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Should all jail staff and visitors be scanned for drugs? Review board says yes

The watchdog board that oversees San Diego County law enforcement will recommend Tuesday that the Sheriff’s Department require all people entering county jails to be physically searched or go through a body scanner to detect contraband, including illicit drugs.

Currently only people incarcerated in the jails go through body scanners, which the department began using in 2014.

Under the recommended policy update, Sheriff’s Department employees, county employees, contractors, people conducting county-related business, social and professional visitors — such as attorneys — and incarcerated people would be subject to search or scan.

Paul Parker, the executive officer of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, called a special meeting to discuss the recommendation and the board’s 2021 annual and 2022 semi-annual reports.

“No one entering a detention facility for any reason should be off limits to scanning or searching,” he said.

Parker said the recommendation had been in the works for a while and follows a May recommendation by the board that the Sheriff’s Department update its policies to allow drug-sniffing dogs to sniff anyone entering or already inside a jail.

The department accepted that earlier recommendation. In an Aug. 5 letter to review board chair Eileen Delaney, Edward Greenwald, a lieutenant with the department’s Division of Inspectional Services, thanked the board for the recommendation and said it would be implemented. The board wanted the policy to say that drug-sniffing dogs “will be used for searches for searches of contraband in all areas”; the revised policy says they “may be used.”

Also in May, the board recommended that kiosks containing naloxone, the lifesaving medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, be installed in all jail housing units. Such kiosks have since been placed in all the county’s jails.

Two weeks ago, the Sheriff’s Department reported that a person at the George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa showing signs of overdose had been revived after other incarcerated people administered two doses of naloxone pulled from a kiosk. When a dose is removed, an alarm goes off, alerting deputies.

The review board’s focus on better drug detection efforts follows a report it issued in April that found that the risk of dying from a drug overdose in a San Diego County jail was the highest among California’s large jail systems.

“An inmate in San Diego is two times more likely to die in this manner of death than what is expected based on county mortality rates,” researchers from Analytica Consulting — the firm hired to author the report — found.

The Sheriff’s Department officially counts 15 people who have died in San Diego County custody so far this year. Of those, at least five are suspected to have died from an overdose, four in July alone. A 16th person whose death the department reported this year had been granted release from custody hours before he died last month.

A Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman indicated the department will not support CLERB’s recommendation.

“Our evidence shows that illicit drugs are being brought into the jails by our incarcerated population,” Lt. Amber Baggs told the San Diego Union-Tribune via email. “Due to staffing, we do not currently have the ability to search every staff member who comes into the facility, as this would cause unmanageable operational delays. As supported by current data and evidence, we will continue to direct our resources towards the interception of drugs being brought into the jails by our incarcerated population.”

Detentions Investigations Unit Lt. Karen Mullins told the review board during an Aug. 9 presentation that mail and smuggling by incarcerated people are the top two ways drugs get into jails. Smuggling by staff and the throwing of illicit drugs onto jail property were two other methods, though Sheriff Anthony Ray recently told county supervisors: “In five years we have found no proof, no evidence and no cases sustained of any (employees) bringing drugs in.”

Last week, the Sheriff’s Department issued a statement outlining its ongoing efforts to keep drugs out of its jails, including spending $200,000 to buy a new body scanner and a commitment to buy more.

The purchase came at the request of the county Board of Supervisors, though the money comes out of the Sheriff’s Department’s budget. Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said the county would provide additional funds if the department requests them.

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