People can experience pretty severe withdrawal,” said Boehmer, who said the symptoms can be bad enough to need hospitalization.
“They couldn’t really function without it in their systems,” Raimundo said.
Prison isn’t fun. Inmates often struggle with boredom and mental health. Raimundo said, at Tomoka, “There’s absolutely nothing to do except get high.”
At Tomoka work camp, there are very few programs or structured activities. Even the handball court was removed, he said, leaving inmates with a shabby basketball court as one of their few recreational activities. So, they sometimes turn to drugs to pass the time.
“Many of the inmates prefer using “K2” because the drug is undetectable on the FDC’s urinalysis drug-tests,” wrote an inmate who goes by “Jesse” on Instagram. He wrote testing positive for regular marijuana use could result in a disciplinary report, confinement (a form of isolation), loss of gain time, and even loss of visitation. He estimates one third of the inmates in his housing unit frequently use K2.
Other than tobacco and home-brew alcohol, the most frequently encountered substances, K2 was the most common drug found in Florida prisons last year by a factor of 10. Nearly 60,000 grams — 132 pounds — were confiscated during fiscal year 2016/2017. (Think 132 of those bricks of marijuana you see in shows like “Narcos.”)
The rise in synthetic marijuana use in Florida prisons also correlates with a rise in addictions to other substances, namely opioids like heroin. But as the numbers of addicts across the state increases, funding for addiction treatment programs for inmates has been slashed. The recent state budget left Florida prisons with a nearly $50 million deficit. In response to the shortfall, the department slashed treatment programs by $28 million.
The FDC reported that nearly 70 percent of incoming inmates have a substance abuse problem. Inmates are screened for suspected substance abuse disorders at reception centers around the state. The screening involves answering 16 questions like “Have you EVER had a drinking or other drug problem?” and “Did you use alcohol or other drugs before you came to prison?”
Inmates who answer yes to three or more questions are screened for treatment or further evaluation. “Once they present at a treatment program, they’re fully assessed for a substance use disorder,” said FDC spokesperson Patrick Manderfield.
Tomoka does not offer addiction counseling or treatment of any kind, and hasn’t for years.
“Most of the time that’s what the inmates would say about why they were doing drugs in the jail — because there was no help to get them over their addictions from the outside,” said Raimundo, who said his post in mess hall often functioned like an office for ad-hoc therapy sessions when the inmates reached out to him to talk. “A lot of those guys aren’t bad people. A lot of them just have a lot of problems.”
Some inmates told Raimundo they wanted to get better — to quit — but they didn’t have the resources to help them. Some would break down and cry. He said they would usually say something like: “I don’t want my family getting that horrible phone call that I’m dead.”
Chelsey Douglas-Weiss got that call a little over one year ago, on July 27, 2017. It was about her dad. He had overdosed the night before at Tomoka Work Release Center.
“I didn’t know how to feel. I thought it was a sick joke,” said Douglas-Weiss. A year later, “All I can think about is how much I want my dad back. My future is completely different because I saw my dad in it and now I don’t know what my future will become.”
Douglas-Weiss’s father, Harry Weiss, had spent much of her 18 years in prison, and Douglas-Weiss said he had always struggled with heroin and methamphetamine addictions. But, she says, he was committed to cleaning up his act this time. He spoke with his daughter over the phone, and frequently wrote her letters, apologizing, and taking ownership of his mistakes.
Weiss had a near spotless disciplinary record. On a Valentines Day note, Weiss wrote to his daughter:
“Sorry that I’ve never been the father I should have been but know no one could ever truly love you as much as me.” He drew a rose and a heart on an enclosed piece of paper.
Raimundo remembers Weiss as one of the good ones. Though he said he only met him briefly, he remembers Weiss as a hard worker, and not one he saw seeking out drugs.
(Glady, of the Department of Corrections, said FDC records show they could not have met because Raimundo was on staff at the Tomoka work camp while Weiss was in a separate facility. )
On July 27, 2017, Weiss died of an overdose in the bathroom at Tomoka Community Release Center, a low-security offshoot a few miles away from the facility where Raimundo worked, according to what FDC told the family. The needle was still sticking out of his arm when he was found. The medical examiner found fentanyl, the strongest synthetic opioid on the market, in his system, which was listed as the cause of death.
What happened to Weiss was predictable. Without proper support and counseling, most inmates with addictions relapse when they gain access to drugs again, according to research published by Pew Charitable trust. “An addict’s tolerance for drugs is low but his craving to get high can be as strong as ever,” the article notes. That makes them especially susceptible to overdose.
“Harry didn’t want to die,” said his mother, Phyllis Weiss. She said she had to use her Social Security to bring her son home to bury him. Both heartbroken and angry, Phyllis Weiss wants answers.
“How did he get the needle in the bathroom? How did he get fentanyl in there? Who gave it to him?” she asked.
Heroin, cocaine, marijuana, K2, suboxone strips, and even some high-inducing eye drops are available for the right price at Tomoka, Raimundo said. He used to perform cell searches and write incident reports about all of the contraband he would find. That is, until he said the prison administration asked him to stop.
“They pretty much stopped me from searching [in May] because I find too much stuff,” Raimundo said. He said the high numbers were making the prison look bad in Tallahassee.
FDC denied the claim. “Staff are constantly encouraged and required by procedure to conduct searches. This claim is very inaccurate. No direction from Tallahassee would have been given to lower the numbers or from the Institution,” Glady said in a statement.
Stopping the searches, thus lowering the number of drugs documented within the prison facilities, was about controlling the optics in the state capital, Raimundo said. But at Tomoka, Raimundo said, the administration has given up on actually stemming the flow of contraband. He said his boss would tell him, “You can find whatever you want but they’ll just bring it in again the next day.”
It’s true, Raimundo said, that inmates like Weiss on work release, who leave the prison to work on highway cleanups or construction jobs, do have more access to drugs. But they are searched when they return to the facility, though he said it’s not always thorough.
Like all prisons in Florida, Tomoka is chronically understaffed, the low pay and long hours discouraging many potential applicants. It also creates low morale among overworked staff. Single officers can be responsible for entire dorms by themselves. Because the turnover rate is high, the majority of on-duty officers tend to be new and under-trained. Raimundo said it’s not uncommon for overworked corrections officers to look the other way when the inmates are smoking K2.
“They tell inmates they are leaving the dorm and if they are going to smoke, just don’t cause a problem,” Raimundo said. Again, records suggest that behavior is not limited to Tomoka officers.
A summary of a death investigation from Feb. 28, 2018, describes how 51-year-old Robert Bisson, an inmate at Columbia Correctional Institution, overdosed on K2 during what a fellow inmate — the prisoner assigned to the cell where Bisson died — described as a known nightly smoke session. He said he would excuse himself while others got high. The case summary, posted on the FDC website, gives no indication that staff and other inmates were quizzed about whether the cell was in fact a drug den. Nor did it explore how the K2 was introduced into the prison. The summary said “no administrative issues” were uncovered by the investigation. That’s common.
The low pay and low morale has another side effect. According to Raimundo, corrections officers are often the ones who smuggle the contraband in to sell to the inmates.
“These people are bringing stuff in. They’re compensating themselves,” said Raimundo. He said no amount of increased security measures will stop the flow of drugs so long as the person searching you is a buddy or in on the take.
“The department is using every tool available to prevent contraband from entering the institution and educating on the dangers of contraband,” Glady, the prison system spokeswoman, said. She said department added nine new K9 dogs to the interdiction unit this past fiscal year, and implemented “enhanced searches of visitors and staff” for what she termed “targeted contraband interdiction.”
In 2017, 18 officers across the state were arrested for introducing contraband into the prison system. None were from Tomoka.
This story has been updated to clarify the difference between Tomoka prison and Tomoka Community Release Center. A statement from FDC has also been added.