“from inside to outside” by Kerry Blekinger is a partnership between NBC News and Marshall Project, a non-profit newsroom covering the American criminal justice system. The column is based on Blekinger’s unique perspective as an investigative journalist and formerly incarcerated man.
It was just after dinner on a hot summer night in 2011 when guards stormed our rooms. They pulled out a woman—a 20-something who was carrying smuggling pills—then came back screaming. They tore up everything we owned, threw our pictures and letters from the house on the floor, like they meant nothing.
I was in the Tompkins County Jail on drug charges For seven months until then, so I’ve seen searches before, but it felt different.
The guards stuffed us all into a dirty holding cell with a toilet, then came back a few hours later to search the bar. One by one we would sit, cough and lift our breasts. When we thought it was over, one of them returned. They said they found the powder in my cell, and it tests positive for opium. I was confused – and horrified.
An angry sergeant came to question me, accusing red-faced: “You brought drugs to my prison!”
I told him he was wrong, he begged me for a drug test. But he kept on screaming, threatening solitary confinement and new charges.
When he finally stopped, the guards took some of us to a separate cellblock, where they came several times a day for shakedowns, confiscating more books and clothing and food each time. There were interrogations in between, and so many strip searches that we stopped wearing underwear. When someone claimed I was hiding drugs in my hair, they decided it was too messy to find it and cut it off.
Then, they sent us to another prison and put us in seclusion. A few days later, without any further explanation, they started sending us back and prison life returned to normal.
After a long time, I wondered what had actually happened: How did the powder supposedly found in my cell come back positive? It couldn’t have been a lab test, because it took longer – so what kind of test was it? Or did the guards do all this?
I didn’t have a good theory until a few years later, when from reporters started questionerYes Reliability In low-cost field trials, roadside kits are used by police officers when they believe they have found drugs in someone’s car.
The kits seem simple – mix a chemical or two with the suspect substance and see what color it turns. But the tests are accurate and prone to user error, so that they flag everything donut glaze To motor oil as illegal substances. They have created so many false beliefs that Some courts forbid To allow them as evidence. Even so, many prison systems still rely on them to punish people for drugs they don’t have.
That’s the basis of the trial in Massachusetts, where inmates say they’re afraid to accept mail from their lawyers because corrections officials claim it’s laced with drugs. For at least three years, state prisons have been using field tests to scan incoming legal papers for synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as K2, that have been infiltrating nationwide. .
Often, the drug either ends up in prisons such as liquids smuggled by employees Or dipped on paper and then smuggled or shipped to a facility, where it can be smoked. In some prison systems, it is so high that those detained have started taking more regularly – And officials have turned to field tests.
“When used to test for drugs sprayed on paper (such as legal mail), these tests are less accurate than witchcraft, hysterics, or simply taking a number from a hat,” Inmates’ lawyers wrote in court filings. “Interactions with innocuous chemicals commonly found in paper often lead to false positives—about 80 percent of the time, according to a DOC official estimate,” the attorneys said, referring to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.
The department did not respond to requests for comment, but is due for a court hearing this week where the inmates’ legal team will seek a restraining order prohibiting the Department of Corrections from using field tests.
The trial manufacturing company, Sirchi, also did not respond to requests for comment, although its lawyers largely denied “all the factual allegations”. filed in a court And Later both argued that Its packaging warns about false positives and that the prison system’s punishment practices are beyond the company’s control.
When tests show false positives, Massachusetts inmates are sent to solitary confinement for weeks or months, the lawsuit says. They lose their prison jobs, are kicked out of classes, and have phone and visiting privileges confiscated until external lab tests unequivocally confirm: dozens of defense attorneys suddenly start sending drugs to their clients. has done.
While false positives can lead to false arrests in the free world, Alain Leonida, who is representing prisoners at her trial, said the results are even more difficult to correct behind bars because prisoners are treated as non-prisoners. There is no equal legal protection.
“Everyone else gets a lawyer who can go to court and get him out, but people in prison don’t get that due process,” she said. “They are simply thrown into solitary confinement.”
Ryan Marino, a toxicology specialist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, said the problem is not specific to one manufacturer. This is the basic chemistry of the tests.
“These tests are highly sensitive, so they pick up on anything that could potentially trigger a signal for additional testing,” he said, adding that they are easy to detect if a drug sample is heroin or if it is. There is actually cocaine, as they can differentiate into broad categories of illegal substances.
“But if you’re in a situation where there’s no reason to suspect drugs — like in the mail — then most of the results you’ll get will be false positives.”
Therefore, Court testimony in 2017, the manager of another trial-maker, warned against concluding that a randomized powder or paper contained drugs based only on field trial results. There must be other clues, he said, such as suspicious behavior, drug packaging and a substance that actually resembles drugs.
so also Sirchi website Warns that its product “only tests for the possible presence of certain chemical compounds. Reactions can occur, and such compounds can be found in both legal and illegal products.”
Last year, New York prisons stop using field tests Totally, working on a plan to confirm the results with external labs. In federal lockups, inmates who still use them complain regularly false positive. a federal prisoner, Benjamin Friedland told me he spent about five months alone Paperwork sent directly from the court after a test revealed amphetamines.
“There’s a lot of injustice, but it’s really bad,” wrote Friedland, who was released from solitary confinement after he said officers realized their mistake. “Most federal prisoners can tell you a story about someone they know who was falsely accused.”
Jail in Texas Officials banned greeting cards last year and homemade artwork to combat banned content unpopular decision He justified the part by pointing to drug test data Generated using Sirchie’s field tests.
Last week, a Texas prison spokesman said the agency was not aware of any problems with false positives. Federal prison officials – who declined to comment specifically on Friedland’s case – said they sometimes send samples of the suspected drug to laboratories for confirmation.
And even though New York prisons temporarily stopped using field tests, it’s not clear that the county jail where I did the time They have been used, as the prison captain did not respond to a request for comment. The officers there never explained what happened, or whether they really believed it was drugs they found in my cell 10 years ago.