11/03/2005

Surprise search turns up drugs at Tenn. prison

By GARY TANNER
Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn.- About 300 state agents swarmed Tennessee's largest prison early Thursday, months after legislators were told that state inmates were running drug rings, probably with help from employees.

A few hours into the surprise search of all inmates and staff at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, drug dogs had identified at least six cars in the parking lot for inspections. Drugs were also taken from inmates; Corrections Department spokeswoman Amanda Sluss said she did not know the amount.

"We are searching for all illegal contraband," including drugs, alcohol, weapons and cell phones, Sluss said.

The operation had been planned since April, when some state lawmakers criticized the department for not cracking down on contraband. Then-Correction Commissioner Quenton White told lawmakers that there was a conspiracy among prison guards to smuggle drugs and cell phones in to inmates and that some guards were gang members or sympathizers.

The Legislature added $481,000 to the budget to pay for six drug dogs to combat drug trafficking in state prisons. Those dogs and their handlers are expected to be in operation later this month.

West Tennessee State Penitentiary, 45 miles northeast of Memphis, has about 2,500 inmates and more than 800 staff members.

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