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Calif. prison officials probe possible contraband drugs after 2 death row inmates found dead

“Department officials are investigating how contraband may have been brought into Death Row at the prison,” a CDCR spokeswoman said

By Megan Cassidy
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — San Quentin prison officials called an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss a possible connection between contraband lethal drugs and the unexplained deaths of two Death Row inmates on Monday and Tuesday, according to an internal prison document obtained by The Chronicle.

The fatality came just 24 hours after another condemned inmate, 53-year-old Herminio Serna, was pronounced dead at the facility. Two other inmates awaiting execution died within a day of each other a month ago: Andrew Urdiales on Nov. 3, and Virendra Govin on Nov. 4. The deaths of Urdiales and Govin were being investigated as suspected suicides, but official causes of death of all four are pending, prison officials said.

The Marin County coroner will determine the causes of death at a later date.

But an email sent to San Quentin employees at 10:19 a.m. Wednesday suggested a medical crisis at the facility, requiring all nursing staff to attend an “urgent meeting” at 10:45 for training.

Employees would discuss “contraband causing serious fatalities/death,” the email read, while offering few other details. The meeting was mandatory for all “med-pass” and clinic nurses, but excluded those providing direct care, such as staff on suicide watch. The meeting was scheduled for 10 to 15 minutes “to answer any questions and concerns.”

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said she couldn’t confirm or deny the emergency meeting, but said, “Department officials are investigating how contraband may have been brought into Death Row at the prison.”

“Health care staff at San Quentin are increasing targeted outreach and education to inmates on the dangers of abusing illicit drugs,” said Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton.

Weapons, drugs and cell phones can be smuggled into a prison in any number of ways, Thornton said.

“There have been instances of it getting in through drones, but visitors and staff are unfortunately the main entry point,” she said. The problem isn’t unique to San Quentin, she added — facilities are battling smuggled contraband throughout the state.

Thornton said there have been other, non-fatal overdoses reported at San Quentin, but couldn’t provide specific details by Wednesday evening.

Inmates at San Quentin have recently spoken of a drug epidemic behind prison walls and beyond Death Row, said Jody Lewen, founder and executive director of the Prison University Project, a nonprofit that teaches higher education courses at the facility.

Lewen said her inmate students don’t know where it’s coming from — are prisoners smuggling in contraband in a new way? Are the drugs more powerful? Is it a different staff, or people with new connections?

“It’s really hard to know,” she said.

Her students aren’t sure exactly what type of narcotic is responsible for the spike, but Lewen said most signs point to opioids.

“You hear people use the word ‘zombie’ a lot,” Lewen said, referring to how the inmates describe those high on the substances.

Condemned inmates are afforded less freedom than the general population. They’re allowed less “out-of-cell time” than counterparts who aren’t on Death Row, and are escorted, in handcuffs, by an officer until reaching a secured environment like a cell, yard, holding cell or shower, said Lt. Sam Robinson, a spokesperson for the prisons.

Perez had been on California’s Death Row since Jan. 25, 2002. He was convicted of the March 24, 1998, slaying of 46-year-old Janet Daher, who was strangled and stabbed in her Lafayette home during a robbery.

Serna was sentenced to death in November 1997 by a Santa Clara County jury. He was found guilty of a triple gang murder of Esteban Guzman, Marcos Baca and Sheila Apodaca — with special circumstances in the killing of Apodaca.

Serna and Perez marked California Death Row’s seventh and eighth fatalities this year, though none of the inmates died at the hands of the state. Royal K. Hayes and Robert J. Acremant died of natural causes, Jonathan Fajardo was stabbed to death by another inmate. The causes of Urdiales’ and Govin’s deaths are still pending and Joe Henry Abbott died of acute drug toxicity, according to prison records.

Another condemned inmate, Emilio Avalos, died by acute drug toxicity on Nov. 1, 2017. Avalos and Abbott marked the first deaths attributed to drugs since 2005.

A 2016 Los Angeles Times investigation, however, indicates that these official designations don’t show the full picture. A review of Marin County coroner records found that six Death Row inmates died between 2010 and 2015 with detectable levels of drugs in their systems. One condemned murderer, Michael Jones, was found to have had “toxic levels of methamphetamines in his blood,” though prison records deem Jones’ death a suicide. Jones died after attempting to strangle himself with an electrical cord, the Times reported.

California hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006, though a former state Death Row inmate, Alfredo Rolando Prieto, was put to death in Virginia in 2015.

Prison data show that 200 inmates throughout the state’s correctional system died of drug overdoses between 2006 and 2016.

The records suggest a growing problem with opioids within the prisons, with 2016 tallying the most drug-related deaths in the 10-year span with 29 fatalities. Of these deaths, 27 were traced back to opioids or methamphetamine, and in some cases, both. Four of those were traced to fentanyl.

Prison officials found that 26 of the 29 inmates who died had not been prescribed an opiate.

“Therefore, in these 26 cases, the drug was obtained by diversion or stealth, not because of inappropriate prescribing practices by CCHCS physicians,” California Correctional Health Care Services officials wrote in the 2016 inmate death review.