SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The $15 million spent by California to thwart prison drug smuggling has generated mixed results, researchers found, as increasingly creative smugglers turned to tricks like concealing methamphetamine in a bar of soap or heroin under postage stamps.
Drug use in the three prisons with the most intensive programs dropped by nearly a quarter after corrections officials increased their use of airport-style scanners, surveillance cameras, urine tests and drug-sniffing dogs three years ago. Seizures of cellphones, which are illegal in prisons, dropped by 13 percent.
However, there was little impact at eight other prisons where the safeguards were used less frequently, reported researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Public Policy Institute of California.
Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to say Thursday whether he will seek to continue funding the program when he announces his revised state budget proposal.
The study also found no measureable decline in prison violence, which had been one of the goals, institute researcher Magnus Lofstrom said. There was little evidence of an impact on assaults or weapons violations, for instance, and no statistically significant decline in lockdowns imposed after inmate fights at participating prisons.
State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who supported the program as a member of the budget subcommittee that oversees state prisons, said “it’s a high cost for the mixed results.”
“If you establish such a program (in all 35 prisons) you have to spend even more money to make it effective,” he said.
Prison officials began the program in 2014 to combat pervasive drug-smuggling that gave California an overdose fatality rate three times the national average. The number of overdose deaths peaked at 24 in 2013 and has since fallen to 19 per year among the state’s prison population of about 130,000.
The latest data available shows guards found illegal drugs about 5,000 times between May 2015 and February 2016. Some drugs were discovered on the ultra-secure death row at San Quentin.
Seized drugs included a bar of soap full of methamphetamine intended for a high-security prison, drugs hidden in housing unit shower drains, and marijuana in a refrigerator and a trash bin near a visitors’ center.
Visitors were caught concealing drugs in their mouths or body cavities, and passing drugs to inmates in snack packages consumed in visiting rooms. Inmates were also caught swallowing bundles of drugs passed by visitors.
The state spent $15.3 million in the last three years on increased efforts to deter the smuggling, beyond the $3 million it already spent annually on drug-sniffing dogs.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale, a former California Highway Patrol member who is the top Republican on two prison oversight committees, said researchers’ finding that the high-intensity program was successful means it should be expanded to other prisons, particularly those with the worst drug problems.
“To someone who leaves prison addicted to drugs, that’s a horrible outcome to their community and there’s a much greater chance they are going to be coming back to prison. And that’s costly,” Lackey said. “There’s also the human cost. How you put a price on that is very difficult.”
Beall said he’s not ready to end the program, but would prefer the state try to stem demand by increasing substance abuse treatment programs efforts and giving inmates methadone or naltrexone, used to treat opiate addiction or block the drugs’ euphoric effects.
That tracks one of recommendations from the researchers, who said opioids accounted for more than half of inmates’ positive drug tests and were the most frequently detected substance.
California is testing the addiction-treatment drugs at one state prison in Chino as part of a three-year, $2.5 million project that will soon be expanded to other prisons, Corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters said.
She said officials are evaluating the researchers’ results and other recommendations.