WARREN, Maine — Drug use remains common within the Maine State Prison although the state said it has taken steps to stem the flow of illegal substances and diverted prescriptions into the maximum security facility.

Thirty-eight inmates were charged with drug crimes last year and thus far in 2012, another 26 prisoners have been indicted for trafficking in prison contraband, namely drugs, at the Maine State Prison. In the October grand jury session alone, 12 inmates were charged with drug offenses within prison walls.

“Drugs pose an extreme risk and an extreme danger in prison,” Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm said in early November as he sentenced prisoner Joshua W. Cass to an additional nine months behind bars for two counts of drug trafficking.

Assistant Knox County District Attorney Christopher Fernald said at Cass’ hearing that prosecuting these cases is important as a punishment for the individual and as a deterrent to the entire prison population — currently 850 inmates — by sending a message that trafficking in prison contraband will not be tolerated.

“Drugs within a prison is like pouring gasoline on a fire,” Fernald said.

Contraband such as drugs enters the state’s correctional facilities through a number of avenues, including prisoner mail and visits to prisoners, according to Judy Plummer, director of special projects and public affairs coordinator for the Maine Department of Corrections.

Plummer said that staff involvement in smuggling drugs into the prison represents a very small fraction of the cases.

She said sometimes drugs are found when visitors arrive to see a prisoner but most of the time they are found later after the prisoner has possession of the drugs.

In the Cass sentencing, Hjelm noted that drugs are a form of currency within the prison. Plummer said a single Suboxone pill, for instance, goes for at least $30 in prison.

In the October grand jury session, the most common drugs being dealt by the prisoners who were charged with trafficking in contraband were Suboxone and buprenorphine. Both are prescription drugs intended to help treat opiate addiction, but each also can be abused.

Associate Corrections Commissioner Jody Breton said that Suboxone strips are the most popular drug dealt within the prison. She said seizures of this drug have ranged from 10 to 50 strips at a time.

Heroin and marijuana also are common drugs found within the prison, Breton said.

Plummer said the majority of drugs seized within the prison are used by those prisoners who have been unable to break their addictions. She said only in a few cases are prisoners just dealing and not using.

In Cass’ case, the dealer and user was found in possession of 51 Suboxone pills and a hypodermic needle.

Fernald said the amount was significant and at Cass’ sentencing hearing argued for extra incarceration time because of the serious ramifications of the drug trade within the state prison. He said the price of drugs within the prison is ridiculously high and prisoners go into debt, which can lead to violence.

Cass’ attorney Jeremy Pratt argued that the administrative actions taken by the prison serve as a greater punishment than adding time to a sentence and should be considered by the court in imposing a sentence.

Cass, 28, lost eight months of good time that he had earned, Pratt pointed out. Cass also was placed in segregation for three months, spending 23 hours a day locked in a cell with no human contact.

The defense attorney said that segregation’s impact on a person’s mental health is significant and that the Maine Legislature has considered bills that would regulate or get rid of it.

In addition, Cass has been prohibited from having any contact visits for the remaining eight years he will serve in prison. Pratt explained that when he meets with his client, there is glass separating them.

Cass spoke during the hearing and apologized for his actions.

“I realize I made a mistake. I saw an opportunity to make some money,” Cass said.

Plummer said the department has tried to combat the prison drug problem by increasing the amount of monitoring of both prisoner mail and telephone calls. There are daily searches of incoming packages and there are regular, random shakedowns of the facility when staff will conduct searches of cells.

The Corrections Department also has created an Inner Perimeter Security Team, as well as three canine teams, all with the primary goals of detecting and intercepting drugs.

Another strategy that should yield benefits, Plummer said, is a program called mapping. Every time there is an incident at the prison, including when drugs are found, it is mapped so that prison officials can review the information regularly and see where the problem areas are.

“It’s been really helpful. It’s an amazing tool,” Plummer said.

Unless there is a suspicion, visitors are not patted down when they come into the prison to visit an inmate. Visitors must go through a metal detector which screens for weapons but this will not detect drugs, Plummer said.

After screening, visitors are escorted to a large room where there are tables.

Officers monitor the visits and allow an embrace and a quick kiss, but prolonged contact is not permitted, Plummer said.

She said in every instance in which an inmate is found with drugs, the case is referred to the district attorney’s office for prosecution. In addition, inmates are written up and a disciplinary hearing is held administratively. She said in cases where the contraband involves tobacco products, administrative action is taken but the cases are not referred for criminal prosecution because cigarettes and other such products are not illegal outside the prison.

The increase in cases going before the courts for prosecution is a direct result of all the improvements in security and monitoring made by the Department of Corrections, Plummer stated.

But Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said that drugs always have been in the prison and won’t be eliminated, no matter how much security is added.

“Enhanced security is no match for a chemical addiction illness coupled with boredom and being surrounded by hundreds of people with the same illness,” Garvey said.

Efforts to punish prisoners with additional sentences and solitary confinement, she said, backfires on the prison administration as prisoners become more upset about their conditions.

She said rules outside of prison that have led to less opiate replacement treatment have led to more people ending up behind bars.

Garvey said the advocacy coalition hears that most drugs are brought in by staff but acknowledged some comes in by visitors and mail.

“Staff are generally not blamed unless blatantly caught, and then are often not held accountable in court,” Garvey said. She said staff members can make a lot of money bringing drugs into prison.

The issue of possible staff involvement was raised during another sentencing hearing held in November, when Patrick Dorney, 33, was ordered to serve an additional four months in prison for felony trafficking in morphine. In December 2010, he was searched by a corrections officer and when Dorney’s pockets were checked, a single morphine pill was found.

Dorney’s defense attorney, Justin Andrus, argued at the sentencing hearing that if the case had gone to trial, there would have been two alternate suspects — one an employee who works in the laundry and another who works in the medical department. Andrus said the laundry officer was discharged for contraband offenses.

When asked for details on the alternate suspects after the hearing, Andrus said he was unable to discuss the matter because he was under a protective order. These orders typically allow lawyers to review confidential records — such as state employee personnel files — but do not allow them to talk about the records unless allowed by the court.

Plummer said that in fewer than one case per year is a staff member connected to contraband.

The amount of drug trafficking is related, she noted, to the inmates’ drug addictions, which started before they entered the correctional system.

She said inmates who arrive at the state prison already have gone through detoxification from drugs while being held at county jails before being sentenced.

“Some of them just can’t stay away from drugs,” Plummer said.

The prison does not offer opiate replacement treatment but does have trained drug counselors at each correctional facility, she said. The drug counseling is in group settings and one-on-one counseling based on the needs of the inmates. Education classes also are offered to try to make the prisoners realize why they use drugs.

Garvey said the advocacy group for prisoners very much opposes increased sanctions and punishments for drug use. More job training, education, and substance abuse programs for prisoners are needed, she said.

“The end results,” Garvey said, “are longer sentences, greatly increased costs to taxpayers, and actively addicted prisoners released back to their communities. Instead of approaching the problem from a negative viewpoint, we believe there is a way to end the warehousing and increase health in our communities. The costs would be much less.”