Drug War

The State Can't Keep Drugs Out of Prisons. How Was It Ever Going to Keep Them Out of America?

This is the nature of government. It can't stop the flow of illicit substances in a sealed and militarized building that's under its total control.


Of the 1,000 or so California bills that likely will become law this year, virtually every measure will give government more power to do one thing or another. The consensus in the Capitol is that the government "must do something" about any problem that pops into a lawmaker's mind. Most bills deal with relatively small expansions, but make no mistake about it: state officials want to seize control of big stuff, too, such as the healthcare system.

However, lawmakers routinely shrug at the crises that afflict every government-controlled system in the state. The public pension funds, which provide lush retirements to state and local workers, are awash in "unfunded liabilities" (debt), thus driving municipal budgets toward the fiscal cliff and crowding out public services. Nothing to see there. California's public schools range from incompetent to mediocre, but nothing ever changes. No one listens.

California's leaders ignore the demonstrably true maxim that the more heavily the government controls anything, the more likely it's going to be a disaster. Take recent reports about our prison system. "Nearly 1,000 men and women in California prisons overdosed last year and required emergency medical attention in what officials acknowledge is part of an alarming spike in opioid use by those behind bars," the San Francisco Chronicle reported on May 5.

Prisons are tough places, but think about that revelation. They are among the most tightly controlled environments on Earth, yet correction officials can't figure out how to deal with dramatic spikes in the number of inmates who are dying from drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning. Not only is it illegal for people to have those substances, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation controls every point of entry.

Such substances are as plentiful as ever. That's true even though former Gov. Jerry Brown implemented a $14 million strategy to plug the drug pipeline at two Kings County facilities—and after a federal prison oversight official announced a $252 million medication plan designed to battle overdoses. Gov. Gavin Newsom's budget would spend an additional $233 million over three years to deal with the drug problem in a variety of ways, including education programs.

California's prisons have every manner of scanner, camera and security system. They use body scans, visitor searches, drug-sniffing dogs and drones to patrol the place. The inmates are a captive audience and can, quite obviously, be subjected to any anti-drug program that officials can concoct. And still the problem festers.

Officials say inmates' friends throw drug-filled soccer balls, drones and other such items over the walls of some facilities. That shouldn't be hard to stop. Most drugs apparently are coming from visitors and employees. Unions have been accused of imposing obstacles to more thorough searches of guards. That's another feature of government: you can't change anything without the unions' OK.

This is the nature of government. It can't stop the flow of illicit substances in a sealed and militarized building that's under its total control. It throws hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem. It holds hearings, as officials ponder what to do. Decades from now, when some new type of drug is all the rage, prison officials surely will be theorizing about how to control it. Only the name of the official task force and the size of the budget request will be different.

Back in 2016, The Los Angeles Times investigated a surge in drug-related inmate deaths not just in state prisons, but on death row. As the report explained, "The condemned inmates…are among the most closely monitored in the state" and "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." They can, however, obtain methamphetamine and heroin.

Meanwhile, legislators keep passing more laws cracking down on the substances that the general, non-imprisoned population can legally purchase. The latest: Senate Bill 38 would ban flavored-tobacco products, including most vaping liquids. Obviously, Prohibition's lessons have been lost in California. Do state officials really think that they can keep menthol cigarettes and vape pens off of our street corners and out of the hands of teenagers?

Not only is the state incapable of keeping drugs out of its prisons, it is incapable of adequately maintaining its own prison infrastructure. Reporting on a Stockton inmate's death last year from Legionnaires' disease, The Sacramento Bee explained this month that, "Incidents of tainted water have spawned inmate lawsuits, expensive repairs, heft bills for bottled water and fines, putting a multimillion-dollar burden on the taxpayer-funded correction system."

At the very least, shouldn't these scandals give lawmakers pause about their ability to fix societal problems? If they can't keep heroin off of death row, then maybe they should rethink their ability to control the rest of us.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

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  1. There’s a show on Netflix called “Jailbirds” about life on the women’s floor inside a jail in Sacramento. The women can communicate and share contraband with the prisoners in the cells above and below them through their toilets. It’s amazing.

    1. I saw something like that that on Lockup too, the creativity and ingenuity of prisoners never ceases to amaze me

      1. It’s people, not just prisoners. That’s why the story really applies to the broader population. When there’s a demand for something, people find a way.

  2. I realize its just a stock photo but I can’t help laughing at this picture

    It looks like skim milk
    That syringe is enormous
    He’s nowhere near a vein
    He’s just squirting it on his skin

    1. I found that hilarious too, I bet this guy snorted a whole weed once and was high for days.

    2. Needles are scary.

  3. Yet there never seems to be any outcry from the public to hold the government accountable to their ineffective laws. That’s the real tragedy. When it’s obvious that these laws haven’t worked, the public seems to say that we need more and more laws. Everyone seems to want to engineer an outcome through public policy, and it almost always leads to less individual freedom. So when the government passes an ineffective law, it’s not without consequences. But the public keeps clamoring for more. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

    You could apply this story to so many other things the government tries and fails to control. Prostitution, gambling, immigration, guns, poverty. The story is always the same. More laws, less freedom, same ineffective outcomes.

    1. They won’t even talk about it. I’m fairly conservative on many issues and I cant even get my conservative mother to discuss the issue of drugs. Even when I bring up the concepts of individual responsibility and liberty, which she claims are her main driving principles, she won’t discuss the issue.

      It really comes down to “drugs are bad m’kay?” and that is it, end of story.

