California prison overdoses are soaring. Gavin Newsom has a $160 million plan to curb them.

By Wes Venteicher, Sacramento Bee

Opened in 1880, Folsom is the state's second-oldest prison, after San Quentin, and the first in the United States to have electricity. Folsom, near Sacramento, CA, was also one of the first maximum security prisons. BY   DAVID CARACCIO

Opened in 1880, Folsom is the state's second-oldest prison, after San Quentin, and the first in the United States to have electricity. Folsom, near Sacramento, CA, was also one of the first maximum security prisons. BY DAVID CARACCIO

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to launch a drug and alcohol treatment program for California prison inmates that would be by far the largest and most complex of its kind, and he wants to get it up and running in two years.

The $160 million-per-year proposal, which calls for hiring 280 people next year and 150 the year after that, would make California the third state to provide comprehensive treatment in prisons, along with Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“I think I can fairly describe our approach here as go bold, go big,” said J. Clark Kelso, a federal receiver overseeing prison health care in California. Kelso spoke in favor of Newsom’s proposal at a state Senate subcommittee hearing on May 14.

Some California lawmakers aren’t sure they’re ready to “go big” with Newsom.

Leaders from the Senate and Assembly this week are writing a final state budget, and one version on the table would scale down the drug treatment program to about a third of the size of the Newsom proposal. The slower approach would start with seven prisons rather than the 35 that Newsom would fund.

The two chambers and the governor’s office face a June 15 budget deadline to hash out differences. Newsom at a press conference this week insisted his plan was the right one, arguing the full program is necessary to address a climbing number of overdoses in state prisons.

The rate of overdose deaths in California prisons is higher than the rate in any other state’s system, and triple the national average, Kelso told the subcommittee last month. On top of that, 800 inmates were treated for non-fatal overdoses last year, he said.

Forty California inmates died from an overdose in 2017, up from 19 two years earlier, according to California Correctional Healthcare System data. The trend tracks with a national pattern to an extent. Nationally, in the general population, overdose deaths increased 16 percent per year from 2014 to 2017, when deaths reached 70,237.

“Our nation has seen an unfortunate increase in drug overdoses, hospitalizations and deaths due to opioids in recent years and the California state prison system is no exception,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Vicky Waters said in a statement.

Kelso said the problem in California is driven by a steady flow of drugs into prisons despite former Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to ramp up screening.

“They’re being mailed in, they’re being brought in by visitors, they’re being brought in by staff, both custody and health care,” Kelso said. “They’re being dropped over the fence in drones, and in some of the more dangerous recent formulations — fentanyl, for example — tiny specks is all you need to get into the facility.”

He said the prisons need to try reducing demand inside the prisons.

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Olivia McDowellComment