|San Quentin Death Row|
Condemned murderer Michael Jones was acting strangely and profusely sweating when guards escorted him in chains to the San Quentin medical unit that doubles as the psych ward on death row.
“Doggone, I don’t think you’re ever going to see me again,” he told a fellow inmate, Clifton Perry.
Hours later, Jones was dead.
Toxicology tests later found that he had toxic levels of methamphetamines in his blood.
The condemned inmates on California's death row are among the most closely monitored in the state. Death row’s 747 inmates spend most of their time locked down, isolated from the rest of the prison system under heavy guard with regular strip searches and checks every half-hour for signs of life.
Still, six death row inmates died between 2010 and 2015 with detectable levels of methamphetamines, heroin metabolites 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. He had overdosed when they burst. A 70-year-old man among the three died of acute methamphetamine toxicity. He left a stash of marijuana in his cell.
State psychological reports and court files document at least eight non-fatal drug overdoses that required death row inmates to be hospitalized during this period.
Jones' death was reported as a suicide. In the psych ward, he attempted to strangle himself with an electrical cord. He was cut free by officers but died 10 minutes later. The coroner's report showed that Jones bore signs of chronic drug abuse.
State corrections officials declined to discuss the case or provide data on drugs found on death row — at first citing that investigation and then citing a wrongful death claim filed by Jones’ family. The department provided a statement saying the prison has thwarted past attempts by visitors to bring drugs into San Quentin.
“Drugs have considerable value inside prison and so some inmates have a very strong incentive to procure them," the statement said. "Regardless of the security level of the inmate, the presence of any contraband items is concerning to us.”
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.
California's prison drug trade is notoriously robust. The drug-related death rate in California prisons — 18 deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2013 — is seven times higher than prisons in the rest of the country, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the state prison medical office.
Reports to the Legislature show that as many as 80% of inmates in some cell blocks tested positive for illegal substances in 2013.
By law, all condemned men are imprisoned at San Quentin, and by policy they are isolated from the rest of the population. The majority live on East Block, a long, granite structure that contains more than 500 cells stacked in tiers five high. The prisoners live in single cells and spend almost all of their time alone. Every half-hour, a guard walks by to check that the man inside is alive — a court-ordered protection against suicide. The doors are grated, so it is difficult to slip a sheet of paper through them.
Small groups of men are allowed to go out on tennis court-sized exercise yards under the watch of an armed guard standing overhead for a few hours, three days a week.
Except for chapel services twice a month, there are no other group activities. Condemned men are escorted individually, in chains, to prison hospital appointments or a special law library set aside for them.
Visits are tightly monitored. Visitors are allowed to bring in only handfuls of coins for the prisoners to use in vending machines. Before and after such contact, even with lawyers, the condemned are subject to strip searches.
Still, when discussing prison drug problems in the system overall, state officials primarily cite cases of visitors trying to smuggle in drugs. In one case, officials described how drugs were packed into soccer balls and thrown over the fence of minimum-security prisons.
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Source: L.A. Times, Paige St. John, August 24, 2016
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