‘Pay us $400 now or get dealt with.” That’s the ultimatum many inmates and their loved ones face after getting involved in drug debts to prison gangs.
The threat is real. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has seen the devastating effects when an inmate cannot meet those demands. These include suicides, homicides and prison violence, as well as violence inflicted on an inmate’s family outside prison.
Every weekend, CDCR encounters visitors who attempt to smuggle in drugs and cellphones. So far this year, we’ve arrested 273. Many, unfortunately, are girlfriends or wives who have been forced by gangs to carry contraband. Out of fear, these visitors risk their own freedom to comply with the gangs’ vicious demands. That’s why the department is ramping up efforts to stop drugs from entering prisons.
The cycle doesn’t end once a drug debt is paid. The prison gangs step up the pressure by threatening more violence and coordinate with outside allies to harass and intimidate inmate family members. Otherwise law-abiding citizens find themselves victims of prison gang violence.
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A clear connection exists between drug trafficking, substance abuse, gang activity and prison violence. When unimpeded, drug trafficking challenges the credibility of the correctional system and prevents inmates from benefiting from drug and alcohol treatment programs. Continued substance abuse by inmates also threatens the work and living environments for staff, inmates and visitors and increases the likelihood that inmates will return to a life of crime upon release to our communities. And some prisoners don’t make it that far – 29 died from drug overdoses from January 2012 through February 2014.
A study released by UCLA in 2001 found a clear relationship between the use of controlled substances and violence in state prisons. Specifically, the study found that inmates with a history of drug abuse were nearly 35 percent more likely to engage in violence. The report also concluded the presence of illegal drugs in CDCR facilities reinforces the strength of prison gangs, leads to inmate-on-inmate violence and increases prisoner assaults on staff.
Another study in Pennsylvania found that between 1995 and 1998, drug interdiction, testing and treatment resulted in a 41 percent decline in drugs found in cells, a 57 percent decrease in assaults on staff, a 70 percent decrease in inmate-on-inmate assaults and a 65 percent reduction in weapons found. The state of Pennsylvania achieved these results through greater surveillance of inmates and visitors, more frequent urine tests, increased use of drug-detecting dogs, new sanctions for drug violations and airport-style hand swabs – called ION scanners.
Current regulations allow searches of all people and property coming onto prison grounds. We need to do more. CDCR has developed an enhanced drug interdiction program that includes ION scanners, drug-detecting dogs and increased urinalysis testing of inmates. These new methods will be used in conjunction with existing interdiction methods, including metal detectors and reasonable suspicion searches. Staff, visitors, volunteers and contractors will all be subject to new regulations.
The ION scanners are the same ones used to detect explosives on airline passengers, only these will be programmed to detect drugs. The dogs are Labrador retrievers and German shorthair pointers, which are being trained to sit and stare at someone they detect is in possession of drugs.
Visitors will have the right to refuse the ION testing or the dog search. But if they do, those visitors will be denied entry that day, or will be allowed only a noncontact visit, if a room is available.
If a visitor consents to testing and receives a positive alert by the ION scanner or a dog, he or she will be denied a visit or will be allowed a noncontact visit, if available. If the visitor wants to have a contact visit, he or she can consent to an unclothed body search.
It’s paramount to the safety and security of our inmates, our staff, our visitors and our communities to reduce the flow of contraband into our prisons. The goal of the enhanced policy is to make our prisons safer for both staff and inmates and give visitors a reason to say “no” to smuggling drugs while helping to protect public safety by removing the currency of this dangerous underground economy.
Jeff Beard is secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.