Pubdate: Wed, 24 Aug 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Author: Paige St. John
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


As Secure As San Quentin Seems, Contraband Slips In

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. - Condemned murderer Michael Jones was acting 
strangely and profusely sweating when guards escorted him in chains 
to the San Quentin medical unit that doubles as the psych ward on death row.

"Doggone, I don't think you're ever going to see me again," he told a 
fellow inmate, Clifton Perry.

Hours later, Jones was dead.

Toxicology tests later found that he had toxic levels of 
methamphetamine in his blood.

The condemned inmates on California's death row are among the most 
closely monitored in the state. Death row's 747 inmates spend most of 
their time locked down, isolated from the rest of the prison system 
under heavy guard, with regular strip searches and checks every 
half-hour for signs of life.

Still, six death row inmates died between 2010 and 2015 with 
detectable levels of methamphetamine, heroin metabolites or other 
drugs in their system, according to Marin County coroner records.

Three of them had toxic levels of drugs, including one in whose 
intestines were found five snipped fingers of a latex glove, each 
packed with methamphetamine or marijuana. He overdosed when they 
burst. A 70-year-old man among the three died of acute 
methamphetamine toxicity. He left a stash of marijuana in his cell.

State psychological reports and court files document at least eight 
non-fatal drug overdoses that required death row inmates to be 
hospitalized during this period.

Jones' death was reported as a suicide.

In the psych ward, he attempted to strangle himself with an 
electrical cord. He was cut free by officers but died 10 minutes later.

The coroner's report showed that Jones bore signs of chronic drug abuse.

State corrections officials declined to discuss the case or provide 
data on drugs found on death row - at first citing that investigation 
and then citing a wrongful death claim filed by Jones' family.

The department provided a statement saying the prison has thwarted 
past attempts by visitors to bring drugs into San Quentin.

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

A robust trade

The overdoses on death row mirror the larger problem with drugs in 
California's prison system as a whole. From 2010 to 2015, 109 inmates 
died of overdoses, according to state figures.

California's prison drug trade is notoriously robust. The 
drug-related death rate in California prisons - 18 deaths per 100,000 
inmates in 2013 - is seven times higher than prisons in the rest of 
the country, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice 
Statistics and the state prison medical office.

Reports to the Legislature show that as many as 80% of inmates in 
some cell blocks tested positive for illegal substances in 2013.

That same year, the state's prison watchdog, the independent Office 
of Inspector General, chastised corrections officials for making 
"very little or no effort" to trace the source of drugs when inmates overdose.

A San Quentin administrator in 2013 told a federal judge that a surge 
in psychiatric hospitalizations involving psychotic, homicidal and 
suicidal condemned prisoners was not proof of untreated mental 
illness but "a bad batch of meth."

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton was visibly taken aback.

"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.

"That's right, your honor," said San Quentin Mental Health Director 
Eric Monthei.

Nevertheless, state corrections records show that in 2013 not a 
single visitor, volunteer or worker was caught trying smuggle drugs 
into San Quentin.

Officials have not released information about drug cases beyond that one year.

A spokesman for the Marin County district attorney also said he could 
not recall any drug smuggling cases against San Quentin staff.

Prison drug-control efforts have focused on 11 prisons deemed to have 
the worst problems out of the 34 facilities in the system. The 
program employs drug-sniffing dogs and ion scanners to test swabs 
rubbed randomly on the hands of visitors and some staff. There are no 
such efforts on death row.

Death row inmates are strip-searched regularly, including before and 
after leaving their cells to exercise, go to the law library or see 
visitors. Their cells are subject to random inspection, and the state 
can order urine tests, though widespread drug-testing efforts in 2013 
were abandoned because few condemned inmates would comply.

Under close watch

By law, all condemned men are imprisoned at San Quentin, and by 
policy they are isolated from the rest of the population.

The majority live on East Block, a long, granite structure that 
contains more than 500 cells stacked in tiers five high. The 
prisoners live in single cells and spend almost all of their time alone.

Every half-hour, a guard walks by to check that the man inside is 
alive - a court-ordered protection against suicide. The doors are 
grated, so it is difficult to slip a sheet of paper through them.

Small groups of men are allowed to go out on tennis court-sized 
exercise yards for a few hours, three days a week, under the watch of 
an armed guard standing overhead.

Except for chapel services twice a month, there are no other group 
activities. Condemned men are escorted individually, in chains, to 
prison hospital appointments or a special law library set aside for them.

Visits are tightly monitored.

Visitors are allowed to bring in only handfuls of coins for the 
prisoners to use in vending machines. Before and after such contact, 
even with lawyers, the condemned are subject to strip searches.

Still, when discussing prison drug problems in the system overall, 
state officials primarily cite cases of visitors trying to smuggle in 
drugs. In one case, officials described how drugs were packed into 
soccer balls and thrown over the fence of minimum-security prisons.

But that explanation has met with skepticism from some lawmakers.

"There can be only so many soccer balls," said Senate Public Safety 
Chairwoman Loni Hancock (DBerkeley) at a hearing last year.

Because of the high security on death row, some who have worked at 
San Quentin suspect that the drug trade is abetted by prison staff.

During his tenure as a death row psychologist, Patrick O'Reilly said 
in an interview that he discovered a psychiatric technician bartering 
alcohol and amphetamines for inmates' prison prescribed opiates.

Similarly, the inspector general's office reported that a death row 
officer in 2011 was accused of buying morphine from condemned 
inmates. The report states she paid with ramen noodles and candy.

Outside of death row, the trade takes place on an enormous scale. 
This spring, federal agents busted a Southern California prison 
narcotics ring in which a state drug counselor allegedly smuggled $1 
million worth of meth and heroin sealed in potato chip bags to 
inmates in her treatment group.

The state prison guard union has long raised objections to vigorous 
screening of guards as they arrive and leave work, noting that the 
state would have to pay large amounts for the extra time that would 
add to each shift.

The union "supports the department's efforts to keep drugs out of 
prison," spokeswoman Nichol Gomez said. "Anyone who brings contraband 
inside prisons should be held accountable .... The majority of 
correctional officers take their oath seriously."

Battling addiction

All of the men on San Quentin's death row are there for murder. Many 
arrived on death row with long histories of drug addiction.

Most killed their victims during robberies or gang fights, but the 
population also includes psychopaths and serial killers. Until a 
psychiatric unit for the condemned was opened in 2014, severely 
mentally ill and psychotic inmates were housed with the rest of the condemned.

Former San Quentin Warden Jeannie Woodford, state prison director 
under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said extreme idleness and the 
cramped, ill-suited confines of death row complicate drug abuse.

"Idleness is such a problem and it leads people to self-medicate," 
Woodford said.

Although guards are supposed to randomly search cells each shift as a 
curb against drugs, weapons and other contraband, one former San 
Quentin corrections officer said staffing issues have made it 
impossible for guards to do all the required checks.

Moreover, the amount of property that condemned inmates accumulate 
over decades of confinement clutters many cells.

"What is said and what is done are two different things," said Tony 
Cuellar, a former San Quentin officer.

In that environment, Cuellar said, officers "picked and chose" when 
to try to confront a condemned drug user.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom