Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

District Attorney Katherine Micks says several citizens — almost all women — have been arrested this year for attempting to smuggle drugs and contraband into Pelican Bay State Prison during visiting hours. Her office is planning a crackdown.

“Historically, there has always been a problem of visitors bringing in drugs, phones, and other contraband, into Pelican Bay through their visiting system,” Micks said, noting older cases of smuggling were treated leniently, with offenders seeing no jail time or “any real consequences.”

Micks said several were given probation, which simply transferred to the city where they lived.

“Over the last year, there has been a shift in the way this office and the court has been treating people and we have had several cases come through where these visitors are getting a couple months in jail,” she said. “They are getting placed on felony probation with terms to not have contact with... the person they were coming to visit.”

Micks noted in one case, a woman was given probation and ordered not to have contact with an inmate. Authorities intercepted a letter to the prisoner from the woman, who was housed in county jail, and charged her with probation violation.

“These people are now seeing some real consequences,” Micks said, “especially because they are typically women who don’t have a prior criminal record.”

It was estimated four people have been arrested in 2018 for smuggling contraband into the prison, but the number of actual offenses could be much higher since the visiting area contains many people at the same time and only a couple supervising officers.

Correctional Lt. Richard Basso said during visiting hours, inmates and visitors meet in a large room with about 20 small tables. Correctional Sgt. Zach Basnett said visitation occurs all day and at times, many visitors and inmates share a room at the same time.

“We only have one officer at a station for that,” Basso said, noting another officer is able to watch a small video camera with a black-and-white video monitor.

Micks said staff will sometimes be notified if someone is coming in who is suspected of bringing in contraband, but for the most part, detection comes down to staff being aware.

“Right now, visiting is the most likely way that things are getting in,” Micks said. “We have had some cases where drugs were sent through the mail, but I haven’t seen one of those for a while.”

Asked what types of drugs are most smuggled in, Basnett said “marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin.”

Asked how they ingest the drugs with no access to lighters or matches, Basnett said inmates will find a way.

“There’s things they can make inside their cell,” he explained. “They can strip wires apart and make homemade lighters. They have (electrical) outlets inside their cells. Access to electricity gets them all sorts of stuff.”

Mail is another way drugs are smuggled into the facility, and Basnett estimated about a dozen cases have been investigated.

Though all mail is opened and inspected, some are still extremely hard to detect.

“Almost any narcotic can be liquefied,” Basnett explained, adding that when added to the paper and allowed to dry, the paper itself becomes a narcotic that can be ingested by mouth.

It’s not the drugs

Micks said if it came down to inmates individually using drugs in their cells, the whole issue wouldn’t be as serious.

“The big concern with the contraband coming in is a bigger issue than personal use,” said Basso, who is also a gang investigator, “It’s about paying off drug debts versus not paying off drug debts and the consequences it leads to in this type of environment.”

“It leads to a lot of violence,” Micks added. “It’s money, it’s debt, it’s consequences for inmates on the inside. It’s a big business.”

Asked what would change if the flow of narcotics into the prison was stopped, Basnett said it would have the biggest effect on prison gangs.

“We have some major prison gangs in our institution, and that would cut off a big portion of their influence,” Basnett said. “Some of the inmates are big drug users, so they incur debt, or they will act because that influence is there.”

“It’s important for (the DA) to pick up these cases because, like she said, it’s not about one individual getting and doing drugs,” said Basso. “The gangs have such influence over the people that if (inmates) don’t bring this in, the consequences to loved ones inside the institution are detrimental. There are lives at stake for these little things. If you can get a deterrent from the DA’s office and put up that block and stop contraband from coming in, the violence and how it correlates, would go down.”

Visitors must undergo a short background screening and those with certain convictions on their record are not allowed to visit the prison.

“It’s been our experience that these women have not had prior (convictions),” Micks said. “From our experience, they have been in a boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife type relationship.”

Basnett agreed, saying it’s been typical of the last several cases investigated by the prison.

“For whatever reason, they end up agreeing to do this act,” said Basnett.

Regardless of whether women commit the crime out of love or fear that their loved ones may suffer consequences, the DAs office plans to prosecute all smuggling cases.

“We’re going to prosecute people if we can prove they were attempting to bring drugs into Pelican Bay, and we will be pursuing that aggressively,” Micks said. “The maximum term of imprisonment is four years.”