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California: Condemned Prisoners Smuggle Drugs to Commit Suicide

by Christopher Zoukis

As the 31 states that practice capital punishment struggle to find the chemicals necessary to execute condemned prisoners, in at least one state the prisoners themselves are successfully bringing in large quantities of drugs, which they sometimes use to commit suicide – to cheat the metaphorical hangman’s noose.

This is both ironic and troubling.

California’s death row is extremely crowded. There were 749 prisoners on the state’s death row as of March 30, 2017 – almost three times as many as in Texas. The reason for this is simple: Since 1976, Texas has executed 538 prisoners but California has executed just 13.

In fact, California hasn’t put a single prisoner to death in over a decade.

This is partly due to the difficulty that some states are experiencing in obtaining lethal injection drugs. Large pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer have begun restricting the sale of chemicals to state agencies that intend to use them for executions; as a result, some states are resorting to shady transactions to obtain the necessary drugs. [See: PLN, March 2014, p.46].

Meanwhile, prisoners on California’s death row, who typically spend decades in isolation, are patronizing the robust illicit drug market in San Quentin, sometimes for recreational purposes and sometimes to kill themselves.

Take Michael Lamont Jones, for instance. On death row for murder, Jones, 44, committed suicide on May 25, 2015 by ingesting large amounts of methamphetamines and then strangling himself. The coroner’s report listed his death as a suicide, noting that he bore signs of chronic drug abuse.

California state and county records indicate that six death row prisoners have died with detectable levels of methamphetamines, heroin metabolites or other drugs in their system in the five years between 2010 and 2015. During that same time period there were eight non-fatal drug overdoses on death row.

Given the fact that condemned prisoners rarely leave their cells, one may wonder where those drugs come from.

Anecdotal evidence and large-scale investigations reveal a shocking answer: In many cases, the drugs available to general population and death row prisoners come from prison employees.

The FBI recently broke up a Southern California prison drug conspiracy in which $1 million of methamphetamine and heroin were smuggled into state prisons by a drug counselor. And on death row, psychologist Patrick O’Reilly said in a recent interview that he discovered a psychiatric technician was bartering alcohol and amphetamines in exchange for prisoners’ legally-prescribed opiates.

Corrections officials often give lip-service to efforts to curb the introduction of drugs into the prison system, and death row in particular.

“Regardless of the security level of the inmate, the presence of any contraband items is concerning to us,” California correctional officials said in a statement.

But that’s not really true, according to former San Quentin prison guard Tony Cuellar. “What is said and what is done are two different things,” he noted.

Along with the failure of Proposition 62 in November 2016 – which would have repealed the death penalty in California – state voters passed Proposition 66, which is intended to speed up execution dates by appointing more attorneys to take cases, putting certain types of appeals before trial court judges and setting a five-year deadline for appeals to be heard.

That has given new impetus to a proposal first floated in 2012 by Governor Jerry Brown to allow “single-drug” executions – those that use one of four powerful barbiturates rather than the traditional three-drug execution “cocktail.” Moreover, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) also plans to produce the drugs in its own facilities, to avoid limitations imposed by pharmaceutical companies. Death row prisoners would choose one of the four drugs – amobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital or thiopental – or the gas chamber.

 “California law requires that state resources be utilized when available before contracting with private sources,” noted CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton.

However, Megan McCracken, a law professor at the death penalty clinic at the Berkeley School of Law, said it’s not that easy. State compounding labs are prohibited from simply copying barbiturates already on the market, she explained. And using the drugs also requires a pre-existing doctor-patient relationship to determine the prisoner has a “particularized need” before prescribing the specific medication.

 “Do doctors want to write these prescriptions that are putting their patients to death?” wondered McCracken, alluding to the ethical duty of physicians to “do no harm” – the mandate of the Hippocratic Oath.

Both opponents and supporters of the death penalty have expressed frustration with the proposal to have the state manufacture and supply lethal injection drugs. Anna Zamora, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, worried that poor-quality chemicals from state compounding labs would result in “botched executions.” Meanwhile, San Bernardino District Attorney Tony Ramos fretted over delays caused by the need to follow all the steps in the process.

“The biggest frustration for me is the victim,” he said. “They deserve justice.”

Ramos chaired the campaign in support of Proposition 66, which the California Supreme Court put on hold just five weeks after it was approved by state voters.