CDCR Drugs & Drug Treatment

String of Fatal Overdoses at Lancaster Prison Points to Urgent Need for Treatment on the Inside

Fentanyl in powder form via US DEA
Lauren Lee White
Written by Lauren Lee White

David Weed was two months shy of his 38th birthday when he died from an overdose of fentanyl and morphine at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, on May 29, 2019.

Weed was serving life without parole, but he hadn’t given in to despair. He had just completed a rehabilitative program that focused on victim awareness and creating accountability for one’s crimes. He knew he would likely never get out of prison, but he had two young daughters, ages 13 and 11, and he wanted to find some healing for their sakes, according to a source who spent time with Weed in his last months, but asked not to be named.

David Weed, courtesy of Danita Weed

Weed was the fourth man to die of an overdose at the Lancaster prison in the span of three months. At least one more person has died of an overdose since his death. The string of overdoses at the prison began on February 24, 2019, when Albert Atlas, 64, died from methamphetamine intoxication. Since then, Ryan Madden, 32, Steven Angulo, 37, Weed, Daniel Gonzales, 51 have died by overdose.

Across California’s state prison system there was a total of 40 fatal overdoses in 2017, the most recent year for which we have data. The five overdose deaths that occurred at Lancaster during the first half of 2019 would comprise 20% of the 2017 system-wide total.

In keeping with protocol, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has reported each of these deaths to its oversight body, the Office of the Inspector General, but neither the CDCR nor the OIG has a mandate to make any of the fatalities public. Families receive news of their loved ones’ deaths without being made aware that the deaths are a part of a pattern of deaths by overdose at Lancaster.

However, the trend is not unique to Lancaster. An investigation published in May of this year by the San Francisco Chronicle found that the number of men and women who overdosed while incarcerated in California state prisons jumped 113% between 2015 and 2018. Most of these overdoses resulted in hospitalization, but were not fatal, the Chronicle reported.

California prisons have the highest rate of overdoses of any state prison system, J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver who oversees health care in California prisons told a state Senate subcommittee on May 14. In fact, the rate is triple the national average, Kelso said.

Governor Gavin Newsom decided to take a proactive approach to the crisis, requesting a budget that would allocate more than $233 million to drug treatment in every state prison over the next two years. The money was to go toward medication, therapy, and treatment plans, including planning for re-entry. However, Newsom’s proposal was downsized to $64 million for pilots in seven prisons by the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety in May, which cited concerns about whether the Governor’s strategy could realistically be put into place as quickly as he envisioned.

Yet, Kelso and others, like State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who chairs Senate panels overseeing the state’s corrections department, countered the Assembly committee’s push back telling legislators that previous efforts to address the supply side of the issue by adding more drug-sniffing dogs, screenings, and more aggressive visitor searches had not dented the overdose problem.  The overdoses were increasing.  A systemwide treatment program was urgently needed now, not later.

After all, by its own estimate, approximately 70% of the CDCR’s total population (86,800 people) have substance use disorders.

In the end, when the governor signed the new budget late in June, it included the money he’d requested for drug treatment across the state’s prison system, said the CDCR’s Chief of Health Care Communications Elizabeth Gransee.

According to Gransee the newly budgeted $398 million will fund, among other things, an additional 431 positions to be allocated toward a substance use disorder treatment program between 2019-22. The state’s correctional system has also increased the availability of naloxone, she said, which is available throughout all facilities in emergency response kits, along with more training in the use of the counter-overdose drug.

And, yes, the budget incorporates an expanded K-9 program, more X-ray and parcel scanners, low-dose full-body scanners, and other strategies of that nature, Gransee said.

Still, experts caution that addressing the rise in overdoses in prison is anything but easy.

Incarcerating people with substance use disorders can increase their risk for overdose, said Josiah Rich, MD, director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island. Once incarcerated, a regular opiate user may have reduced access to drugs and within days or weeks, their tolerance will be reduced. So if they do gain access to drugs while incarcerated, after some period of time without regular drug use, it will take far less to cause an overdose — particularly true if what they use contains the extremely potent synthetic opiate fentanyl, which was a confirmed factor in David Weed and Daniel Gonzales’ deaths.

