Large amount of drugs, weapons, other contraband found in two searches at Mountain City prison

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Strike Force members search a cell at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, Tenn. Wednesday. The announced search yielded a large amount of drugs, weapons and other contraband. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Correction)

First search prompted by suspicious wood shipment

MOUNTAIN CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A large amount of weapons, drugs and other contraband were discovered at Northeast Correctional Complex (NECX) here and its Carter County annex during two separate searches this week.

Some of the items found during a search at Northeast Correctional Center. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Correction)

Early in the week, a state corrections officer at NECX grew suspicious of a shipment of wood and called for Correction Emergency Response Team (CERT) officers.

The CERT team used a handheld metal detector and confirmed something was inside one of the planks. They discovered the plank had been hollowed out to create slots and those contained cellphones, marijuana, candy laced with marijuana’s active ingredient (THC) and suboxone strips.

The department’s Office of Investigation and Conduct (OIC) started an investigation, but it also followed up Wednesday with what TDOC described as a “proactive search” of NECX and its annex in Roan Mountain.

“This should not happen. There ought to be a way to keep these items out.”

— Tennessee State Rep. Scotty Campbell (R-Mountain City)

Thursday, TDOC announced on its Facebook page that “Strike Force 1” had discovered even more, both at NECX and at the Carter County annex. This time, heroin and cocaine were also among the drugs found — as well as more than 30 gallons of “julep” (prison-made alcohol).

TDOC spokesman Robert Reburn said OIC agents are following up on leads stemming from both searches.

“Individuals involved could be charge with a number of charges including introduction of contraband in a penal facility, possession of a controlled substance, and conspiracy with the intent to sell,” Reburn said in an emailed statement.

He said introducing contraband is a felony offense and an action that threatens the safety of staff and inmates alike.

TDOC’s OIC director, Donna Turner, said the unannounced search represented the department’s “non-negotiable mission of operating safe and secure prisons.”

That mission is something State Rep. Scotty Campbell (R-Mountain City) wants to see TDOC accomplish more effectively. Campbell said he’s been concerned about violence and other issues at NECX and that he raised those concerns at a budget hearing early this week.

Campbell said the discoveries didn’t surprise him.

“This is going on at prisons all across America,” Campbell said Friday. “This is not a new problem.”

It’s a problem he said impacts Johnson County on multiple levels.

One of his biggest concerns is the risk that the county’s thinly stretched EMS services will be unable to respond to citizens’ calls for ambulances — the county operates just two –when situations are brewing at the prison.

“That is of great concern to me,” Campbell said.

He also worries about the safety of prison workers, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of risk for anyone that chooses to work in a correctional complex and I have a great respect for people that will step up and do so, especially for generally low compensation.”

Campbell said he’s been in regular contact with management at NECX and with TDOC’s commissioner and others — and he plans to persist in his efforts.

“This should not happen. There ought to be a way to keep these items out. I don’t know what the answer is but … how hard can it be to keep things out of a building – especially a building that has security. Way more security than most buildings I would imagine in the Tri-Cities.”

Reburn said TDOC will continue taking actions like those of this week.

“We remain committed employing strategies, including proactive searches like Wednesday’s, and working with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute anyone involved in any attempt to bring contraband into our facilities,” he said. 

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