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Drug Detection in Prison Mailrooms

NCJ Number
Date Published
November 2004
3 pages

This report presents the results of a federally supported study examining commercial drug detection systems and their successful implementation in prison mailrooms.


Despite the highly supervised environment, prisons face a pervasive problem of the use of illicit drugs by inmates. The common entry point for illicit drugs in prison is the mailroom where several thousand pieces of mail pass through daily. To improve mailroom drug screening, the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice sponsored a study to examine whether commercially available drug detection systems could be successful in prison mailrooms. The study included an examination of mailroom operations and processes at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS, a survey of available detection technologies, and a laboratory-based evaluation of several technologies (i.e. desktop ion mobility spectrometers (IMS), handheld IMS, chemical spray, and X-ray machines) at Thunder Mountain Evaluation Center in Arizona in the detection of six drugs of interest (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and LSD). Results of the study indicated that x-ray could find relatively small amounts of drugs in mail, trace detection systems had high false alarm rates, and items mailed through the postal system did not pick up substantial amounts of drug contamination. Overall, results concluded that IMS was the technology most likely to enhance mailroom drug screening effectiveness. Study limitations are presented and discussed.

Date Published: November 1, 2004