L.A. school employee charged with smuggling heroin and cellphones to San Quentin death row inmate

Death Row inmate
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)

A teaching assistant with the Los Angeles Unified School District has been charged with smuggling heroin and cellphones to an inmate on San Quentin’s death row. 

Teri Orina Nichols, 47, was charged with one felony count of bringing a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia into a prison or jail and one misdemeanor count of possession with intent to deliver a wireless communication device or component to a prison inmate, said Barry Borden, Marin County assistant district attorney. 

Nichols was charged Friday and is scheduled to be arraigned Sept. 13. She could face up to four years in prison, to be served in the county jail, Borden said. 

A look inside East Block at San Quentin State Prison, where condemned inmates are housed.

Nichols, whom the prison identified as an assistant teacher with L.A. Unified, was arrested Thursday during a visit with 50-year-old Bruce Millsap. 

Millsap has received eight death sentences and is also serving a 200-year sentence for murdering eight people. He is a known member of the East Coast Crips gang.

San Quentin’s Investigative Services Unit was in the main visiting room when zip-close plastic bags were seen in an area occupied only by Nichols and Millsap.

The bags were not consistent with packaging for any items sold in the vending machines, so Millsap was removed for a strip search, the prison said. 


Staff members found nothing and asked Nichols whether she would consent to a search, which she did.

Nichols later admitted to bringing contraband into the visiting room, the prison said. The smuggled items included 18 cellphones, 18 cellphone chargers, two unidentified blue pills and about three ounces of heroin, the prison alleges. 

“We are evaluating how she was successful in circumventing our security measures,” prison Lt. Samuel Robinson told the Marin Independent Journal.

Nichols began working for the school district in 1992 and most recently was assigned to South East High School in South Gate, where she worked as a special education assistant, according to a statement from the district. She was reassigned Monday “to a non-school site,” according to L.A. Unified.

A recent Times report highlighted the issue of illegal smuggling among death row inmates. Six death row inmates died between 2010 and 2015 with detectable levels of methamphetamines, heroin 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. The inmate had overdosed when they burst. 

Death row inmates are strip searched regularly, including before and after they leave their cells to exercise, go to the law library or see visitors.

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. 


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4:10 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Los Angeles Unified School District.

12:04 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

This article was originally published at 11:10 a.m.

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