“For every person that overdoses on the inside, there are many more that are not getting the treatment they need to treat the underlying cause of this disease,” Rich said. “We’re paying so much money to incarcerate them, and well over 95% of them are going to get out eventually. If we haven’t dealt with their addiction and their mental illness and they come out, what do we think is going to happen?”

The danger of overdose spikes when an incarcerated person with a drug problem is released from prison, particularly if their drug of choice is an opioid. A 2018 University of North Carolina study found that within the first two weeks of release, the risk of death by opioid overdose is 40 times greater than among the general population, and the risk of death by heroin overdose is 74 times greater.

David Weed was one of those who likely would not have gotten out of prison. But his daughters and his sister Danita, 40, are outside. Weed was working to take full responsibility for his crimes and the harm they produced, according to the source who spent time with him at Lancaster. He wanted to find some kind of redemption for himself, and also to lessen his family’s emotional burden to the degree that might have been possible. But that work was cut short. Now his family must reckon with his life and death without his help.

Photo of powdered Fentanyl courtesy of the United States 
Drug Enforcement Administration


  • There is no urgent need for treatment. State prisoners are hardcore, highly committed criminals. They are actively engaged in criminal conduct to get access to drugs, cell phones, and weapons all day and all night.

    Give the liberal, do-gooder schtick a rest for a while. Redirect your caring attitude and actions toward our returning veterans who come back damaged and predisposed to being suicidal. At least they served the country, unlike your precious criminals who prey on society.

  • Simply put. Proposition 47 pretty much legalized drugs. People now have easier access to them. No one forced them to use drugs and hurt people. Stop making excuses for criminals and start defending all the victims of crimes. Where is the outrage for the victims? Where is the outrage of those families who lost a loved one to these criminals? When reading your stories one can’t help but to cringe and want to escape from this state. Why don’t you do your research on Proposition 36, the drug rehab program that failed miserably. It proved that over 96% of the addicts were never rehabilitated. Until you toughen the laws on crime and drugs, you’re going to keep going in circles. Enough already. Focus on the real issues.

  • With there “Fish Kits” I say we give them all the Fentynol they want. The ones with potential futures will flush it. The ones society doesn’t need will use it and OD. Will save society time, space, money and is a win win.

  • Call me pessimistic (or a realist), but with all the diversion, alternative programs and propositions passed to keep “troubled misguided souls” out of prisons and jails, doesn’t anyone realize that probably those individuals who actually do get sentenced to jail and prison are probably not very good people. The realization that not everybody can be helped or wants help should even sink in too all the liberal social crusaders at some point. Should it not? Heck, there are certain personality disorders that psychologist have identified where the best cure is to keep those individuals secured away from society (executions in other states).

    Are people naive or just stupid if they truly believe a determined criminal who wants drugs won’t figure out how to get them? This is what criminals have devoted their time and energy to do and are skilled at doing it? People who want help will seek it out, those who don’t won’t. Simple.

    I wonder if the convicts are still stripped searched? We all no body scanners are not perfect and the concern CDCR officials have regarding the preservation of the rights and dignity of the folks they house. Strip searches are denigrating!

  • Dear DS:
    True that no one truly cares about a man who ruined LASD. I believe that the SCOTUS will deny his appeal and Baca will be off to prison. However, I have insisted, from the beginning, that Lee Baca ran a crime syndicate and all those involved should be made to face justice just like all other deputies, who have done wrong, have had to face.

    I believe that cash donations were made to Baca for return of political favors. And I don’t believe that Baca committed these illegal acts alone. I’m sure that neither you nor I wish harm on anyone. But, I know of many innocent deputies that were framed for misconduct and were unable to fight back. This was all done under the wonk and nod of County Counsel. We seek justice not vengeance.

    I have eye witness accounts of a command staff meeting were Baca demanded 1,000.00 from each captain and above for his campaign. The point is that Baca and his henchmen live far beyond their pension can pay for.

    Don’t know if C will report on this but……..

  • You mean the same dirty County Counsel that’s fucking with Sheriff V now? Why don’t we focus on her and her dirty doings and expose her. I’ve heard of a lot of nasty and vile things Wickham had done to people. She definitely needs to be exposed.

