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Illegal drugs are flowing into California's most guarded prisons — and killing death row inmates

Illegal drugs are flowing into California's most guarded prisons — and killing death row inmates
A death row inmate is escorted back to his East Block cell after spending time in the yard at San Quentin State Prison on Aug. 16. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

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.

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Hours later, Jones was dead.

Toxicology tests later found that he had toxic levels of methamphetamines 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 methamphetamines, 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 had 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.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the state prison medical office, the drug-related death rate in California prisons is seven times higher than that of prisons in the rest of the country.

"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."

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. The 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.

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"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.

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 under the watch of an armed guard standing overhead for a few hours, three days a week.

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.

Idleness is such a problem and it leads people to self-medicate.


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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, (D-Berkeley), 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 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.

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

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.

Twitter: @paigestjohn

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