By LOU MICHEL and SUSAN SCHULMAN
Illegal drugs seep into New York state prisons like
rain through a leaky roof, with some inmates staying
doped-up until their release - only to commit more
crimes. And others dying behind bars, a Buffalo
News investigation found.
Jitendra Lakram, 36, died that way.
The son of South American immigrants, Lakram
hoped to start a new life once released from Attica
state prison, perhaps returning, his family said, to
their home country of Guyana. He never got the chance.
Neither did Michael Vlahoff, 31, a former worker in
Ford's Woodlawn plant, who got mixed up in drugs,
and landed in Collins state prison.
"I was so shocked that I couldn't believe it," said
Lakram's mother, Kamlawaty Lakram. "I figured
my son . should be safe and drug free there."
It makes no sense."
"He's not on the street," one of Vlahoff's relatives
added. "He is (supposed to) dry out and get the
help he needs," one of Vlahoff's relatives added.
They're not supposed to get that stuff when they
are in there."
Perhaps not, but it's happening.
With some 3,500 drug tests coming back positive each year, three inmates, on average,
die from illegal drugs in New York prisons annually, The News found. At least 19 died
this way since 2000.
But beyond that, countless other inmates are released with drug addictions, often to
commit more crimes on the street.
"It [drug addiction] was just as bad when I got out," said Cheryl Davis, who resumed
her "career" as a Buffalo drug addict and thief upon leaving Bedford Hills
People come into court . . . want[ing] to detox off the drugs that they had been
using while in custody," said Buffalo City Court Judge Robert T. Russell.
While drugs behind bars are a national problem, The News found drug use in New York
prisons more widespread than in surrounding states - with marijuana and heroin being
the drugs of choice. About 70 percent of all positive drug tests are for marijuana;
30 percent for heroin.
Among The News' findings:
A greater percentage of random drug tests are positive in New York prisons than in
surrounding states - more than 10 times greater than Pennsylvania. The numbers may be
conservative because New York administers fewer random tests than the other states
New York's maximum-security prisons tend to have the biggest drug problem. Less
than 30 percent of prison inmates are in the state's 17 maximum-security prisons,
where more than 60 percent of drug incidents occur.
Drugs or drug paraphernalia were found in prisons about 2,000 times in the last
51/2 years. Some 868 inmates were arrested for possessing drugs in prison over the
past decade. At least 300 visitors were arrested with drugs over the past five years.
About 20 prison employees are disciplined or resign annually for drug involvement in
and out of prison.
Four times as many inmates died from accidental drug overdoses in New York prisons
from 2002 to 2004 as in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan combined. Nationally, inmates
are nearly twice as likely to die from drug overdoses in New York prisons as in state
prisons around the country.
Similar problems exist in some county jails. Seven inmates died in New York City
jails and eight in county jails outside New York City since 2000. Among them was an
Erie County man whose heroin addiction, family members said, started years ago in
"Anything I can get at Genesee and Jefferson, they got in there [prison and jail],"
said former inmate Reginald Brown, an ex-drug user now counseling other former
convicts in Buffalo.
"We've heard from some it's even easier [to get drugs in prison than on the streets],
and there's less chance of getting caught," said Erie County Deputy District Attorney
Molly Jo Musarra.
Question of Safety
New York State Department of Correctional Services officials call illegal drugs a
threat to prison safety, and say keeping them out is a constant challenge, given 72
percent of inmates enter prison with a history of substance abuse.
But the department says it does a good job keeping the situation under control in a
system with 69 prisons that some 90,000 inmates go through each year - an average
63,000 on any given day; as well as 770,000 visitors, and some 585,000 packages to
"We believe we have an effective and comprehensive strategy to tackle drugs in
prison," department spokeswoman Linda M. Foglia said.
b With the department's emphasis on drug treatment for addicts, and punishment for
those caught with drugs in prison, positive drug tests, she said, declined in recent
years, although 2005 showed an increase Of 81,000 drug tests administered last year,
3.4 percent of all tests, and 2.9 percent of randomly administered tests, were
But what the state sees as a strong, successful program, others see as lacking,
especially in maximum-security prisons. As many as 7 percent of random drug tests in
maximum security prisons are positive, as are 10 percent of follow-up tests given to
inmates who previously tested positive, and 17 percent of tests given to inmates
acting suspiciously, The News found.
"You would go to the yard on Saturday or Sunday night, and it would be like a bazaar,
with people going from table to table making drug deals," said Kevin Muscoreil, a
former Attica inmate now working as a legal assistant to a top Buffalo defense
"We have a terrible problem with heroin in Attica. Drugs are rampant," said
Corrections Officer Rick Harcrow, a union steward at the prison.
Corrections Department officials challenged those characterizations, saying positive
drug tests at Attica, with 2,200 prisoners, dropped in recent years to 4 percent in
2005, from 6 percent in 2001.
"We don't have heroin rampant in Attica," Foglia said. "There is absolutely no
evidence to support these claims."
Nevertheless, with New York having a higher rate of positive random drug tests than
surrounding states surveyed, The News found New York is less aggressive in battling
its drug problem - a situation critics say goes back 30 years.
In what now seems like a double whammy, the state imposed Gov. Rockefeller's tough,
new drug laws - putting more drug users and sellers behind bars - at the same time it
implemented some of the most liberal prison visitation policies in the country as a
response to the 1971 Attica uprising.
With all the hand holding, kissing and hugging permitted - during daily visitation at
maximum-security prisons and weekend and holiday visits at the others - it got easier
to smuggle illegal drugs into prisons, critics say. And with more inmates coming into
prison with drug histories, the demand for drugs got higher.
