SoCal jails fight fentanyl smuggling with K9s, body scanners
Some jails have also increased the availability of Narcan to reverse opioid overdoses
By Joe Nelson
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Jails in Southern California are taking steps to guard against fentanyl-related deaths among inmates, but some are still dying and now deputies and nurses at the institutions are facing the threat of exposure.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco recently announced that fentanyl has been confirmed in the deaths of three inmates and suspected in two other deaths so far in 2022. That total, matching the deaths attributed to fentanyl in 2021 and 2020, constitutes more than 38% of the 13 in-custody deaths this year.
While the number of inmates dying of fentanyl overdoses is far less than the number of those dying on the streets, the fentanyl epidemic has nonetheless forced Riverside County's jail system, as well as other law enforcement agencies across Southern California, to adjust to the threat by ramping up training in the use of Narcan, an over-the-counter nasal spray used to revive unconscious people who have overdosed on drugs. Narcan is now readily available to staff in all the jails.
Inmates, or "correctional patients" as Riverside University Health System calls them, now receive extensive education on the dangers of taking drugs that are not ordered by a provider or delivered by staff, and deputies and correctional health staff are trained to administer Narcan, according to RUHS.
Last fall, at least three nurses and two deputies were exposed to fentanyl while treating an inmate at the Robert Presley Detention Center who consumed the drug but survived. At least two of the nurses went to an ER to be treated, but the deputies declined treatment, according to a nurse who was working at the jail at the time of the incident.
Sheriff's Sgt. Brandi Swan said in an email Friday that "no information is available on that incident." And RUHS spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez also declined to provide any information on it.
Court buses a problem
The nurse, who asked to not be identified, said the incident occurred in the basement area of Robert Presely's transportation wing, where inmates are bused to and from court. It is where most of the overdoses in the jail occur and where drugs, including fentanyl, are most frequently smuggled into the jail, she said.
"I personally saw only one potential overdose outside the basement area. That is the movement area of the jail. Someone goes off to court, they manage to get fentanyl and they come back," she said.
In one incident, she said, she treated an inmate who overdosed on fentanyl on a bus that returned to the jail from court. She resuscitated him with Narcan, he was taken to the hospital and he returned to the jail a couple of hours later.
While increased training and Narcan has helped staff in addressing the fentanyl problem in the jails, a continued staffing shortage remains a problem, the former employee said.
San Bernardino County jails
In San Bernardino County jails in 2022, there were 39 nonfatal fentanyl overdoses as of July, but the Sheriff's Department did not at the time provide the number of fatal fentanyl overdoses at its jails.
The department began tracking fentanyl deaths in its jails this year due to the growing epidemic, department spokeswoman Mara Rodriguez said.
"With the fentanyl issue continuing to grow across the U.S., in our county, and in the jail system, we put together a system to track the overdose numbers that will allow us to easily access this information for our own purposes," Rodriguez said in a July email.
But as of Friday, the department still had not produced its data on the number of inmates who died or were suspected to have died of fentanyl overdoses this year, nor did it provide any information on fentanyl training protocols at its jails.
At Orange County's Theo Lacy jail, fentanyl has been blamed for the death of only one inmate so far this year. Two inmates died of fentanyl overdoses at the jail in 2021, but no inmates died of fentanyl overdoses in 2020, Sgt. Todd Hylton said.
The Orange County Sheriff's Department uses drug-sniffing dogs whenever drugs are suspected of being smuggled into its five jails, including Theo Lacy, and body scanners are used for inmate searches, Hylton said.
All jails are supplied with Narcan, and inmate welfare checks are conducted every 45 minutes instead of the industry standard of every hour, he said.
Any drugs confiscated at the jails suspected of being fentanyl are packaged and tested at an outside crime lab as a safety precaution.
"That's one of the biggest concerns with our staff — contact with fentanyl," Hylton said. "It can be inhaled in the air or absorbed into the skin if they touch someone or something with fentanyl on it. They can become contaminated and may need required medical assistance."
LA County jails
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department did not respond to a request for information on fentanyl-related deaths at its jails in the past three years or its fentanyl training protocols.
Search and seizure
Christian Contreras, an attorney representing the family of Richard Matus Jr., 29, who died of a suspected fentanyl overdose on Aug. 11 at the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center in French Valley, said it is clear that there are "serious systemic issues" with Riverside County jails. He filed a legal claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, on Sept. 16 against the county.
"Riverside jails are equipped with scanners and other tools which allow deputies to scan for contraband," Contreras said. "How is it possible that even with this advanced technology that fentanyl is in the jails?"
Bianco said the county has spent millions of dollars on technology designed to detect any prohibited items that an inmate is trying to sneak into the jails. But while X-ray machines detect most contraband inmates try to smuggle in, sometimes something is missed, he said.
"An X-ray machine doesn't always find a broken bone even though it's broken. So there are instances where people are able to smuggle (drugs) in," Bianco said during a recent interview. "This year we have had a record number of seizures of drugs being smuggled into the jail."
He stressed that smuggling drugs into the jails is a business for some inmates.
"There are inmates that purposely get arrested just to smuggle drugs into jail. It is either for money, money on the outside, money or favor on the inside," Bianco said. "It's part of that culture of power inside the jails, and drugs are a part of it."
Staff Writer Brian Rokos contributed to this report.
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