SACRAMENTO — Drug use behind bars appears to have increased since California started using drug-sniffing dogs and machinery to try to stop smuggling at state prisons, where overdose deaths are nearly five times the national rate, records show.
It’s unclear exactly why things haven’t gone as officials projected.
Some say the testing can yield artificially high results. Others say it’s too soon to draw any long-term conclusions. Still more say the program simply is not working. Prison officials won’t divulge details on results of the multimillion-dollar program.
After the AP reported a year ago that the department couldn’t demonstrate the program’s effectiveness, officials said they would look for a decline in positive drug tests, overdose deaths, suicides and violent incidents, and increased participation in rehabilitation programs.
Instead, detected drug use increased from 5.5 percent before the program began to 7.3 percent of inmates who were tested in the first year in eight of the 11 prisons where California added drug-sniffing dogs and drug-detecting scanners, according to data provided to The Associated Press.
Drug use spiked at the three prisons with the most intensive drug interdiction programs, which include full-body scanners and surveillance cameras in visiting rooms. Positive tests jumped from 10.5 percent before the program to 13.9 percent in the first six months before dropping to 11.5 percent in the second six months — still higher than before the program began in early 2014.
Despite repeated requests, officials said they couldn’t provide any of the data they had said would show improvements. Weeks after AP requests, they gave a portion of the information to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which gave it to the AP and described the poor results at a legislative hearing.
“The percentage of the prison population that’s testing positive actually increased, so that’s an indication to us that probably drug use is on the rise,” analyst Aaron Edwards said.
Officials said the urinalysis data could be artificially high because it includes inmates who refuse to take tests and also inmates who have been retested after initially testing positive.
Corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters said it is premature to draw any conclusions because the early data covers a period before the prevention measures were fully in place at all 11 prisons.
But a major goal was to reduce prison violence, and that didn’t happen either.
Violent incidents dropped about 4 percent across the prison system in the first year but jumped more than 5 percent at the three prisons with the most intensive drug-detection programs. They increased slightly at the other eight prisons that added anti-smuggling measures, according to a legislative analysis.
Prison lockdowns after riots decreased statewide but dropped significantly more at prisons without the intensive programs.
The bad news prompted state lawmakers to cancel a planned expansion of the program that would have cost nearly $8 million. The decision came after the department spent $10.2 million on the airport-style scanners and other measures over two years, in addition to the $3 million it already spent annually on drug-sniffing dogs.
“We gave them a chance to do this pilot (program) and we didn’t get results,” said Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose.
The Legislature ultimately agreed to provide about $5 million to continue the anti-smuggling program for another year, with no expansion, until an independent study can be completed.
A preliminary report this summer won’t gauge the program’s effectiveness, but shows the need for anti-smuggling measures, said Public Policy Institute of California researcher Magnus Lofstrom, who is helping the department analyze the data.
Significantly more methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana were found in the three prisons with the most intensive programs. But that may be because officials targeted the prisons with the worst existing problems, Lofstrom said. It’s unclear how much of the contraband was discovered because of the intensive efforts.
A deputy director told lawmakers in early April that the corrections department would compile how much contraband was seized under the program. More than two months later, the information had not been provided to lawmakers or the AP.
It’s too soon to gauge the long-term effects on prison violence, Lofstrom said.
Illustrating the urgency of the problem, a drug counselor and three inmates in a drug rehabilitation program are among eight suspects recently charged with smuggling contraband with a prison value of more than $1.2 million into Calipatria State Prison, one of the three prisons with high-intensity anti-smuggling programs.
“This creates a dangerous underground economy inside a prison system,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, calling it “only a snapshot of the illegal smuggling of contraband that exists in the California Department of Corrections today.”
Eighteen inmates died of drug overdoses last year, down from a high of 24 in 2013. Last year’s rate was nearly five times the long-term rate for state prisons nationwide. Drug or alcohol intoxication killed 211 California inmates from 2001 through 2015.
Inspector General Robert Barton said most smugglers are detected by vigilant prison guards, not airport-style ion scanners that can detect minute traces of drugs. The scanners “unfortunately bring a lot of other negatives” like false-positive results and frightened visitors, he said.
Melissa Gonzales was so upset by a false-positive test in February that she left without visiting her husband at Centinela State Prison.
“I was dumbfounded by it,” she said. “It’s scary.”
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