A cardboard box at the post office. That’s how Judy Fritts’ brother-in-law came home. Last month, he died of a suspected drug overdose at a private prison in Hartsville, Tennessee. Now, he’s a pile of ashes.
“They did an autopsy. We’re waiting on the results from that,” she says. “And they just pretty much said, you know, that, that they were sorry for our loss. And that was it.”
Fritts was shocked at first. But then she started scrolling through a Facebook group where she read one post after the next about people who had lost brothers and fathers in the same facility. She realized that what had happened to her brother-in-law has become increasingly common within Tennessee’s prisons.
As overdoses have spiked nationwide during the pandemic, they have also ravaged the facilities that are supposed to be most secure. Neither barbed wire nor X-ray screenings have kept out deadly substances.
Drug deaths have jumped more than eightfold in Tennessee’s prisons in just the past two years, from six in 2019 to 49 last year. Nearly all were from the highly potent opioid fentanyl. That has left people inside, their loved ones and even officials feeling desperate.
“I think everybody just needs to remember that somewhere, somewhere, people are loving the people that are in prison,” Fritts says. “They’re human being, and they have families that are grieving on the outside.”
‘If he’s in prison, he shouldn’t be able to get drugs’
Fritts says she and her family had been loving her brother-in-law from afar for years. She says he had cycled in and out of prison, spent some time on the street and gotten addicted to drugs somewhere along the way. His father also struggled with substance use and died of an overdose.
When he was locked up again a few years ago, Fritts was actually a little relieved. At least he would have a warm place to sleep. She thought he would be safe.
“I guess I was kind of naïve about the way the whole prison worked,” she says. “I was thinking, if he’s in prison, he shouldn’t be able to get drugs.”
Now, Fritts feels torn.
“Somebody’s an adult and in charge of their own life and they need to take responsibility for themselves,” she says.
But she also feels guilty — like she should have done more to protect him.
“I thought, if somebody does something wrong and they’re in there, that’s just the way it is until they pay their crime and then they get out and hopefully don’t ever go back,” Fritts says. “But this whole thing has made me kind of realize that the prison system is broken. It just doesn’t seem to work.”
Until recently, fatal overdoses in Tennessee prisons were rare. There were no confirmed drug toxicity deaths in 2017, according to the Department of Correction. But in the last two years, at least 68 people have died from drugs, not including deaths with pending autopsies. There were even more close calls during that period. Staff administered overdose-reversal drugs almost 900 times.
The spike in overdoses follows a national trend — both behind bars and beyond them. But Wanda Bertram from the Prison Policy Initiative says incarcerated people face an especially high risk.
“Prisons are very isolating places,” she says.
During much of the pandemic, Bertram notes, in-person visitation was halted in prisons. People were not able to see their families for months as outbreaks of the contagious virus tore through penitentiaries, where people live in close quarters. Outside volunteers were also barred for many months.
Bertram says regular exposure to violence also takes a toll on people’s mental health. Plus, it can be hard to get medical care.
Dr. Homer Venters, an expert on correctional health, told WPLN News last year that prison health care systems were struggling to keep up before the pandemic. He said COVID-19 has further limited access to medical treatment.
“You might turn to drugs to self-medicate,” Bertram says.
‘It’s a daily battle’
Addiction affects about two thirds of people in U.S. prisons, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Pair that with the growing presence of fentanyl, and you’ve got a dangerous situation. That drug can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
But one of the most proven therapies for addiction, Medication-Assisted Treatment, is nearly impossible to access in Tennessee prisons. The Department of Correction says just five people in its custody are currently receiving MAT, which prescribes people medications like Suboxone to curb their cravings. That’s out of about 20,000 individuals in prison. Everyone else is stuck with whatever unregulated substances are sneaking inside.
“It’s a significant issue that we face each and every day,” outgoing corrections commissioner Tony Parker testified at a state senate corrections subcommittee meeting last fall. He said the department is installing body scanners and checking the perimeters for drugs.
“We also have a very aggressive law enforcement division that works both with federal partners, state partners and local to mitigate some of the issues that we see with drug interdiction,” Parker said. “But, chairman, it’s an ongoing battle. It’s a daily battle to fight these drugs in our facilities.”
Several prison employees have been arrested for bringing in contraband in recent years. TDOC also said in an email that it is working to get more people into treatment, including with medication and a new peer program that teaches people how to help one another through recovery.
State-run prisons, however, are just one piece of the puzzle. Overdoses are also spiking in Tennessee’s for-profit prisons, which are operated by Brentwood-based CoreCivic. The company has its own drug treatment programs, including both a nine- to 12-month residential treatment program and outpatient care for less severe cases. A spokesperson also says CoreCivic has a “zero-tolerance policy” for contraband.
But Jason Carnett says their Trousdale Turner facility was the worst place he could have been sent as someone with a substance use disorder. He was there until last fall, and he says drug were all around him.
“It breaks the monotony, I guess,” Carnett says.
He says the prison is “a haven of depression and anger and paranoia.” Drugs, he says, are an “escape.”
‘I probably would have overdosed’
Carnett, 35, has struggled with drug dependency for most of his life. He says he smoked marijuana for the first time when he was 11. Later, he started to steal his parents’ prescription drugs. At 15, he says, he was prescribed painkillers after getting hit by a car. Carnett’s addiction kept landing him in jail and prison. During his latest stint behind bars, he says, he was using drugs just about every day.
Carnett says he mostly stayed away from fentanyl. But one day, he says, someone put a pack of it in his hand while he was on the phone.
After Carnett hung up, he went back to his cell and opened the paper towel. His hands had sweat so much during the 30 minutes he was on the phone that he says the fentanyl had mostly dissolved.
Carnett got lucky. He says one of his friends overdosed that night.
“If it wouldn’t have dissolved, I probably would have overdosed,” he says.
Carnett was released in September and says he’s now getting meds to treat his addiction, along with mental health therapy.
But he won’t forget all the overdoses he saw in prison. The stream of stretchers rolling past his cell. Those are seared into his mind.
“I’m just glad I made it out of there,” he says.