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Monroe Co. inmate smuggles fentanyl through his rectum, 10 others overdose | The problem of in-custody contraband

From May 19 to June 27, 10 inmates overdosed inside the Monroe County jail.

MONROE COUNTY, Tenn. — Between May 19 and June 27, 10 inmates at the Monroe county jail overdosed on Fentanyl. Three corrections officers also said they sought treatment for exposure to the drug, but it was not immediately clear if the treatments were due to an overdose from ingesting fentanyl or if their treatments were related to a panic attack.

It's not the first time employees at the facility have treated overdose. In fact, the jail captain, Chris Williams said they typically treat one a month.

"Those are typically people just coming into jail. If they know they're getting arrested, they'll eat what they've got in their pocket to avoid charges," Williams said. "But, then they end up overdosing."

However, this situation is different from anything he's ever seen. The Monroe County Sheriff's deputies booked Joshua Kareem McCowan on May 16, 2022. 

"It was brought in by an inmate from the outside upon arrest," Williams said. "When he was brought through booking, the individual had the narcotics hidden inside his body in an area that we were not able to search."

Williams said that in order for the jail to search deep in body cavities, they must obtain a warrant, then bring the individual to a medical provider to do the bodily search.

He said they had no reason to suspect McCowan had any drugs on his person.

On May 19, a 22-year-old male inmate overdosed. He was the first of ten inmates.

Credit: WBIR

"All 10 of them went unconscious at one point or another during their episode. In fact, five of them had to also have CPR. And one of them we even had to use an AED machine on to get his heart started," Williams said.

He said this speaks to how strong the fentanyl was in this batch of drugs.

"In my 25 years, it is probably the most deadly drug that I have seen," Williams said.

On June 20, McCowan signed an affidavit of complaint admitting that he committed the offense(s) of introducing contraband into a penal institution. 

The Monroe County Inmate details say his court date is set for October 17. 

Smuggling in contraband, like this example in Monroe County, are a risk at the local level where security isn't as high as in federal prisons. But, even with the higher-level security in state and federal prisons, it's still a major problem.

"You just have to kind of let your imagination run wild because if there's an opportunity to introduce contraband into the facility, somebody will think of it," said Lee Dodson.

He is the Assistant Commissioner for Tennessee prison operations, and he said he has seen all sorts of examples of just how 'imaginative' people can be.

"We're regularly searching cells, we regularly search, always search staff, visitors, volunteers, contractors that are coming into the facilities. When an inmate leaves a facility, they go through a search process before they leave and when they return," Dodson said.

He said state prisons have a very thorough intake process.

"It's a 360-degree diagnostic process," Dodson said. "We use a strong magnetic detector that you walk past, turn around in a circle, and it will detect the smallest amount of  metal that might be on or in person."

They also use a special chair that detects anything that may be in someone's body cavities. It's a thorough process. But, Dodson said drugs, weapons, phones, chargers and other contraband still get into the facilities from time to time.

He said TDOC wants to educate the public about the risk of bringing drugs into detention centers.

"With people trying to bring drugs into the facility, they're not just exposing one person to potential risk," Dodson said. "They're exposing an entire system to risk."

He also said people who bring drugs into penal facilities should be ready to be arrested.

"You're not exposing yourself to risk, you're exposing your family to risk. You're exposing your reputation. I mean, there are a number of negative consequences that follow someone when they try to bring contraband into a facility. And one of those negative consequences is we're going to arrest you, and we're going to prosecute you for trying to violate state law," Dodson said.

In order to increase safety and security measures at the Monroe County Jail, Captain Williams said he purchased an X-Ray scanner that will detect guns, knives, narcotics, and other contraband.

"The inmates constantly will try and figure out a way to stay ahead of us, we have to do the same," Williams said.

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