A California Department of Corrections officer looks on as inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Gov. Jerry Brown's administration is pushing a new strategy to reduce the amount of illegal drugs streaming into state prisons after an increase in inmates dying from overdoses in recent years.
Brown's revised budget, unveiled earlier this month, includes a $13.8 million proposal to search everyone who enters and exits a Central Valley state prison all day, every day for the next two years, plus $3.6 million for an addiction treatment program.
Corrections officials say if the plan works at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison at Corcoran (Kings County), they would expand it to other state lockups.
The proposal is moving quickly through the state Legislature despite criticism from some lawmakers and a leading inmate advocate that the plan is too narrow and includes far too little funding for addiction treatment.
A key prison official has acknowledged that the situation has become a crisis. At least 135 state inmates have died from drug overdoses in the last six years, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The number of fatal inmate overdoses has been increasing since 2014, when 15 prisoners died.
Last year, at least 38 inmates died and at least 750 prisoners overdosed but survived after medical intervention, according to CDCR. So far this year, 10 inmates have died after a suspected overdose.
Drug problems in state prisons gained more attention in April when one inmate died and a dozen others were sickened at Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County after they were believed to have overdosed on fentanyl.
In a span of one week earlier this month, two more inmates died from fentanyl-suspected overdoses, said Connie Gipson, CDCR deputy director of adult institutions.
"The opioid epidemic is real and it has not spared our prison population," Gipson told lawmakers at a budget subcommittee hearing on May 15. "Inmates are overdosing and inmates are dying."
Under the proposed pilot program, staff, volunteers and visitors would be searched or body-scanned before entering the Corcoran prison 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Currently, state prison officials say, they don't search every person who enters corrections facilities.
The funding would pay for close to 50 positions to do "drug interdiction" work and would include body, baggage and parcel scanners, more drug-sniffing dogs and vehicle searches.
Prison officials say the proposal is a response to the increasingly aggressive ways illegal drugs are getting into state lockups.
They say drugs enter the prison system a variety of ways, via guards and visitors as well as in vehicles and the mail -- and even drones.
Since July 31, 2017, CDCR has documented 51 incidents involving drones that may have dropped drugs, cellphones and other contraband into a state corrections facilities, according to CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters.
The new pilot project would include a $3.6 million expansion of substance abuse treatment work at the Corcoran facility that uses medications to help inmates suffering from opioid addiction.
In 2014 the agency put in place a two-year, $10.4 million pilot program that aimed to reduce drug flows in 11 state facilities. That work included body scanning machines, K-9 search teams and random drug testing. Funding for the pilot expired last year and was discontinued.
Prison officials say that previous work was less effective because it was not staffed all day, every day.
"When it's used in a limited basis, something's going to not work," Waters said in an interview.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate's Public Safety Committee, told KQED recently that CDCR officials needed to find new ways to prevent illegal opioids from entering the prison system.
Skinner has expressed skepticism about the governor's proposal in particular because it focuses on only one prison.
During a budget subcommittee hearing on the governor's proposal, she pointed out that the Corcoran prison might not be seeing as many inmate overdoses as other state lockups.
State Senator Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who also sits on the budget subcommittee that oversees prison spending, questioned why CDCR wants to spend so much more on preventing drugs from getting through the prison walls than on drug treatment.
"We have to do something to hit the demand side," Beall said.
The pilot program aims to provide drug addiction treatment that includes medication for 50 people per year at the Corcoran state prison.
"That's almost next to nothing," Beall said. "I have a hard time voting for such an imbalanced proposal."
The prison system has started "medication-assisted treatment programs" at two other state prisons, according to CDCR, which each treat about 50 inmates per year.
State prison officials say they are considering a new proposal to increase their drug treatment work.
Despite the concerns from Skinner and Beall, the Assembly and State Senate budget subcommittees on public safety both approved the proposal unanimously.
Representatives for Skinner and Beall did not respond to a request for comment on why they voted for the proposal.
Inmate Advocate Calls for More Funding for Treatment
"I'm not sure that the Legislature is taking the crisis that seriously," said Don Specter, executive director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, in an interview.
Like Beall, Specter says the plan does not call for nearly enough funding for drug treatment work.
"That's a drop in the bucket or a grain in the sand on the beach in relation to the problem that the state is facing," Specter said.
The Prison Law Office has filed lawsuits that have led to a series of major reforms on issues like overcrowding, medical care and mental health care services at CDCR.
Specter says if the department doesn't move aggressively enough to deal with the prison drug crisis, his organization will consider legal action.
"The state has a moral, legal, constitutional and statutory obligation to keep the people in their custody safe. And at this point, they're not doing that," Specter said.
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