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Slammer Shakedown

Shelby County Jail struggles to keep out contraband.



Toothbrush shanks, cell phones, and cocaine are among common contraband items confiscated inside the Shelby County Jail over the past few years.

But the recent bust of a guard attempting to smuggle forbidden goods into the jail sheds new light on the problem of staff sneaking drugs and other items to inmates.

In early March, Shelby County deputy jailer Rumeal Moore was busted in a contraband sting when he took marijuana, loose tobacco, and $300 from an undercover officer on Hickory Hill Road. Moore was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell and attempting to bring contraband into a penal facility.

Moore is the most recent example of jail staff caught smuggling contraband into the jail at 201 Poplar. Mark Dunbar, assistant chief deputy of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, said the department has indicted more than 90 employees for the crime since 1990.

"Some employees have a tendency to develop friendships with inmates, but they let these people start manipulating them," Dunbar said. "Once they do one favor for them, it's difficult to stop."

Jailers administer daily "shakedowns," an intense search of inmates and their cells. Shelby County Jail director Robert Moore said the jail conducts more than 100 scheduled shakedowns a month, plus more than 200 unscheduled, random searches.

In addition, employees must now stay inside the facility during their eight-hour shifts. Before, employees could come and go, which enabled some to smuggle contraband in with them more easily.

"There's a lot of outstanding employees in that jail who work hard, but it's those few bad apples that make the facility look bad as a whole," Dunbar said.

The most common forms of contraband found in the Shelby County Jail are marijuana, loose tobacco, and cocaine. Other items found have included knives, bullets, Oxycontin, and even a stereo system. Sometimes inmates create contraband from allowed items, such as knives carved from toothbrushes.

Moore said contraband is a lucrative trade for employees and inmates. A pack of cigarettes, which are not allowed in the facility, sells for roughly $50 in jail.

So how is it possible for inmates to get away with smoking cigarettes or other drugs?

Dunbar compares the situation to a concert: "I reluctantly went to a Kid Rock concert once. While I was there, I could smell marijuana being smoked, but I didn't know where it was coming from. That's how it is in jail. There's so many people, so it's impossible to monitor everyone. You might smell something, but you don't always know where it's coming from."

Since more than 60 percent of the facility's employees grew up in Shelby County, Moore said many workers know inmates prior to their incarceration.

"One of the inmates may be their friend, their next door neighbor, or their relative," Moore said. Prior relationships can make it more difficult for a jailer to deny the inmate desired contraband items.

Q.B., a Memphis resident who preferred to not reveal his full name, spent two years behind bars and over that time, he said he witnessed a tremendous amount of contraband being smuggled by jailers to inmates.

"Why would you put yourself in a situation that risks your career for someone who's already incarcerated and in deep water? It's not worth it at the end of the day," Q.B. said.

Besides drugs and weapons, Dunbar said cell phone contraband is also a major problem. Steven Rucker, a 21-year-old Memphis resident, said his incarcerated brother communicates with him from jail via cell phone and also possesses a portable PlayStation gaming device.

But Rucker said he doesn't agree with the smuggling of contraband to inmates: "As long as you have contraband, you're going to have killings, raping, and violence. There's always going to be someone who wants to take what you have."

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