According to a report released on Thursday, more than 2,000 prisoners in New York’s prison system were unfairly punished after tests of suspected contraband substances falsely tested positive for drugs. Inspector General Lucy Lang’s investigation revealed that in hundreds of cases, the prisoners had not committed any offense, but flawed results led to their placement in solitary confinement, cessation of family visits, or cancellation of parole hearings.
The report indicated that state prison staff failed to confirm the test results with an outside lab, and the manufacturer of the contraband screening drug tests, Sirchie Finger Print Laboratories, stated in its instructions that the results should be treated as preliminary and unconfirmed. The report also highlighted a failure to follow protocols meant to prevent misidentifying contraband or cross-contaminating samples, leading to erroneous results.
The contraband screening tests, called Sirchie NARK II, are designed to detect synthetic cannabinoids and other drugs. However, they can cross-react with commonly used over-the-counter medications, tea, or protein powders within some state facilities, as per the report. The manufacturer claimed their tests are designed to confirm probable cause that the substance belongs to a family of commonly used drugs, not a specific substance.
The report recommended additional training for testing officers, requiring them to notify supervisors of potential discrepancies, and tracking drug test results through a central inventory. It emphasized the need for policy changes and record expungements to ensure the integrity of the state’s actions.
New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision raised the issue concerning the drug tests with the state Inspector General in August 2020. The investigation led to the reversal and expungement of 704 disciplinary infractions based on the positive test results, with further reductions in guilty charges. The department has made improvements since the investigation, including contracting an outside lab for confirmatory testing and creating a senior officer position to ensure proper testing procedures.
This is not the first time the department faced issues with false positive drug test results. A previous investigation in 2022 found that the state correctional agency disciplined inmates based on inaccurate results from another drug screening test.
The report highlighted ongoing challenges for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in curbing the flow of illegal drugs despite screening measures and restrictions on packages to inmates.