Investigation Shows Faulty Drug Tests Resulted In Hundreds Of New York Prisoners Being Wrongly Punished

from the once-you're-inside,-you're-no-one dept

The justice system may say lofty things about debts to society or rehabilitation, but when it all comes down to it, a person in jail is just something to be processed. Whatever happens to them is supposedly well-deserved. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. This catchy phrase also refers to pretrial detainees who haven’t been convicted of any crimes but who simply don’t have the means (or the judicial permission) to spend their pre-trial days out in the open.

The grist goes in the mill and the less the government can spend doing it, the better. The ends matter. The means don’t. The United States is the land of the free. Yet somehow, our incarceration rate is higher than countries where human rights supposedly matter less, like Cuba, Turkey, and Russia.

Putting people in jail is easy. Cops engage in pretextual stops. Then they deploy handler-pleasing drug dogs or, worse, cheap field drug tests that frequently misidentify legal substances as illegal — cotton candy, donut crumbs, bird feces, etc.

Getting jailed doesn’t change the math much. Jails rely on cheap drug tests to ensure inmates and parolees are staying clean. But they don’t seem to be much more accurate than the $2 tests favored by law enforcement officers out in the field.

Jailed people’s freedom may have already been taken. But their return to freedom can be delayed (or denied) due to inaccurate drug tests administered by jails and prisons. The New York Inspector General investigated drug tests used by New York jails and prisons. And those tests aren’t much better than the super fallible field tests used to put people behind bars. More than 1,600 prisoners were punished, with 140 sent to solitary confinement — all based on nothing more than unverified in-prison drug tests. (h/t CJ Ciaramella)

The end result of these faulty tests? Unjustified punishment and loss of freedoms for people already subject to plenty of punishment and loss of freedoms. The report [PDF] opens with a handful of representative cases:

A woman at Albion Correctional Facility, who had never tested positive for drug use during her then more than two-year incarceration with DOCCS, asserted that a January 2019 drug test wrongly indicated that synthetic cannabinoids had been detected in her urine sample. Because of this and a subsequent Microgenics test, she was confined to her cell for 40 days and solitary confinement for 45 days. She lost her prison job and coveted housing assignment, and lost privileges including recreation time, receipt of packages, and telephone use for a total of 105 days. Additionally, she lost the privilege to participate in DOCCS’ Family Reunion Program and therefore was denied the continuation of visits with her three children.


A woman who upon her admission to DOCCS’ Shock Incarceration Program at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Facility in August 2019 asserted that a drug test wrongly indicated that synthetic cannabinoids had been detected in her urine sample. Because of this and a subsequent Microgenics test, she lost privileges including visitation, recreation time, receipt of packages, and telephone use for a total of 30 days. Most notably, she was removed from the Shock program, which if she completed without incident would have made her likely eligible to be released within six months. Instead, she was not released until September 2020.


In March 2019, an incarcerated individual questioned a Microgenics representative about the reliability of the preliminary drug screening tests. This individual, who denied using buprenorphine, had never failed a urine screening test while incarcerated with DOCCS. The Microgenics representative advised the individual that the test was 99.9 percent accurate, and he could not recall ever seeing a false positive result. The individual was found guilty and ultimately sentenced to 40 days of cell confinement, 75-days loss of recreation and package, telephone, and commissary privileges, and recommended loss of two months of good time.

The last anecdote identifies one of the culprits behind this massively broken system: Microgenics and its representatives. The company’s own testing instructions require confirmation using other testing methods. That didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because the company’s reps were willing to lie to inmates and prison guards. And incarceration officials were willing to use an inaccurate test because it apparently does not matter to them what happens to incarcerated people.

Two people were directly responsible for the misery of hundreds of inmates subjected to additional punishments for violations they didn’t commit.

This decision to forgo confirmatory testing of Microgenics’ drug screening tests was largely promoted by just two individuals—the then administrator of the Incarcerated Individual Drug Testing Program and a Microgenics salesperson. Although neither the program administrator nor the salesperson had the education or training to conduct the necessary legal and scientific reviews required for a decision of this magnitude, they also revised DOCCS’ [Dept. of Corrections and Community Supervision] drug testing policy to support the use of Microgenics systems. Moreover, DOCCS provided no evidence of any scientific evaluation or substantive legal review of this matter.

There were early indicators the tests were flawed and could return false positives. This was ignored and buried.

In August 2019, the associate commissioner, while reviewing complaints of false drug test results, provided an outside laboratory with urine samples from six incarcerated individuals who had tested positive for buprenorphine using Microgenics’ drug screening tests. The outside laboratory found no detectable buprenorphine in five of the six samples. However, the associate commissioner took no action to remedy the matter and claimed that he did not recall if he had reported the testing errors to the acting commissioner or other executives.

That’s maybe the worst news. There’s more bad news bundled with it. DOCCS apparently left this in the hands of Microgenics and the associate commissioner. The commissioner ignored state laws when acquiring the services of Microgenics. Personnel were never properly trained how to administer the tests or (obviously) verify test results. In addition, testing officers routinely failed to enter information into the disciplinary tracking system and never consulted medical staff about test results or substances that might register false positives. The latter occurred despite officers being trained to do so and required to do so by policy.

The rest of the problem was Microgenics, which actively covered up its own failures.