  • Hi!

    My name is Cacey Madden, Ryan Madden’s youngest sister who is mentioned above. I just wanted to write you because while I understand that you think you know what you’re talking about, you simply don’t. My brother was met at his cell door by a prison psychologist multiple weeks (even months) in a row and was extremely forthright and honest about his relapse and need for immidiate medical and drug intervention. He was reported by this psychology intern to be rapidly deteriorating in mind, body, and spirit, and noted that being kept from seeing people and the sun due to an RVR was adding to his deterioration. On March 29th, a Friday morning, the same intern asked him the same list of questions, and then once again noted that he needed a higher level of mental care. My brother then stated that immidiate mental health intervention was going to be the only way he could go on, but no one ever followed through on those claims. He was found 34 hours later and it was over. I know it’s easy to get on the internet and decide that we all know what these stories look like, so I thought I’d share a part of me and mine’s to further highlight the reality of the situation.

    We have a website set up explaining Ryan’s case and conviction as a 20 year old. He was a soul beyond his years that maintained his dignity through it all. While I personally know and grew up around some of these disgusting criminals that you speak of, there are truly some beautiful and innocent humans in our system.

  • This is Ryan Madden’s mother. After 12 1/2 years of visiting many different level 4 prisons, I can tell you that inmates are strip searched coming and going to visits. There is very little contraband passing from people to inmates. The drugs and phones are brought in by prison employees who have a great gig on the side. They make 1000s of dollars a month on their side job.
    It keeps prisoners sick and guards employed. Please don’t pretend you know or understand the problem and how to solve it. The CDCR knows the problem and lets it continue.
    The prison guard union threatened to require more pay (time walking from their car into the facility) for all of the guards if they were required to submit to a more rigorous search every time they came to work. We know why…it would stop their side game. They’ve even flown stuff into the prison yards with drones that inmate’s families fly. So please….save your superiority, know it all attitude for your Facebook posts. We know different.

  • Drones* And there are extensive criminal networks that develop between some inmates and some guards. R & R is a joke too….Packages full of contraband are received…conveniently not checked by the unsuspecting guard that receives them…. There are enough people working within the system to make it pay.

  • I have a 21 year old son this is his first time in prison. From what i have seen cdcr is corrupted and the COS is dirty also are families has to fight the union

  • Exactly Kimberly,
    The prison guard union is powerful. They are not interested in doing the right thing. They only take care of their members which then keeps them empowered to influence the politicians with their political donations

  • Are the CO’s even searched? If so, how frequently? Most importantly, are they searched by their co-workers or by independent law enforcement officers? Why are they allowed to take large backpacks into the prison? That is the case at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, CA. I have seen it constantly for over 12 years.

  • My name is Terri Atlas
    Can you please tell me how I
    Can speak with the. the writer of this article I am spouse of Albert Atlas

  • Casey, I knew your brother and wanted to follow your link but the website you listed didn’t open. Ryan was a good person with an addiction that was fanned by his “friends” who were only interested in getting high on his leftovers. The guards searched Ryan’s cell on a regular basis and were more than happy to punish him when they found drugs. Who could ever say with a straight face that he wouldn’t have been better served by offering him help instead of punishment and ridicule? Yes, our vets are deserving of all the help we can give them in their struggles, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no help left over for anyone else. I guess you just never understand until it happens to you. Please keep up the good work Casey, and contact me if I can help.

  • Toughen the laws on COs. They are facilitating the drugs as a side income. They aren’t searched like we were searched before going into the prison. This isn’t rocket science. You can’t keep drug addicts satisfied or even hooked on a dose here and a dose there. Visitors can’t bring in enough drugs for all of these people to die. It’s insane to say that all of the people in prison are animals. My son was a partying juvenile who was wrongfully convicted. I am sorry for anyone who is victimized by anyone else. Just know that they aren’t providing “recovery” programs in there for the sick. Too much of the problem is enhanced by the COs who prey on the inmates, turn them into drug dependent slaves and then let them die.

  • So glad you aren’t arbitrating that decision. Addicts are not murderers. Murderers can be family men. Please don’t pretend such cold hearted thought is good.

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