New York prison authorities have suddenly suspended all testing of suspected drug contraband in its facilities, Gothamist/WNYC has learned. In an August 21st memo to prison superintendents, James O’Gorman, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees the state prison and parole systems, ordered the suspension of the tests, which came from a North Carolina based forensics company called Sirchie.
“Effective immediately and until further notice, all SIRCHIE NARK II drug testing will be suspended and no misbehavior report will be issued, nor any adverse action taken against an incarcerated individual for suspected contraband drugs where a test is necessary,” the memo reads.
DOCCS declined to answer questions about what prompted the suspension. But in an email, corrections officials confirmed that the agency is reviewing its current testing procedures. “As part of the review, DOCCS is working with the Office of the Inspector General, and cannot comment further at this time,” a spokesman said.
According to the leaked memo, the suspension also means that pending disciplinary hearings for drug possession charges, based on the Sirchie tests, will be adjourned. The memo states that prisoners who suffered disciplinary confinement solely because of pending drug possession charges should be released.
The order, however, does not refer to prisoners who may have already been found guilty of drug charges at disciplinary hearings, which can result in severe punishments such as solitary confinement and the loss of time shaved off sentences for good behavior. DOCCS officials refused to answer questions about the full scope of disciplinary consequences resulting from these tests.
“The walls of a prison aren’t only designed to keep people in. They’re designed to keep people out,” said Martin Garcia, a former New York prisoner and now a community coordinator for the prisoners’ advocacy organization Worth Rises. “DOCCS does not like oversight. They do not like for the community to know the abuses behind this wall—from COs assaulting people to drug tests having thousands of false positives, affecting release dates, affecting privileges, affecting family ties.”
While officials have not been open about the causes of the suspension, a January 2020 DOCCS directive about the use of Sirchie drug tests suggests that officials knew their practices were not based on the highest possible scientific standards. The procedure, as outlined in the directive, was based on a “series of progressively discriminating screening tests,” not forensic lab work, leaving open the possibility of occasionally “invalid” test results.
“A complete forensic laboratory would be required to qualitatively identify an unknown suspect substance,” the directive reads. “In absence of such a laboratory facility, the NARK® II testing, utilizing the recommended procedure, is the best assurance that the presumptive results of a positive identification are what they appear to be.” DOCCS did not answer questions about why it does not use forensic laboratories for its contraband drug tests.
In a description of its product online, Sirchie uses similarly cautious language to the DOCCS directive. “There is no drug identification system presently in use which completely eliminates the occurrence of false positives and false negatives,” the description reads. “A forensic laboratory is required to qualitatively identify an unknown substance.” Sirchie did not respond to Gothamist/WNYC’s requests for comment.
Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the Houston Forensic Science Center and a board-certified forensic toxicologist, says these sorts of screening tests are appealing to criminal justice agencies because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. “They devise these in little pouches, add a little drug into it, shake it up, and it gives you in the field an indication of this may be heroin or this may be cocaine.” he said.
Dr. Stout cautioned that final determinations should not be based on these tests alone. “Screening tests for controlled substances are great as an investigative lead,” he said. “They’re great to identify what further testing needs to be done. It is troubling in any circumstance when you see a screening or presumptive test used for a final decision.”
Victor Pate, Statewide Organizer for the #HALTsolitary Campaign said the news shows why solitary confinement practices must be ended.
“The harm that has been done can never be reversed. The state must immediately reverse all infractions issued for positive screenings, dismiss infractions currently pending hearings in prison staff’s kangaroo court, and expunge records for past infractions,” said Pate, who himself spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner. “Even then, what will be done for the thousands of people who have already been tortured based on false drug tests, who have already suffered permanent psychological and physical damage?”
The testing suspension follows a similar scandal regarding drug tests based on urine samples last year. As Gothamist/WNYC reported at the time, leaked documents showed that approximately two thousand prisoners were subjected to flawed drug tests that produced false positives and led to increased punishment across the state. In several cases, prisoners spent months in solitary confinement or locked cells, according to a class action lawsuit filed last year. Others lost access to special programs, were denied family visits, and had their release dates delayed. That suit is still pending.