      1. People say their driving principles are individual liberty and responsibility, but what most really mean is “people have the liberty to live what *I* consider a responsible life”

        1. Ha, yeah you’re right.

    2. Remember, universal democracy leads to government of the idiots, by the idiots, and for the idiots.

    3. The dominant narrative in the public space, for nearly 100 years, has been “a properly constituted State can solve all problems”. That has been breaking down, slowly, since the election of Ronald Reagan (not saying he did it, just that it started to break down about then). But it’s a slow process, and runs counter the the long historical expectation that the King will fix matters.

      It won’t change in an election cycle, or a dozen. It MAY change, if we keep fighting it.

      The tendency I see on the Conservative/Libertarian axis is to expect each election to suddenly bring about massive change. The Left has that, too. If the day ever comes that it happens that way it will be because we have slipped into a true dictatorship, and are genuinely screwed.

  4. The “sainted” Obama famously said that, “Government is just the name we use for the things we do together.”

    I got woke years ago and realized that Government is actually just the name we use for the turd sandwiches and giant douches who rule over us like the kings and nobles of old.

    1. That wasn’t Obama. I believe Barney Frank usually gets credit for that one. Deval Patrick said it at the 2008 Dem convention.

  5. Fuck the government.

    Now, I’ll smoke some home grown reefer.

    1. What about these poor kids? Just trying to have a good time and then the man walks in.

      Police stop post-prom party stocked with booze, marijuana and stripper poles


    2. I was just talking to my nephew the other day and he mentioned arguing with a co-worker about gun control laws. This guy was seriously arguing that restricting gun ownership would effectively end a lot of the gun violence – as he’s standing there in his pot leaf T-shirt which, if you ask him about it, he’ll gladly talk your ear off about the wonders of the medicinal herb. And somehow he can’t see that there’s any logical flaw in his argument that making something illegal is an effective way to eliminate it.

      1. People seem to believe whatever they want to believe and lack the self-awareness to realize any contradictions.

        The land of the free has long since become the land of cognitive dissonance.

        1. Sometimes I wish I had a little less self-awareness so I could live as blissfully as these people. Most people just believe whatever they want to believe, as far as can tell.

          1. Maybe it’s the drugs?

            1. Nope. Can confirm that its not the drugs

              1. One thing I’ve learned is that when it comes to drugs you can always trust someone named “Trip”

        2. “All I suggest is that a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” — Simon & Garfunkel

    3. i agree with your post and am interested in your newsletter.

  6. Obviously, Prohibition’s lessons have been lost in California.

    Quite the opposite. The war on drugs was started to precisely because somebody watched The Untouchables and realized that Prohibition gave government agents free reign to search and seize anybody at almost any time with the bonus of raving popular approval for being ‘tough on crime’ and ‘to protect the children’. Airports, schools, government buildings, traffic stops; anywhere they have the slightest pretense to search they do. If they don’t have pretense, they can always fake it (i.e., Dennis Tuttle). Sure, its tough on some folks, but you gotta break a few windows to make an omelette.

    They started the war on drugs so they could arrest civil rights and war protesters. They continued it because it is so very, very lucrative. The perverse incentives for police and prisons are obvious. The work does not require a high IQ and has been demonstrated to be far safer than fishing and construction work, yet cops and guards can retire with 6 figure pensions and get a lot of free pie by flashing their shiny badge. Politicians get that sweet, sweet police union endorsement and immunity.

    The last thing the prison system would ever want is for inmates to get clean. Lucid people can escape the revolving door of ‘criminal justice’.

    1. damn you, Kevin Costner!

    2. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” – John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon on the rationale of the War on Drugs.

  7. “The State Can’t Keep Drugs Out of Prisons. How Was It Ever Going to Keep Them Out of America?”

    Well, with this strong logical argument, it’s hard to see why we make anything illegal. I mean, why bother with rape laws? More people are raped in prison than outside of it.

    1. except you don’t get thrown in jail masturbation. If you were talking about forcing someone else to take drugs then we could be talking about an actual crime. But you are discussing made up crimes where the victim is also the actor.

      if you cant understand this you may have clicked on the wrong website.

    2. if you subscribe to the ‘laws exist to stop crime’ paradigm, perhaps you are right, but I don’t agree the primary purpose of criminal law is ‘prevention’ (though that can be a bonus) , its to provide a framework to remove people from society who have demonstrated they can’t be a part of it. Murder statutes aren’t on the books to stop murder. They are there so if someone demonstrates they are a murderer, the process is in place to remove them from society.

      Under that paradigm, making victimless crimes illegal seems a lot more nonsensical.

      1. Effective and just laws are ones that most people would obey even if there wasn’t a law.

        1. exactly!

          and most means ‘overwhelming majority’. not ‘50% +1’ as some people would have it

  8. Couldn’t it be said that the situation’s not comparable to the outside world, because prisoners, not having much else to do, are much more highly motivated than outsiders to obtain narcotics? And that therefore the chances of discouraging consumption in the outside world are greater?

  9. Drug prohibition violates the NAP and that’s enough.

  10. Addiction is a symptom of PTSD. Look it up.

  11. This is the argument I have been making about prohibition for years.

    If the government can’t keep drugs out of prisons they control 100% there isn’t a chance in hell of getting drugs off every street corner etc. It is the total failure of the drug war on display and the total spotlight on the fact government employees are corruptible.

  12. […] Greenhut, writing in Reason, notes that confinement centers are “among the most tightly controlled environments on […]

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