Pubdate: Mon, 22 Jun 2015
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2015 Associated Press
Author: Don Thompson, Associated Press


VACAVILLE, Calif. (AP) - California inmates are dying of drug 
overdoses at nearly triple the national rate and it's unclear whether 
the tough steps state officials took this year to stop illicit drugs 
from getting into prisons are having any effect, though they are 
prompting criticism from civil rights advocates.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is spending $8 
million this year on drug-detecting scanners and a new breed of 
drug-sniffing dogs while also employing strip searches on visitors 
suspected of carrying drugs.

Corrections officials believe the stepped-up efforts are discouraging 
smuggling, but the data that's available so far doesn't support that 
- - more than 6,000 scans have been done on visitors and employees at 
11 prisons since December without finding anyone with drugs.

The state doesn't track if anyone has been arrested because of the 
dog searches and waited until mid-May to begin tracking the number of 
arrests made using any of the new procedures.

Meantime, criticism is mounting about false-positive results by the 
scanners and dogs that can lead to strip searches. Concerned 
lawmakers who oversee state prisons included language in the 
California budget plan passed this week that would end the searches 
and require an evaluation of the department's other efforts.

"It's a humiliating process, can be easily used to humiliate and 
demean people, and was only for visitors, often women," state Senator 
Loni Hancock, a Democrat, said of the strip searches. "There are many 
concerns about the dogs, which have historically been emblematic of 
intimidation of many communities of color, most notably during the 
civil rights movement."

But no one wants to see drug deaths, and she said the evaluation will 
show which of the new programs are effective.

More than 150 California inmates have died of drug overdoses since 
2006, with a high of 24 in 2013. Moreover, the sharing of intravenous 
needles often spreads hepatitis C infections, which killed 69 inmates 
in 2013 alone.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard recently told lawmakers that 
drugs are "rampant in the prisons."

"What we are trying to do is send a message to people to not try to 
smuggle drugs in to the institution," he said in an interview. "If we 
don't do this, we're going to have people keep dying, we're going to 
have continued violence in the prisons."

Beard is modeling California's new procedures on those used 
successfully in the Pennsylvania corrections department he led for a 
decade. While California has a long-term annual rate of eight drug-or 
alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 inmates, Pennsylvania's is one.

Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and Texas also each averaged one 
death a year per 100,000 inmates from 2001-2012, according to the 
most recent national figures. Maryland had the nation's worst rate, 
at 17 deaths per 100,000 inmates.

Beard said California's program would have more rapid success if 
lawmakers had given him more money, and he may seek funds to expand 
the program as early as this fall.

He believes the ion scanners - similar to those used to screen 
airport travelers - are deterring smugglers. The lack of results may 
be because only about 5 percent of visitors and employees are being 
scanned, he said, though the eventual goal is 30 percent. By 
contrast, Pennsylvania scanned 68 percent of visitors last year and 
at least 20 percent of employees.

Pennsylvania officials could not say how much contraband was found by 
using the scanners.

Records show the German shepherd and similar looking dogs long used 
in California prisons have been effective at rooting out hidden 
drugs. But to search visitors, employees and inmates the department 
is turning to less aggressive dogs including Labrador retrievers - 
"fluffy, friendly dogs," Northern California canine program 
coordinator Sgt. Brian Pyle said.

The decision to use dogs to search humans, instead of unoccupied 
spaces as was previously the policy, prompted the resignation last 
fall of Wayne Conrad, the department's statewide canine program 
coordinator. He criticized the expense of sending California dog 
handlers to Pennsylvania for training, the use of breeds that he said 
are less reliable, and what he said was a supervisor's effort to 
stifle concerns about the program because it was championed by Beard.

"The dogs are going to start alerting on people whose kids are 
smoking dope or something," and that false positive could prompt an 
unnecessary strip search, Conrad said. "The next thing that's going 
to come is the lawsuits."

Beard said he is seeking alternatives to strip searches, and 
downplayed the possibility that false-positive alerts unfairly 
implicate innocent visitors and employees. But that's what happened 
to Tania Gamboa of Riverside when she went to see her brother at Kern 
Valley State Prison.

She initially laughed when the ion machine tested positive for 
exposure to heroin, saying she doesn't even drink alcohol. But she 
was crying 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," she said.

Mohamed Shehk, an Oakland-based spokesman for Critical Resistance, 
which advocates for better conditions for inmates, said the policies 
are turning visitors into suspects.

"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," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom