Did The California Prison Program To Curb Drug Smuggling Work?

By Paul Gaita 05/12/17

The intensive program includes body-scanning devices, surveillance cameras and drug-sniffing dogs.

watchtower at a California state prison

In an effort to combat skyrocketing rates of drug overdose deaths among inmates in state prisons, California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation implemented a $15 million plan to prevent illegal drugs from being smuggled into correctional facilities.

A new study has revealed that while drug use has dropped in three prisons, the plan has yielded little change in the amount of drugs entering and being used in eight other prisons. The results have state officials debating whether to expand the program or refocus efforts towards substance abuse programs; Governor Jerry Brown is expected to announce whether funding will continue as part of his revised state budget proposal.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the Public Policy Institute of California, found that drug use in three prisons that adopted the most intensive programs based on the Department of Corrections' plan—which included body-scanning devices like those used at airports, surveillance cameras and drug-sniffing dogs—had dropped by 25%. Seizures of cellphones, which are not allowed for use by inmates, also dropped by 13%. But at eight other prisons, where the plan was less strictly enforced, the researchers found little change in the amount of drugs being used or entering the facilities.

The report noted that smugglers had intensified their efforts to conceal drugs, noting the use of bars of soap to deliver methamphetamine or heroin applied to the backs of postage stamps among the more creative methods.

Additionally, the study found that other areas of concern remained largely unchanged, including incidents of prison violence and weapons violations. Lockdowns imposed after incidents of inmate violence also showed no significant rates of decline.

The study's findings generated varying responses from legislators. Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose)—who, as a member of the budget committee that oversees state prisons, had voted in support of the program—noted, "It's a high cost for the mixed result. If you establish such a program in all 35 California prisons, you have to spend even more money to make it effective."

But Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale, who serves as the top-ranking Republican on two prison oversight committees, said that the positive results yielded by the three prisons that took the most intensive approach to the program proved that it should be expanded throughout the California system. "To someone who leaves prison addicted to drugs, that's a horrible outcome to their community, and there's a much greater chance they are going to be coming back to prison. And that's costly. There's also the human cost. How you put a price on that is very difficult."

While Beall said that he would not pull his support for the program in its current state, he would also like the state to implement substance abuse treatment programs for inmates, which would include access to methadone or naltrexone for opioid addiction. His suggestion echoed similar recommendations made in the study, which found that opioids were the most frequently detected substance in inmates' positive drug tests. A substance treatment pilot program is currently being tested at the California Institute for Men in Chino, and will expand to others over the course of the next three years.

The California program was motivated by 2013 reports of 24 deaths per 100,000 from drug overdose in state prisons, with 69 additional deaths from hepatitis C incurred from shared intravenous needle use reported that same year. Those numbers were three times the national rate—prisons in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and Texas each averaged one death a year per 100,000 inmates between 2001 and 2012.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.