New York state corrections officials believe that approximately 2,000 prisoners were subject to a flawed drug test that produced false positives and led to increased punishment across the state, according to documents obtained by WNYC/Gothamist.
The problem may have been caused by a chemical mishap known as "cross reactivity," which can lead to a clean subject falsely appearing to have used drugs, the documents say.
Roughly 300 prisoners were affected at the Fishkill Correctional Facility alone, according to a staff memo.
Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said the agency has suspended use of the test and restored privileges to “any potentially affected inmates.” However, he did not address when officials realized the scale of the problem.
Martin Garcia, a former New York prisoner who had his test result reversed, said that New York corrections officials should have made this information public to families sooner.
“If DOCCS had been more forthcoming, then it would have been easier for people on the outside to say, ‘You know what, the people that I love on the inside are making a change, and we were wrong to doubt them,’” said Garcia. “For those of us who have earned a second chance at life, it’s important to maintain our reputation, to not have the rehabilitative things we have done questioned.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of current and former New York state prisoners filed a class action lawsuit alleging that inaccurate drug tests resulted in unfair punishments like solitary confinement and extended stays in prison.
Prison officials have refused to discuss the full scale of the scandal and how they discovered alleged problems with the tests.
The tests were manufactured by the Microgenics Corporation, a California company that is a subsidiary of Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Neither company responded to a request for comment.
According to a letter received by one affected prisoner, the cross reactivity issue may have stemmed from prison authorities’ use of a drug test designed to detect the opioid addiction treatment drug Suboxone. Another former prisoner’s records suggest the potentially faulty drug test was the “CEDIA Buprenorphine II Assay,” an FDA-approved test manufactured by Thermo Fisher Scientific.
"After being alerted to concerns regarding the accuracy of a new Buprenorphine drug test, DOCCS suspended use of the test, and out of an abundance of caution, immediately reversed any actions taken as a result of these tests, and restored privileges to any potentially affected inmates,” Mailey said.
He said the issue has been referred to the Inspector General's office and the DOCCS Office of Special Investigations. “We are now preparing to pursue all legal remedies to the fullest possible extent under the law," he said.
The fallout from the alleged flaws with the test could extend well outside of New York State prisons. Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the Houston Forensic Science Center and a board-certified forensic toxicologist, said the specific tests discussed by prison officials fall into a broad category known as immunoassays.
He said tests like this are used for workplace drug testing and in clinical settings such as emergency rooms.
“You’re talking tens if not hundreds of thousands of cases a year” in crime laboratories alone, he said. “I mean, these reagents are used in a lot of places.”
Attorney Alanna Kaufman, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners, called on the drug testing company to repair any damage it may have caused for prisoners and their families.
“This was their error. They were negligent. They should have ensured the machines produced correct results. They failed to do that,” she said. “Thousands of people were damaged significantly, placed in solitary confinement, held beyond their release dates. They should now make these people whole.”
Garcia quickly challenged his drug test and was released in September. He now works for the prisoners’ advocacy organization Worth Rises. But many other prisoners were not so fortunate.
Nadezda Steele-Warrick was falsely accused of drug use in April of this year, according to the lawsuit, filed by Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. The lawsuit was first reported in the New York Times.
Steele-Warrick had maintained a clean record, the suit says, and initially thought corrections officials were joking when they told her of the finding. But her mind began racing, as she was handcuffed and marched to a new isolated cell, where she would be confined for 11 days.
“I was crying, when I realized it wasn’t a joke, and nobody is going to come and rescue me,” she said in a phone call.
Worse than that, she said, were her fears of not seeing her family. After her disciplinary hearing, Steele-Warrick was formally denied a chance to have her husband and son visit her in May for a family reunion program just before her scheduled release. That visit was especially important because she was facing ongoing immigration proceedings and feared ICE detention after being freed.
“I was looking forward to this visit. I was waiting for it. I didn’t know when the next time I was ever going to see my family,” she said. “Once I realized I was not going to see my family it was absolutely devastating news for me.”
Steele-Warrick was released later that month, but did not have her finding overturned until September.
Records suggest that it took months for some prisoners to have their records cleared. Correspondence from one prisoner who claims he was falsely accused of taking drugs shows that in September, authorities reversed three separate disciplinary findings of his from February, April, and June. Another prisoner tested positive for drugs in April, and only had his finding reversed and expunged in September.
Kaufman said their legal action will investigate when DOCCS learned of the testing failures, and how quickly they moved to reverse unjustified punishments.
George Joseph (@georgejoseph94) can be emailed securely with a protonmail email account at email@example.com. You can follow him You can also text him, via the encrypted phone app Signal or otherwise, at 929-486-4865.
Tim Requarth (@timrequarth) is a freelance journalist, and Lecturer in Science & Writing at New York University. He can be contacted securely at firstname.lastname@example.org.