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.