“Upside down” by Keri Blakinger is a partnership between NBC News and The Marshall project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the U.S. criminal justice system. The column draws on Blakinger’s unique perspective as an investigative and formerly incarcerated journalist.
It was right after dinner on a hot summer night in 2011 when the guards stormed our cells. They took out a woman – in her twenties who had smuggled pills – then came back screaming. They tore up everything we owned, throwing our photos and letters from home all over the place, as if they meant nothing.
I was then incarcerated in Tompkins County Jail for drug trafficking for seven months, so I had seen searches before, but it was different.
The guards crammed us all into a filthy holding cell with a toilet, then returned a few hours later for strip searches. One after another, we crouched down, coughed and lifted our breasts. Just when we thought it was over, one of them came back. He said they found powder in my cell, and it was positive for opiates. I was confused – and terrified.
An angry sergeant showed up to question me, shouting red-faced accusations: “You brought drugs to my jail!”
I told him he was wrong, begged him to give me a drug test. But he kept screaming, threatening isolation and further charges.
When he finally pulled up, the guards transferred a few of us to a separate cell block, where they barged in several times a day for shakedowns, each time confiscating more books, clothes and more. of food. There were interrogations in the middle of the night, and so many strip searches that we stopped wearing our underwear. After someone claimed I was hiding drugs in my hair, they decided it was too messy to find and cut everything.
Then they sent us to another prison and put us in isolation. A few days later, without further explanation, they started to fire us and life in the prison returned to normal.
Long after, I wondered what had really happened: how did this test of the powder supposedly found in my cell come back positive? It couldn’t have been a lab test, as it would have taken longer, so what kind of test was it? Or did the guards make it all up?
I didn’t have good theories until a few years later, when journalists began to question the reliability of low-cost field tests, the road kits used by police officers when they think they’ve found evidence. drugs in someone’s car.
The kits look simple – mix a chemical or two with the suspicious substance and see what color it takes. But the tests are imprecise and prone to user error, so they can flag anything from donut frosting to motor oil as illegal substances. They have generated so many wrongful convictions that some courts refuse to accept them as evidence. Even so, many prison systems still rely on them to punish people for drugs they don’t have.
It is the basis of a trial in Massachusetts, where prisoners say they are afraid to accept mail from their lawyers because prison officers continue to claim it contains drugs. For at least three years, state prisons have used field tests to analyze incoming legal letters for synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as K2, infiltrating prisons across the country.
Often, drugs enter prisons as liquids smuggled by staff or on paper soaked in them, then smuggled or mailed to an institution, where they can be smoked. In some prison systems, there are so many that people in detention have started to regularly overdose – and authorities have turned to field testing.
“When used to test drugs sprayed on paper (like legal mail), these tests are less accurate than witchcraft, phrenology or just picking a number from a hat,” the prisoners’ lawyers wrote in court documents. “Interactions with harmless chemicals commonly found in paper frequently create false positives – almost 80% of the time, according to a DOC official estimate,” the lawyers added, referring to the Department’s Corrections Department. Massachusetts.
The department did not respond to requests for comment, but is scheduled to appear in court this week for a hearing in which the prisoners’ legal team will apply for a restraining order prohibiting the correctional service from using field tests.
Test manufacturing company Sirchie also did not respond to requests for comment, although its lawyers largely denied “all factual allegations” in a court file and then argued both that its packaging put warning against false positives and that the punishment practices of the prison system are beyond the control of the company.
When tests show false positives, Massachusetts prisoners are sent to solitary confinement for weeks or months, depending on the trial. They lose their jobs in jail, get fired from classes, and waive their phone and visiting privileges until outside lab tests confirm the obvious: dozens of defense attorneys suddenly failed. started sending drugs to their clients.
While false positives can lead to wrongful arrests in the free world, Ellen Leonida, who represents prisoners in their trials, said the consequences are even more difficult to correct behind bars because prisoners do not enjoy the same protections. legal than non-prisoners.
“Everyone has a lawyer who can go to court and get it rejected, but people in prison don’t get that due process,” she said. “They are just thrown into solitary confinement.”
Ryan Marino, a toxicology expert at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, said the problem was not specific to one manufacturer. This is the basic chemistry of the tests.
“These tests tend to be overly sensitive, so they detect anything that could possibly trigger a prompt for further testing,” he said, adding that they are handy for determining whether a drug sample is there. heroin or if it is really cocaine, as they can differentiate between broad categories of illegal substances.
“But if you are in a situation where there is no reason to suspect drugs – such as by mail – then most of the results you will get will be false positives.”
This is why, during a 2017 court testimony, an official for another tester warned against finding that a random powder or paper contains drugs only based on the results of tests on field. There should be other clues, he said, such as suspicious behavior, drug packaging and a substance that actually looks like drugs.
This is also why the Sirchie website warns that its product “only tests for the possible presence of certain chemical compounds. Reactions can occur with, and such compounds can be found in, legal and illegal products.
Last year, New York City prisons completely stopped using field tests, while working on a plan to confirm the results with outside labs. In federal prisons, which still use them, inmates regularly complain about false positives. A federal prisoner, Benjamin Freedland, told me he spent nearly five months in isolation after a test detected amphetamines on documents sent directly from the court.
“There is a lot of injustice, but it is really serious,” wrote Freedland, who was released from solitary confinement when he said officials realized their mistake. “Most federal inmates can tell you the story of someone they know who has been falsely charged. ”
In Texas, prison officials last year banned greeting cards and handcrafted artwork to combat smuggling – an unpopular move they justified in part by pointing to the drug-testing data generated at l help Sirchie’s field tests.
Last week, a spokesperson for the Texas prison said the agency was not aware of any false positive issues. Federal prison officials – who declined to comment specifically on Freedland’s case – said they sometimes send suspected drug samples to labs for confirmation.
And even though New York City prisons have temporarily stopped using field testing, it’s not clear whether the county jail where I spent time used them because the prison captain did not respond to a request for comment. The officials there never explained what happened, or whether they really thought it was drugs that they had found in my cell 10 years ago.