Test Texas Prison Inmates for Drugs

Texas Performance Review Disturbing the Peace

Chapter 3:Public Safety and Corrections Issues

PSC 4: Test Texas Prison Inmates for Drugs The Texas Department of Criminal Justice should implement random drug tests of inmates in order to enhance security and reduce potential fraud.

Background The size, rapid growth, and geographic distribution of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ’s) operations have created an environment in which significant fraud and abuse can occur without timely detection.

All too often, drugs are smuggled into Texas jails and prisons. This is a national problem and not unique to Texas. A 1990 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice of 957 state prison facilities found that an average 6.3 percent of state inmates tested positive for marijuana, 3.6 percent for cocaine, 2 percent for methamphetamines, and 1.3 percent for heroin.[1]

The presence of drugs in prison is an obvious breach of security. Objective data on the availability of drugs in prison therefore could serve as a useful measure to evaluate the security of each prison unit, and identify promising areas for investigations of fraud and abuse.

Drug testing widely used

According to a 1992 Justice Department study, about 90 percent of all federal and state prisons conduct urinalysis tests on inmates, either on a random basis or upon suspicion of use. Large prison units in particular use random drug tests. About 92 percent of all state prisons housing 2,500 or more inmates test for drug use, and half of these use random tests.[2] Though each state establishes its own policies, random drug tests generally result in actions against inmates who test positive for drugs. These actions can include warnings, denial of visitations, transfers to higher-security prisons, and postponement of parole eligibility.

Random inmate drug tests are widely used because they have proven to be an effective security tool for managing incarceration facilities. Wardens find the data useful in detecting security breaches. Random drug tests also serve as a deterrent, since inmates, visitors, and employees know that tests are regularly conducted. In addition, the results of drug tests can be compared across prisons to identify units with the most problems.

The American Correctional Association reports that most states have found the costs of drug tests to be quite low, particularly if processed through existing state laboratories instead of private contractors.[3]

TDCJ tests employees but not inmates

In September 1996, TDCJ began a full-scale program using outside contractors to test all new TDCJ employees for drug and alcohol use. TDCJ has issued a new, detailed “drug-free workplace” executive directive–along with a supervisor handbook–concerning the new employee drug and alcohol use policies and testing procedures.[4]

TDCJ, however, does not perform drug tests of inmates and therefore has no objective measure of the extent of drug abuse and drug availability in its prison units.[5] This is an internal management decision; no legal prohibitions exist against such tests. TDCJ already tests parolees; in 1995, the agency administered more than 200,000 parolee drug tests at a cost of $3.37 per test.[6]

While TDCJ spends tens of millions of dollars on inmate substance abuse treatment each year, the money is wasted if prisons cannot be kept drug-free. Keeping drugs out of prison also will protect the safety of prison employees and reduce the chance of employee-inmate collusion.

North Carolina’s program

North Carolina provides an example of a cost-effective random inmate drug testing program. The program began with a federal grant in 1991, and has since expanded into a routine agencywide function. The program’s mission statement notes that drug tests and accompanying sanctions are “an effective means of suppressing drug use, drug trafficking, and drug-related infractions, including institutional violence.”[7]

The state conducts comprehensive drug tests in all prison medical units. In addition, 3,000 to 3,500 inmates are selected at random each month and subjected to urinalysis. The North Carolina Department of Correction uses six of its existing parole and probation drug testing labs for the tests at a cost of $3.50 per test. The test can detect cocaine, opiates, and marijuana.

Test results are compiled into quarterly reports by the department’s chief of security, and distributed to top administrators, institution heads, superintendents, and field drug testing coordinators. Statistics are tracked by prison unit over time, and unusual patterns are investigated.[8]

North Carolina reports that it has received no complaints or legal challenges to its program.[9]

Federal grants available

In September 1996, the U.S. Justice Department announced a new program–Residential Substance Abuse Treatment for State Prisoners–that will provide $27 million in grants to states for inmate drug testing and treatment.[10] This grant will increase to $36 million in fiscal 1997, $63 million in fiscal 1998, and $72 million in fiscal 1999 and 2000. For fiscal 1996, Texas’ estimated grant allocation is $2.5 million, an amount that will rise as total federal funding increases.[11] States will receive a base amount plus an additional allocation based on each state’s share of the total U.S. state prison population. If some states choose not to participate in the grant program, their funds will be allocated to participating states.

In Texas, the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division will administer the grant program and has applied for the funds. The Governor’s Office has issued a request for grant proposals from TDCJ, the Texas Youth Commission, and other state agencies and counties that operate secure correctional facilities.[12]


State law should be amended to require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to implement random inmate drug testing programs at all its incarceration facilities.