"Obviously, there was a system failure that allowed this high volume of drugs to be
getting into the prisons," said George King, a former State Parole Board member for
The News also found the New York prison system doesn't share drug overdose
information with families.
"They told us he died of a heart attack. If the lawyer hadn't investigated, I would
have never known," Jitendra Lakram's mother said. "I kept calling the investigator in
[the Department of Correctional Services], and he never has given an answer."
"We were never told he had drugs in him," said Eddie Reid, whose brother-in-law,
Louis Telese, died from a drug overdose at Attica last year. "We were told it was a
It's the coroner's responsibility, not the corrections department's, to notify
families on how their loved ones died, corrections officials said.
"Corrections law says the cause of death must be decided and given to the public from
the coroner," Foglia said.
The cocaine habit
Michael Vlahoff grew up in Lancaster and had a good job at the Ford plant, but the
father of two young boys developed a cocaine habit that overtook his life.
He ended up divorced, fired from his job and, eventually, behind bars.
His legal trouble started with a 2000 burglary and continued in 2001, when he stole a
car in Hamburg. When an officer approached, Vlahoff sped away, dragging the officer,
who suffered a fractured shoulder.
Vlahoff ended up in Collins Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison, serving
up to three years behind bars.
His family never gave up on him. With drug counseling, they hoped he would turn
"The family was supportive of him," said State Sen. Dale Volker, who knows the
Vlahoffs as a "good, hardworking family" that tried to help Vlahoff beat his drug
But in prison, Vlahoff's drug habit only got worse.
At home, he did crack cocaine, his family said.
In prison, he did heroin.
One night in October 2003, Vlahoff and his cellmate were "doing lines" of heroin. The
next morning, Vlahoff was dead from an overdose.
The American dream
Jitendra Lakram and his family moved to the United States in 1970, searching for the
American dream after escaping discrimination against Indian families in their home
country, Guyana, South America.
Lakram's parents prospered in New York, moving from Queens to Long Island's Nassau
County. His sister went on to finish college and get a good job in the business
But Jitendra Lakram foundered. He was smoking marijuana and stealing cars.
In 1986, he went to prison for car theft. In 1991, not long after his release, Lakram
threatened a man at gunpoint - he claimed the gun wasn't loaded - and stole a car.
At age 23, Lakram was back behind bars, serving 121/2 to 25 years in Attica.
Lakram's parents hoped that, once released, their son would start a new life in
Guyana, . perhaps marketing an idea he patented in prison for an "unsinkable ship."
But drugs behind bars got in the way.
"We're concerned about [you] having drugs," one parole commissioner said during a
hearing in 2003. "Why is this going on in jail?"
"I use drugs recreationally to relieve my stress," Lakram said. Parole commissioners
"You do realize how outrageous that is, given your situation, and where you are?" a
The following year, on Nov. 22, 2004, Lakram was found dead in his cell. He overdosed
Thriving drug culture
The drug culture thrives in prisons, The News found, partly because of innovative
ways drugs are smuggled in, but also because of New York's liberal visitation
"It is mostly girlfriends, wives, family members bringing drugs in," said District
Attorney John Trice from Chemung County, where two prisons are located. "I've had
mothers bringing it in to Junior."
Other states do background checks on visitors, send trained dogs to find drugs on
visitors and in their cars, and conduct high-tech drug screening of everyone entering
Not in New York State prisons.
The state has three electronic ion scanners shared among the 69 prisons to detect
drugs on visitors.
Most visitors to New York prisons can show up, sign in, walk through a metal detector
and visit an inmate. Even if the visitor is a drug dealer.
And while some states keep inmates and visitors physically apart - with glass
partitions or video visitation rooms - New York, despite rules to the contrary,
allows many inmates and visitors to spend hours hugging and kissing in crowded rooms,
often with limited supervision, The News observed.
"When I started back in the 1970s, many of the prisons had glass partitions, and you
spoke through a phone, and there was minimal contact visitation," said Denny
Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the New York State corrections officers' union, after the
Attica riot, many things were changed, and they took a very liberal approach in
dealing with inmates."
New York is one of just six states that allows married inmates conjugal trailer
visits, according to the National Institute of Corrections.
State officials say they are considering the purchase of more scanners to check
inmates for drugs, but that it would be inefficient to do background checks and use
drug dogs on visitors in a prison system as large as New York's.
State Police investigators believe Vlahoff got his deadly heroin through another
inmate, who had a visitor smuggle the drugs into prison.
"When he got back to the cell . . . we started doing lines," cellmate Bruce Ferguson
Authorities don't know how Lakram got or ingested the heroin that killed him.
"They searched his cell, and no apparatus, a needle or smoking device, was found,"
State Police Capt. George Brown said.
It all leaves the Vlahoff and Lakram families struggling to come to terms with the
And it raises concerns within the law-enforcement community for society in general.
If you can't keep drugs out of a facility like Attica, there's no hope of keeping
them out of other institutions like schools," said Gerald L. Stout, district attorney
in Wyoming County where two state prisons, including Attica, are located.
I intend to last long enough to put out of business all COck-suckers
and other beneficiaries of the institutionalized slavery and genocide.
"The army that will defeat terrorism doesn't wear uniforms, or drive
Humvees, or calls in air-strikes. It doesn't have a high command, or
high security, or a high budget. The army that can defeat terrorism
does battle quietly, clearing minefields and vaccinating children. It
undermines military dictatorships and military lobbyists. It subverts
sweatshops and special interests.Where people feel powerless, it
helps them organize for change, and where people are powerful, it
reminds them of their responsibility." ~~~~ Author Unknown ~~~~