How Do We Solve the Drug Overdose Problem in California Prisons?

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Given the amount of security guards and surveillance cameras located in prisons there shouldn’t be inmates doing drugs or dying from drug-related causes. But in California prisons, that’s exactly what’s happening. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is spending $8 million this year on drug-detecting scanners and new drug-sniffing dogs. Officers have also conducted strip searches on visitors suspected of carrying drugs. These new procedures were born out of the shocking revelation that inmates in California prisons are dying from drug overdoses at three times the national rate. But is increased scrutiny of visitors really the best course of action?

Officials have hopes that these new methods will lead to a decrease in the death rate. But despite officers’ opinions that the efforts are discouraging drug smuggling, reports show that might not be the case, and that instead these policies just create problems for visitors. There have been more than 6,000 scans on visitors and employees at eleven different prisons and no drugs were found. Mohamed Shehk, an Oakland-based spokesman for Critical Resistance, stated, “The statistics — $8 million, 6,000 scans and nothing to show for it — show that these are intended to intimidate and criminalize people who are going to see their loved ones inside.”

More than 150 California inmates have died due to drug overdoses since 2006, with a high of 24 deaths in 2013. Sharing needles, which often leads to the spread of Hepatitis C infections, killed 69 inmates in 2013 alone. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard is determined to change this high rate and is modeling California’s new procedures after those that were successful in the Pennsylvania Corrections Department, which he led for a decade. Pennsylvania’s annual rate of drug or alcohol deaths per 100,000 inmates is one, while California’s is eight per 100,000 inmates.

But while officers may feel like these new methods are helping, many visitors disagree and have begun to criticize them, especially the strip searches. “It’s a humiliating process, that can be easily used to humiliate and demean people, and was only for visitors, often women,” said Democratic Senator Loni Hancock. Tania Gamboa, a visitor at Kern Valley State Prison in California, was visiting her brother when an ion scan machine tested her positive for exposure to heroin. She felt humiliated after she was required to strip naked in front of two female correctional officers and squat to demonstrate that she was not concealing drugs. “It doesn’t make sense for me, knowing that I don’t do all that and I got detected for it,” Gamboa said. The big problem is that these procedures are beginning to make visitors feel like suspects.

Along with the strip search complaints, there have also been complaints about the dog searches. Wayne Conrad, the department’s statewide canine program coordinator, resigned last fall after the correctional facility decided to use dogs to search humans. Conrad explained his problem with the procedures, saying that there’s potential for false positives that could lead to lawsuits.

In order to mitigate those concerns, there are changes being made to the breeds of dogs used to search visitors. German shepherds in California prisons have been effective at finding hidden drugs. But as a result of these complaints, the department is now turning to less intimidating and more approachable dogs such as Labrador Retrievers–“fluffy, friendly dogs,” Northern California canine program coordinator Sgt. Brian Pyle called them. While this is an understandable move, it doesn’t change the fact that the dogs are searching these visitors can be read as upsetting or demeaning in some cases.

Concerned lawmakers that oversee state prisons included language in the California budget plan passed this week that would put an end to the searches and require an evaluation of the department’s other efforts. Correctional facilities do not want drugs brought into prisons that could lead to inmates deaths, but visitors do not want to feel embarrassed or humiliated as they are being searched. Officials are going to have to find an effective way to lower the death rates of the inmates and stop drug smuggling with procedures that do not leave the visitors feeling violated.

Taelor Bentley
Taelor is a member of the Hampton University Class of 2017 and was a Law Street Media Fellow for the Summer of 2015. Contact Taelor at



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