Illegal Drugs Regularly Make It Onto Death Row In California

By Kelly Burch 08/26/16

Prison officials pointed to visitors as the source of the drug supply though others argue that the prison workers are the actual culprits.

Drugs Regularly Make It Onto Death Row In California

People on death row are subject to the tightest security in prisons, but drugs still find their way to the inmates—all the way to maximum security. Smuggled drugs have even been responsible for fatal overdoses on the death row block. 

According to a report by the LA Times, between 2010 and 2015, six death row inmates in California died with detectable levels of methamphetamine, opiates and other drugs in their system. During the same time period, there were eight non-lethal drug overdoses on death row, which resulted in the inmates being hospitalized.

Though drugs regularly infiltrate jails and prisons across the United States, it is harder to understand how death row inmates obtain drugs.

All male death row inmates in California are housed in the same prison, San Quentin State Prison. Women on death row are housed in the Central California Women's Facility. They are regularly subjected to strip searches—including after visits—and their cells are regularly searched. The grated cell doors make it difficult to slip even a piece of paper through them. A guard walks by each cell every 30 minutes to ensure that the prisoner is alive, a safeguard against suicide. 

Prison officials pointed to visitors as the source of the drug supply, but others suspect the drugs are brought in by people working within the prison system. 

Patrick O’Reilly, who worked as a death row psychologist, told the LA Times that during his tenure, he discovered that a psychiatric technician was trading alcohol and amphetamines in exchange for prisoners' opiates prescribed to them by the prison.

The death row numbers are indicative of a larger drug problem within the California prison system. The drug-related death rate for prisoners—18 deaths per 100,000 prisoners in 2013—is seven times the national average.

In 2013, up to 80% of inmates in certain cell blocks tested positive for illegal substances. 

When a San Quentin prison official blamed a spurt of psychiatric hospitalizations on a bad batch of meth, a U.S. District judge was shocked. “When you say ‘a bad batch of drugs,’ you don't mean the drugs that you're prescribing, you mean the illegal drugs that were on (the) block—is that right?” he asked, according to the LA Times.

California corrections officials did not comment to the Times, citing an ongoing wrongful death claim filed by the family of Michael Jones, who died of an overdose on death row with toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system. However, they did provide the following statement:

“Drugs have considerable value inside prison and so some inmates have a very strong incentive to procure them. Regardless of the security level of the inmate, the presence of any contraband items is concerning to us.”

However, no mention was made of specific policy changes that could help alleviate the problem of drugs in prisons. "What is said and what is done are two different things," said Tony Cuellar, a former San Quentin corrections officer.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.