Fact Check: No, 20 Percent of Released Prisoners Aren't 'High'

Fact Check

Fact Check: No, 20 Percent of Released Prisoners Aren't 'High'

Corrections official misses truth in claim about S.D.'s drug-using ex-cons

FalseStatement: In San Diego County, one out of five released prisoners “are high coming out of [state] prison,” said Jeffrey Beard, California secretary of corrections, in a state budget hearing. His comments were reported in a March 3 Los Angeles Times article.

Determination: False

Analysis: An L.A. Times story earlier this month included testimony given by Jeffrey Beard, the state secretary of corrections, during a budget hearing. “Everybody will tell you drugs are readily available in all of the prisons in California,” said Beard, who told legislators about new state prison efforts to stop the drug trade behind bars.

A brief comment from Beard about San Diego County caught our eye:

He contended that the open flow of drugs within prison “drives” prison violence, including gang activity, inmate killings, suicides and overdose deaths. He noted prison drug use is so heavy some counties routinely test probationers arriving from state custody. In San Diego County, Beard said, one out of five “are high coming out of prison.”

That’s quite a claim. Could 20 percent of returning state prisoners really be “high”? The number is especially startling since Beard doesn’t say they simply tested positive for drugs. He uses the word “high,” suggesting they’re walking out of prison impaired — a situation that could pose a danger to the public.

I asked the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for details about the claim. A spokeswoman said the information came from San Diego’s Lighthouse Community in San Diego, a re-entry facility for parolees. I contacted program director Laura Garcia, who seemed shocked by the idea that 20 percent of freed prisoners are “high.”

“I know that it’s not true,” she said, adding that it may be an outdated number from a single month. She estimated that 5 to 10 percent of the facility’s clients as a whole fail drug tests. (Her facility serves 2,200-2,500 released prisoners in a “transition” program. It also runs a long-term residential program, she said.)

To make her 5 to 10 percent estimate more complicated, the facility’s clients don’t just include newly freed prisoners. Some are parolees who were referred to the program for detox because they’d been caught using drugs, Garcia said.

Whatever the case, a failed drug tests doesn’t necessarily mean that a client is high at that very moment, she said. People can test positive for marijuana even if they haven’t used pot within recent days.

And there’s another hitch to the claim: While it seems to refer to newly released prisoners in the county, not every one goes into the Lighthouse programs. There are several programs for freed prisoners.

If the 20 percent number is quite a bit off, where did the secretary of corrections get it? Deborah Hoffman, an assistant secretary of communications with the corrections department said she and Beard heard the claim while visiting San Diego in December 2013.

“I heard the woman who was giving us a tour of the facility tell him that about 20 percent of the people coming to them out of prison were testing positive for drugs … the secretary heard her say that and believed her,” Hoffman said. But again, a positive  drug test does not mean a person is necessarily high at the time of the failed test. It could merely indicate recent drug use.

Hoffman also said the L.A. Times story misses the fact that Beard informed legislators that he’d “been told” the statistic. Readers can decide for themselves whether Beard should have been more careful with a statistic that he apparently didn’t verify himself.

Regardless, the claim isn’t true. Even if 20 percent of newly released prisoners are testing positive for drugs, that doesn’t mean they’re all “high.”

Drug use in prison is a real problem, but incorrect numbers don’t contribute to the debate even if they’re based on a well-intentioned recollection of something someone said.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

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