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California and the West

Prisons Are a Hotbed of Drug Use, Survey Finds

Corrections: Former inmates say the environment permits and often even fosters substance abuse.

August 25, 2000|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prisons in California and across the nation are virtual drug dens, with inmates easily able to score fixes inside and make connections to obtain and sell drugs when they get out, according to a rare survey of drug users now in treatment.

The survey, sponsored by a well-known rehabilitation program, found that 88% of former inmates said they found it easy to obtain drugs in prison, and 46% reported that their stints there made them more likely to use drugs than had they not been incarcerated.

The findings are included in a poll of nearly 600 residents of the drug treatment program Phoenix House at 10 of its locations in New York, Florida, Texas and Santa Ana in Orange County. Many of them were paroled to Phoenix House directly from prison.

It is a population whose opinions and insights are rarely plumbed. Yet these ex-cons--male and female--offer surprisingly conservative attitudes about one of society's most intractable social problems.

Most, for example, oppose legalizing drugs like cocaine, crack, heroin and amphetamines; they support putting more cops on the street to fight drug crimes, and most believe the penalties for drug offenses are either not tough enough or just about right.

But they are hardly fans of the system, and many decried the paucity of treatment programs in prisons, saying they were given little motivation to quit drugs.

"Prisons provide environments that sustain substance abuse among users and even foster drug use in nonusers," said Mitchell S. Rosenthal, a child psychiatrist and president of Phoenix House. "Treatment is just not part of the equation, even though individuals who have been in prison have told us that society would benefit from treatment."

The issue resonates in California, where officials with the state Department of Corrections acknowledged at a legislative hearing last year that drugs are easily available, if not rampant, in prison and that abuse of them make inmates more violent and likely to commit crimes after their release.

A Corrections Department spokeswoman, Margot Bach, said Thursday that she had not seen the Phoenix House survey and would not comment on it. But she defended the department's efforts to flush the system of drugs, noting that the state has recently begun a program that randomly tests a sampling of inmates for drugs each week at several state facilities. The experiment also includes drug-sniffing dog teams and new technology that can detect minute particles of controlled substances on surfaces.

Prison officials also routinely open packages and mail received by inmates and watch visiting areas where drugs might be smuggled, Bach said. But the department is hard-pressed to keep up with the craft employed by inmates determined to get drugs and those willing to help them.

Correctional officials have discovered drugs secreted under postage stamps and hidden in soft candies. Guards have intercepted greeting cards soaked in methamphetamines.

"I'm confident that we're doing all we can, but it can be a challenge for the department, because the methods are getting more and more sophisticated and it's a matter of trying to stay one step ahead," Bach said.

The department estimates that 80% of all prison inmates had histories of substance abuse before their incarceration and that nearly 40% of all inmates are imprisoned specifically for dealing in or possessing drugs.

The Phoenix House survey, which was conducted in April by the national polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, found:

* 83% of the respondents (92% in California) said they had been arrested on a drug-related charge.

* 46% (55% in California) said that being in jail made them more likely to use drugs.

* 78% said putting drug users in jail had little effect on controlling the drug problem.

Phoenix House residents, interviewed this week at the group's Venice facility, provided harrowing accounts of the ubiquity of drugs in prison and the consequences.

"Drugs were more prevalent in prison than outside," said Sally, a 40-year-old mother of three who spent nearly 10 months at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla for possessing cocaine. She did not want her last name used. "You could get anything you wanted: heroin, crack and lots of weed. The inmates even made their own alcohol, using oranges and bread and letting it ferment."

She said that during her stint at least two women overdosed on drugs but survived.

Adam Foster described the prisons where he has been held as like a "gladiator school," with little chance of being caught with drugs.

"Sometimes, in a lock-down situation, they'd do drug searches, but I never saw anyone come in with dogs or do random drug testing," said Foster, 36, who was released from Corcoran State Prison in April and is enrolled in the Phoenix House program in Venice. "Most of the prison wars are about drugs and who's going to control the yard, which depends on who has most of the drug money coming in."

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