Faulty drug tests caused more than 1,600 New York prisoners to be locked in solitary confinement, denied family visits, and delayed parole hearings, the state inspector general reports
“This stands as a heart-breaking example of how the absence of transparency can undermine due process and basic human rights,” said Inspector General Lucy Lang.
These tests showed “false positive” results for buprenorphine, an opioid used to treat addiction, as well as cannabinoids. Instead of implementing the second sensitive test they repeated the first test ignoring the manufacturer’s directions, The New York Times reported on Jan. 4.
These penalties were meted out for eight months, starting in 2019 where the Department of Correction and Community Supervision implemented test kits made by manufacturer Microgenics. No follow-up tests were taken before the isolations occurred throughout the New York prison system, the story said.
In one instance, a woman at Albion Correctional Facility, near Rochester, N.Y., who had never tested positive for any drugs during two years of jail, suddenly tested positive for synthetic cannabinoids, according to The Times.
As punishment, she spent 40 days confined to her cell, then placed in solitary confinement for 45 days, losing her prison job, privileges like receipt of packages, recreation time and phone use. She also was denied all visits from her three children during this time.
Also in this investigation, Microgenics representatives were accused of presenting false and misleading information to prison officials. Documents from Microgenics stated even ingesting over-the-counter antacids or the sweetener “Stevia” could lead to a positive test, but this information was never disclosed to prison officials, they allege.
It seems that neither the CDC nor Microgenics did due diligence on this preliminary screening test and its follow-ups, the report said. This caused problems for more than 1,600 incarcerated people statewide, including 140 in solitary confinement.
Initially, the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York looked at the concerns of four incarcerated persons who said they were disciplined based on false positives and brought this to the office of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in June 2019. Later that summer, the CDC sent six positive test samples from other prisoners to another company to be retested; five came back negative.
CDC then brought the findings to the Inspector General’s Office, where it later moved to expunge more than 2,500 disciplinary records that were based on faulty testing.
The impact of the penalties was difficult to overstate, said Prisoners’ Legal Services Executive Director Karen L. Murtagh.
“The psychological and physical damage caused by solitary confinement, loss of family visitation, the lack of proper programming, loss of work release and educational opportunities, all of which help combat recidivism, adds to the ledger for which we as a society need to take account,” Murtagh added.
The report illustrated the problem of allowing private companies to profit from incarceration, said Bianca Tyler of Worth Rises, which seeks to dismantle the prison industry. She felt further review of prison contracts was needed
A CDC statement said its staff had cooperated with the inspector general’s investigation and accepted all its recommendations, which included ending solitary confinement in response to drug tests and improving data collection and drug-testing training.
Microgenics is a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific. Company spokesperson Ron O’Brien said the instructions clearly state that the drug tests are only preliminary and to be more specific, alternative chemical methods must be used to obtain a confirmed result.
O’Brien continued, “We have complete confidence in our product and when it is used as directed, I have no reason to believe there is any issue with accuracy.”
CDC is now using a drug screening test called Premier Biotech Bio-Cup; positive tests are then confirmed using a second method, the story said.