California steps up prison drug screening for visitors and staff

California steps up prison drug screening with ion sniffers, 'friendly' drug dogs

California prison officials say they expect to have drug-sniffing dogs and ion scanners at 11 prisons by this spring, an effort to put a damper on a behind-bars drug trade that had one out of four inmates testing positive for illegal substances last year.

"Everybody will tell you drugs are readily available in all of the prisons in California," Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told lawmakers at state Senate budget hearing Tuesday. He recounted the need to summon a medical emergency helicopter to a prison in San Joaquin County last year to rescue the 11-month-old infant of a prison visitor. Beard said the child was poisoned by opiates hidden within its diapers.

With a $5.2-million grant for new equipment akin to those used at airport security checkpoints, on top of a $3-million search dog program already in place, California intends to conduct random tests of visitors and prison workers who come and go from a third of the state's 34 lockups. Visitors who test positive for traces of drugs have the option of going ahead with a non-contact visit with a prisoner, or submitting to a strip search, he said. The state is also adding friendlier breeds of drug-sniffing dogs to its roster, including labs and spaniels that won't frighten children, Beard said.

If that works, he said, he would like to expand the sweep to more prisons. Beard said the program, begun in November, is too new to provide data on the number of arrests or amounts of drugs intercepted.

He contended that the open flow of drugs within prison "drives" prison violence, including gang activity, inmate killings, suicides and overdose deaths. He noted prison drug use is so heavy some counties routinely test probationers arriving from state custody. In San Diego County, Beard said, one out of five "are high coming out of prison."

Senate budget and criminal justice committee members raised questions on what Beard is doing to provide substance abuse treatment within prison -- programs he acknowledged are currently inadequate. He cited his past record as corrections chief in Pennsylvania in providing drug treatment programs within all state prisons and testing all inmates as they arrived for substance abuse.

Senate public safety chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) was particularly concerned about controls on the use of drug dogs and strip searches within prisons and on visitors. "We need to make sure it treats all people involved with respect," Hancock said. "Dogs have been, in many parts of the country and state, iconic symbols over the potential misuse of police power."

Jim Lindbergh of the Quaker-based Friends Committee of Legislation in California, voiced similar concern. "We are worried about efforts that are so intrusive they could discourage visitation," he said.

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