Patient, Family & Staff Safety is our Priority: COVID-19 

Drug Smuggling and Fatal Overdoses in California Prisons

Since late 2014, when the California Department of Corrections launched a statewide program to end the flourishing market for illegal drugs in its penitentiaries, drug use has actually increased.

Drug Smuggling in Prison

The $8 million plan, which included the purchase of drug-detecting scanners and drug-sniffing dogs, was put into action because, as The Guardian reported, the number of fatal overdoses among inmates in state prisons is “nearly three times the national rate.”

The data has many prison reform advocates calling for an overhaul of the state’s approach to drug use in prisons. In 2013 alone, 24 inmates lost their lives due to drug overdoses and an additional 69 died as result of contracting hepatitis C from sharing needles. The total number of fatal overdoses since 2006 is more than 150 people in state custody.

Some Corrections officials have said it’s too early to draw conclusions on the multi-million dollar drug interdiction program, but critics point to an Associated Press article that compiled a series of failures.

What Are Some Failures of the Prison Drug Detection Program?

  • Detected drug use rose from 5.5 percent before the program to 7.3 percent after just more than a year
  • In three of the prisons that historically have the most rampant drug use, positive drug tests increased from 10.5 percent to 13.9 percent in just the first six months of the program
  • Some of the most commonly trafficked drugs in California prisons are methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana
  • In the first six months of the program, 6,000 body scans have been performed on inmates, visitors and prison staff without finding any drugs
  • From 2001 to 2015, alcohol and drug intoxication killed 211 state prisoners

Recently, a drug counselor at Calipatria State Prison and three inmates in a rehab program were among those charged in a smuggling ring that ran an estimated $1.2 million worth of contraband into the prison.

United States Attorney Laura Duffy told the San Francisco Examiner this ring is “only a snapshot of the illegal smuggling of contraband that exists in the California Department of Corrections today.”

Regarding the high-tech full body scanners, critics complain that false-positives are subjecting innocent visitors at the prison to humiliating strip searches.

As to the drug-sniffing canines, State Senator Loni Hancock told The Guardian, “There are many concerns about the dogs, which have historically been emblematic of intimidation of many communities of color, most notably during the civil rights movement.”

Suspiciously absent are any comments from state officials about attempts to offer rehabilitation programs, medically assisted treatment options or mental healthcare for individuals coming to prison with the disease of addiction.

Facing symptoms of heroin withdrawal behind prison walls without the aid of Suboxone is potentially dangerous, and enough motivation in and of itself to drive anyone into drug-seeking behavior.

At both the state and federal level, more people are sent to prison for drug offenses than anywhere in the world. In California at least, the prevention model appears rooted in policies resembling the failed war on drugs rather than solutions that might actually keep individuals from returning to prison after they’re released.


The Angel Initiative in Gloucester, Massachusetts – Drug Treatment Instead of Arrest

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Could End War On Drugs

Suboxone vs Methadone For Opioid Addiction

10 Countries That Ended Their War on Drugs

Skip to content