Investigators believe a single inmate who swallowed a balloon filled with cocaine before his arrest is behind a recent surge in inmates testing positive for illegal drugs in the Cumberland County Jail in Portland.

Twenty inmates in the same jail pod failed a random drug screen on Dec. 15, prompting jail officials to remove each of them from Pod C3 and place them in a segregation unit for 30 days.

The security breach was a setback for Maj. John Costello, the jail administrator, who, in the seven months since he began the job, has seen the number of inmates testing positive for drugs decline at the most populated jail in the state.

Costello said the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office strategy has been effective and that he plans only to “double down” on what has worked until now, stepping up the number of random inmate drug screens to every shift and conducting thousands of inmate cell searches per month.

Costello said the only thing that would have prevented last week’s security breach is technology, such as a full-body scanner like those owned by the state Department of Corrections. But the sheriff’s office budget is too limited to accommodate the scanner’s $205,000 price tag.

“It’s a never-ending battle up here. There is no jail that is drug free,” Costello said. “We have 10,000 inmates per year coming through here.”

Investigators are still working to develop a case against the inmate they suspect smuggled the cocaine into the jail. But they are nearly certain that the male inmate, whom Costello would not identify, swallowed a balloon filled with cocaine on Dec. 12 before his arrest and after it passed through his body divided the illegal drug with fellow inmates.

“We think there was some money being exchanged,” Costello said in an interview at the jail Tuesday.

The Portland jail is the busiest in the state, often holding up to 500 prisoners at a time, with a constant flow of inmates coming in or being released.

About 65 percent of the inmates are there on a temporary pretrial basis, awaiting court appearances after arrests or being held on bail pending trial. Those inmates could be facing charges for anything from driving with a suspended license to murder.

The other 35 percent are serving short sentences. Those convicted of serious offenses are sentenced to the custody of the state Department of Corrections.

The intake staff at the jail catches most incoming inmates who are trying to smuggle drugs. Last week alone, five people were caught trying to bring cocaine, suboxone or heroin into the jail, Costello said.

Until Dec. 15, when the 20 inmates failed the drug test, the jail was on target to have far fewer inmates fail drug screens this month than in most other months.

Including the 20 test failures on Dec. 15, the jail had a total of 28 inmates with dirty drug screens so far this month.

The spate of positive tests comes as jail officials investigate the death of an inmate, 33-year-old Miles Hartford of Leeds. He was found unconscious in his cell and pronounced dead Dec. 14.

Costello doesn’t yet know the cause of Hartford’s death, but says it is unrelated to the cocaine smuggling case. An autopsy conducted by the state Medical Examiner’s Office was inconclusive, and authorities are awaiting the results of further tests.

In June, Costello’s first full month on the job, guards at the jail conducted 339 random inmate drug screens, yielding 38 dirty urine tests. In July, 30 inmates failed drug screens. In August, 23 failed. In November, only 17 inmates failed the random screens.

Costello worked at the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts for 28 years, retiring as superintendent of the Middlesex House of Correction, before being hired in Maine.

Since his arrival, Costello has ordered guards to step up the number of random inmate drug screens and conduct anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 cell searches each month.

“The guards are in and out of the cells constantly,” he said. “We’re keeping the inmates on their toes.”

Because of technology limitations and state law, which protects many inmates from strip searches, the intake staff can’t catch everyone trying to smuggle drugs in.

“If you are coming in for an OUI case or a shoplifting case, we’re not going to strip search you. A lot of the inmates know what we can do and what we can’t do,” Costello said. “If we have a body scanner, everyone who comes in would go through it, no matter what the charges.”

Since starting work in the Cumberland County jail, Costello has noticed that while Massachusetts has more violent criminals, Maine seems to have a higher prevalence of drug addiction.

The jail currently has no funded programs to provide substance abuse treatment for inmates, relying on volunteers from groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.


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