The recent pardon granted by the President of the United States to nine inmates interned at various of prison facilities once again brings to the spotlight the issue of harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Perusing a press release posted on the White House’ web page, a list of commutations reveals a hodge podge of various drug offenses and an even wider spread of the sentences handed down by judges. Dabbling in cocaine or marijuana, for example, could land you in the system anywhere from 20, 40, and even lifetime year sentences. With many thousands upon thousands more men and women behind bars for similar crimes, the question that may finally get answered is whether or not the current system is working, or if a changing of the current policies is warranted.
Compounding the issue is the fact that many prisons are actually already rampant with drug abuse, despite recent reform by the Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation and the $8 million spent this year on drug-detecting scanners, a different breed of drug-sniffing canines, and the employment of strip searches on visitors suspected of smuggling drugs inside.
Despite this “facelift”, progress is slow if not stagnant. According to an article released by CBS News, “…criticism is mounting about false-positive results by the scanners and dogs that can lead to strip searches.” So much so, in fact, that California’s most recent budget plan has already called for an end to the searches and for an evaluation to be made of the department’s other efforts. More than try to finger the blame, the evaluation will help officials determine which course of action will best delineate a program that can reduce in-house drug abuse and overdoses by inmates.
Sadly, in California alone, over 150 inmates have died since 2006 from drug-related causes, mostly overdoses and the sharing of intravenous needles. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard defends the current procedures, citing that they: “…send a message to people to try to not smuggle drugs in to the institution. If we don’t do this, we’re going to have people keep dying, we’re going to have continued violence in the prisons.” Said procedures are being modeled after those in Pennsylvania (which Beard helmed for a decade), whose annual death rate by drugs or alcohol is a measly one for every 100,000 inmates compared to California’s eight (nearly triple the national average).
Unfortunately, progress is slow going; Beard says the Golden State would see more rapid success if lawmakers had initially given him more money. Nevertheless, he intends to expand the program later this fall with any funds that might accumulate from appeals. That might prove difficult—for example, under Beard more than 6,000 scans have been done on visitors and employees at 11 prisons since December, with nothing to show for it. You could say that this is simply an inevitable by-product of the fact that only five percent of visitors and employees are being scanned (again in contrast to Pennsylvania, at a whopping 68%), but what about the proposition to use Labrador Retrievers—“fluffy, friendlier”, albeit knowingly unreliable, dogs—for the purpose of searching humans.
When will it become apparent that the prison system is not only an inefficient means of dealing with nonviolent drug users, but that these efforts to “rehabilitate” do little more than ensnare said individuals ever tighter? Making matters worse is the fact that now we’re seeing family members and friends who want to visit their loved one may doing so at their own peril: a gauntlet of false-positives, unreliable drug-sniffing dogs, and strip searches awaits them.