The investigation found that Microgenics failed to disclose to DOCCS issues it had discovered with its urinalysis tests, and Microgenics representatives provided incorrect and misleading information during DOCCS’ disciplinary hearings. Indeed, when Microgenics learned that its buprenorphine test had produced four false positive results when testing six urine samples from DOCCS incarcerated individuals, it did not advise DOCCS of these results. And when Microgenics internal research revealed that one of its drug tests was susceptible to cross-reactivity with a common medication and another substance and might thereby produce false positive results, Microgenics again did not advise DOCCS of this fact. Moreover, when Microgenics representatives provided responses to questions asked by incarcerated individuals during disciplinary hearings, the information provided was sometimes misleading and incorrect. In fact, the Inspector General found while reviewing approximately 30 disciplinary hearing recordings that Microgenics representatives never advised incarcerated individuals that its drug screening tests required confirmation testing by more specific alternate methods.

To its credit, the New York Department of Corrections acted quickly when made aware of these issues. It reversed punishments, expunged bogus violations, and made corrections to confinement records. It also ended its contract with Microgenics. Moving forward, tests like these will be backstopped by additional tests not reliant on relatively cheap urinalysis test kits. The only problem with these remedies is that half of those were in place to begin with (confirmation of test kit results, documentation of false positives). They were just ignored, both by the administrator in charge of testing and the company DOCCS, however briefly, chose to do business with. This is the kind of thing that happens when those in charge of incarcerating people believe the people they’re overseeing are less human than people on the outside. Until that attitude changes, the steady stream of injustices inflicted on imprisoned Americans will never slow.

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Comments on “Investigation Shows Faulty Drug Tests Resulted In Hundreds Of New York Prisoners Being Wrongly Punished”

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Anonymous Coward says:

seems to me that of the 2 statements so associated with the USA, Home of the brave and Land of the free, only the former now carries any weight. the USA is at the forefront when it comes to making sure that anyone accused of anything, even though not proven or thant turns out to be untrue, is incarcerated, if they’re lucky or, if unlucky, are shot and killed during the arrest. it seems to matter not a jot whether a person is guilty or not, being forced to take a deal even when innocent. the punishments are the moct important thing so that the prosecutors can up their points, make out how good a job they’re doing and caring nothing for the innocent lives ruined by the conduct.
the USA is turning more and more into the sort of country that was Germany in the run up to and during WWII. i wonder if it’s because so many germans werebrought here, allowed to settle and continue the work they were doing? maybe not, but there has been a drastic change in the USA, one that has now kicked ‘Land of the free’ straight out the window and into jail!!

cattress (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Nah, not the immigrants and refugees of WWII. Hitler was actually quite impressed with the eugenics disguised as "science" public policy in the US. We were sterilizing, institutionalizing, imprisoning, some times subjecting to scientific and medical experimentation, and otherwise regulating away the freedoms and rights all kinds of people, except white upper-middle class CIS, straight Christian men (well, depending on what country he or his family came from, we weren’t too fond of Catholics for a while). We have been dehumanizing and brutalizing since the founding, even wrote in some permission to do so in our Constitution. Advent of mass media just allowed for more documentation than in the past.

Anonymous Coward says:

Prison personnel should be subject to the same tests, weekly or so, with a public record of each individual result, classified by the position of the subject in the prison system (guard, administrator, whatever).

Anonymous display should be sufficient. Whether the personnel should face personal consequences for any positive results is less important. The important outcome would be the resulting awareness of the reliability of the tests.

billyfromcali says:

Re: Wow

They left me in the SHU in solitary confinement for nine months because they said a letter I received in the mail had narcotics sprayed on it and it was all based on one of these instant tests that was a complete lie. If you scroll down to my comment you’ll see my YouTube video I made. The way the prisons get away with it is they don’t have to have anything more than that test to convict you of the offense in prison. It’s not like a jury trial they’re not required to have a lab verify their findings

billyfromcali says:

I’ve been trying to get change on this for years

I made this following video on YouTube quite a while ago after I was released from Federal Prison. I also got a hold of CJ at reasons magazine who they reference in this article and got him started on this. The Federal Bureau of prisons has the largest amount of inmates and yet they refuse to stop using these tests or to acknowledge their wrongdoings. They are still using these tests today in every one of their prisons and taking away good time of inmates, taking away their visits and phone privileges for months and even years, transferring inmates to high in maximum-security prisons based on these tests and moving inmates sometimes across the country away from their families all based on these tests . Not to mention the extra time that they have to spend in prison and the months and even years they have to spend in solitary confinement.–xf4rVfW0

billyfromcali says:

Re: Re: I’ve been trying to get change on this for years

They won’t change it because they’ve used that test as a tool for a decade. If a guard doesn’t like you or if they wanna get rid of you they just go in your cell and they test any letter that you have and say it’s positive for amphetamines based on that test turning burgundy. If they admit they were wrong it will completely open the floodgates. They have screwed over tens of thousands of inmates over the last decade with this exact trick. All of the lieutenants and captains and even the wardens in the prison know exactly what’s happening but nobody will sound the alarm and turn on their fellow cops in prison

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"acted quickly when made aware of these issues"

Crazy crazy idea… how about actually testing them BEFORE putting them into use to verify they are what they claim?

Then lets get the warrants out & find out how big the kickbacks were & exactly how deep the corruption went.

Then one has a serious question about what was happening while they were punishing these people for false positives, if they were having all of these positive cases did they even bother to look at how the alleged drugs were getting in? I mean its a fucking prison, its supposed to be hard to get things in & well lets be honest there are guards who make a nice income smuggling things in & others who enjoy lots of sex for a couple pills.
How many of these tests weren’t wrong, but were switched to protect their prison mistress?

But then humans labeled them as bad people & stopped caring, because to look closer might make them wonder if we’ve labeled the wrong team as bad guys.

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