California Steps Up Drug Searches For Prison Visitors and Staff

By McCarton Ackerman 03/05/15

California will use ion scanners and drug-sniffing dogs for visitors and staff.

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After recent findings showed that one out of four California inmates tested positive for drugs last spring, state prison officials have stepped up drug screening by adding ion scanners and drug-sniffing dogs for visitors and staff.

Eleven prisons are expected to have the new editions by this spring, which amounts to about one-third of the state’s 34 prisons. The scanners are coming from a $5.2 million grant for new equipment similar to that used in airport security checkpoints. The state already has a $3 million search dog program in place, but wants to add friendlier breeds like labs and spaniels in order to not frighten children.

Any visitor who tests positive for traces of drugs can either submit to a strip search or agree to a non-contact visit with a prisoner. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said that high amounts of drugs within prison not only fuel violence, gang activity, and overdose deaths inside, but can also be a danger to visitors themselves.

Last year, a medical emergency helicopter was sent to a prison in San Joaquin County after the 11-month-old infant of a prison visitor was poisoned by opiates hidden in its diaper.

However, senate budget and criminal justice committee members felt a lack of substance abuse treatment within the prison system also contributes to this issue. Beard acknowledged that current levels of treatment are inadequate, but vowed to provide drug-treatment programs within all state prisons.

Prison realignment legislation was created in California 2011 to give low-level violators the chance to serve 10 days in a county jail instead of months in a state prison, but it was reported last December that some of these parolees are getting arrested on purpose so they can sneak drugs behind bars.

A survey from the Associated Press found that seven of the 10 most populous counties in California have seen an increase in illegal contraband since the realignment began. Narcotics cases have jumped from 145 in 2011 to over 335 in 2014.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.