The random drug tests should be designed with the assistance of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council. A minimum of 5 percent of the inmate population should be tested each year. The policy council should analyze and publish the program’s results annually.

The Governor’s Criminal Justice Division should provide federal funding for TDCJ’s program through the new Residential Substance Abuse Treatment for State Prisoners federal grant. TDCJ should actively pursue any other federal grants to fund expanded inmate drug testing and treatment programs. In the unlikely event that federal funds are denied or become unavailable, TDCJ should use its existing appropriations to create a cost-effective inmate drug testing program.

Objective measures of drug use at each TDCJ incarceration facility would allow the agency to establish a baseline for annual comparisons of security integrity at each prison; provide indicators of possible employee fraud and abuse; and deter drug use and drug trafficking in prison.

Particular attention should be given to in-prison substance abuse programs and facilities. Texas’ multi-million dollar offender substance abuse programs cannot be effective if drugs and alcohol are available to inmates.

TDCJ should use the most cost-effective means to conduct inmate drug tests, with the cheapest alternative probably being existing TDCJ Parole Division test labs; the health laboratories of the Texas Department of Health also might be considered.

Fiscal Impact

Costs for inmate drug tests can be paid from existing federal funds. Texas has been allocated more than $2.5 million for use in fiscal 1997 under the new federal Residential Substance Abuse Treatment for State Prisoners grant program. TDCJ meets the qualifications for funding under this new grant, and the amount of federal funding would amply cover the costs of the tests.

The price of offender drug testing is quite low. TDCJ’s Parole Division administered 200,581 urinalysis drug tests on parolees in 1995 at a cost of $677,316, or $3.37 per test.[13] It should be noted that TDCJ’s drug testing program for new employees is substantially more expensive; TDCJ contracts with outside companies at costs ranging from $28 to nearly $35 per test.[14] For inmate testing, however, TDCJ should use the low-cost option already used by its Parole Division.

A pilot inmate drug testing program in TDCJ could be accomplished with about 10,000 random tests (about 7 percent of all inmates). Assuming that the cost of such tests were $10 each–assuming existing Parole Division costs of $3.37 per test plus any additional costs such as random sample design, travel costs to administer tests, and shipping costs–the total cost would be $100,000 annually.

If federal funds are denied or become unavailable, TDCJ should be required to provide $100,000 for the program from its existing budget. In fiscal 1997, TDCJ was appropriated $95.7 million for substance abuse treatment, providing more than ample funding for an inmate drug testing program. Therefore, no additional cost would accrue to the General Revenue Fund.

Footnotes [1] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drug Enforcement and Treatment in Prisons, 1990 (Washington, D.C., July 1992), pp. 1-5. [2] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drug Enforcement and Treatment in Prisons, 1990, pp. 1-5. [3] Interview with Jack Green, director of Professional Development, American Correctional Association, Lanham, Maryland, September 6, 1996. [4] Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Executive Directive, Drug-Free Workplace PD-17 (Austin, Texas, September 1, 1996), pp. 1-12; and Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Supervisor Handbook, PD-17, Drug-Free Workplace Alcohol and Drug Testing Requirements (Austin, Texas, September 1996), pp. 1-1 to 5-5. [5] Interview with Carl Jeffries, director of Programs and Services, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Huntsville, Texas, July 30, 1996. [6] Interviews with Stennet Posey, public information officer, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Austin, Texas, June 1996. [7] North Carolina Department of Correction, Division of Prisons, Security Manual–Inmate Drug/Alcohol Testing Policy (Raleigh, North Carolina, March 10, 1995), p. 2000-1. [8] North Carolina Department of Correction, Division of Prisons, Memorandum: Quarterly Inmate Testing Report (Raleigh, North Carolina, February 1, 1996), pp. 1-3. [9] Interview with and fax memo from Charles K. Stewart, chief of Security, Division of Prisons, North Carolina Department of Correction, Raleigh, North Carolina, July 15, 1996. [10] “In His Own Words: Bill Clinton on Prisons and Drugs,” New York Times, September 12, 1996, (http://www.nytimes.com). (Internet document.) [11] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Corrections Program Office, “Residential Substance Abuse Treatment for State Prisoners, Program Guidance and Application Kit,” Washington, D.C., Spring 1996, pp. 1-3, and appendix A. (Grant application.) [12] Interview with Karen J. Greene, executive director, Governor’s Criminal Justice Division, Austin, Texas, September 12, 1996. [13] Interviews with Stennet Posey, public information officer, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Austin, Texas, June 1996. [14] Interview with Tonya Nail, Substance Abuse Programs, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Huntsville, Texas, July 30, 1996.

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