Audit: Drugs were smuggled into Calif. prisons even after COVID restrictions

"The avenues for drugs entering prisons during the first year of the pandemic ... remained staff, contractors, official visitors and mail," an official said

By Rosalio Ahumada
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An audit of narcotics smuggling in four California prisons found drug-sniffing dogs are not used enough to search inmates, visitors, mail and staff as dope continues to get into these detention facilities.

The California Office of the Inspector General on Wednesday released its audit report, which indicated that drugs were smuggled into the prisons even after COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020 suspended visits and limited access to prevent further spread of the virus.

In a letter to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Macomber, Inspector General Amarik K. Singh said it’s clear people visiting inmates were not smuggling the drugs into the prison.

“The avenues for drugs entering prisons during the first year of the pandemic with visiting restrictions in place at primary entry points,” Singh said, “remained staff, contractors, official visitors and mail.”

The Inspector General’s Office recommended the department develop procedures to require the use of drug-sniffing dogs to search visitors and prison staff and correctional officers, use canine teams to conduct frequent searches of inmates and their property and determine whether funding is needed for additional canines to conduct searches effectively throughout prison grounds.

Prison officials on Wednesday said the department strongly believes a multilayered-approach is the most effective way to reduce contraband activity.

“This approach includes providing substance use disorder treatment, heightened physical security, dismantling drug distribution systems, disrupting gang activity, and closing avenues of entry for contraband,” according to a written statement emailed to The Sacramento Bee. “This approach enables CDCR to reduce the amount of contraband entering institutions, minimizing its availability to incarcerated individuals.”

[RELATED: Do visitors or corrupt staff bring in more prison contraband?]

Audit focused on 4 California prisons

The audit focused on the four prisons from March 1, 2019, through Jan. 7, 2022. The prisons in the report were referenced as Prisons A, B, C and D. Inspector General’s Office did not include the names of the prisons “to protect the safety and security of the institutions selected,” according to the report.

The review of these prisons found that entrance screening “generally consisted of a cursory visual search that was unlikely to discover drugs.”

Routine searches of employees, contractors, and official visitors at three of the prisons involved officers taking glances lasting one or two seconds or permitting large bags to be carried into prisons without checking for identification or opening the bags. At times, officers failed to conduct searches at all.

The audit found at one prison’s minimum support facility entrance all assigned officers were given a key that allowed them to come and go as needed without identification confirmation or bag checks. None of the prisons subjected employees to pat-down searches.

Searches of visitors and their bags were “more robust than routine searches of employees,” according to the report. But the officers performing the searches did not have the necessary tools to detect drugs, and they were not allowed to perform pat-down searches.

The Inspector General’s Office recommended that CDCR department look into the costs of using electronic detection devices that can find drugs, including in searches of prison staff, visitors, contractors, inmates, vehicles, mail and prison cells.

Prison employee searches “inadequate”

The audit found the prisons’ periodic enhanced searches of employees, which are comprehensive and unannounced, also were inadequate to detect drugs. These searches are mandated to occur at least once a month at each prison. Employees are required to empty their pockets and open containers, but the employees do not receive a pat-down search.

Drugs can be hidden on the bodies of staff who are not physically searched, or searched by electronic drug detection devices or drug-sniffing dogs, according to the report. The audit also found the corrections department does not consistently or adequately conduct investigations to determine the sources of drugs discovered in these prisons.

CDCR officials said the department continues to evaluate ways to improve consistent statewide application of these detection and intervention techniques. They also said the department acknowledges the importance of maximizing limited available staffing and other resources as an effective method of interdicting drugs and will consider process improvements outlined in this report.

“Contraband interdiction and focus on curbing overdose deaths as a result of illegal contraband is,” CDCR officials said, “and will continue to be a top priority for the department.”

NEXT: Controlling contraband in jails and prisons: What COs need to know

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