Prisoners Sue After Drug Testing of Their Legal Mail Gave False Positives

August 10, 2021

Incarcerated people‘s legal mail falsely tested positive for drugs, according to a lawsuit filed in July against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. Specifically, the lawsuit aims to stop the DOC’s use of an allegedly defective and faulty test on legal mail sent to state prisons.

The tests were purportedly intended to detect synthetic cannabinoids, which are popular in prisons (as well as among people on probation or parole) due to their frequent omission from toxicology screenings.

“Interactions with innocuous chemicals commonly found in paper frequently create false positives—almost 80 percent of the time, according to one DOC official’s estimate,” the lawsuit states.

As a result of the false positive test results, incarcerated people say they were given an ultimatum: Plead guilty and face punishment; or try to fight it and be further antagonized in any case, through solitary confinement and loss of privileges for months. If an incarcerated person demanded the results be verified through an additional lab test, they’d bear the burden of any additional expenses.

Defense attorneys were also falsely accused of sending drugs to their clients in prison, according to the lawsuit. These accusations caused prison mail to slow down even more, limiting communication between incarcerated people and their legal teams that was even more crucial during times of lockdown, with limited in-person visits due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“It is unconstitutional and inhumane to force a person to risk false accusations of drug possession, solitary confinement, and loss of contact with family to be able to communicate with his lawyer.”

The tests—part of the NARK II product line—were distributed to the MDOC by Sirchie Acquisition Company, LLC, which is headquartered in North Carolina. According to its website, Sirchie specializes in manufacturing “high-quality criminal investigation, tactical, surveillance, and other police-related solutions including customized special purpose vehicles.”

Other states, including New York, have stopped using these tests since they’ve yielded inaccurate results. Sirchie did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.

“What makes the situation in Massachusetts especially dire is that the prison is using this test almost exclusively on legal mail—with devastating consequences,” Ellen Leonida, a partner at BraunHagey & Borden, told Filter. (The firm filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs along with attorneys from Justice Catalyst Law.) “It is unconstitutional and inhumane to force a person in custody to risk false accusations of drug possession, solitary confinement, and loss of contact with family members in order to be able to communicate with his lawyer. And all based on a test the DOC and the manufacturer know is completely unreliable.”

Unfortunately, unreliable security measures like the NARK II tests are being used all over the country. Back in 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections issued a statewide lockdown after 28 different incidents of 57 DOC staff falling ill after allegedly being exposed to synthetic cannabinoids. According to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Samantha Melamed, the DOC implemented new security measures—including ”high-tech body-scanners for visitors, drone-detection equipment, and the digital delivery of all mail, which will be scanned and forwarded via a Florida-based contractor”—that cost taxpayers $15 million.

Whether these measures actually deter future incidents of drug exposure is debatable. The Florida-based contractor Smart Communications has since come under fire for surveying people who correspond with incarcerated people in Pennsylvania state prisons, Vice reports.

“[The] DOC should never impose punishment on the people in its care based on a test less reliable than the flip of a coin,” Leonida added.



Photograph by Brendan C via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0


Adryan Corcione

Adryan is a journalist and writer covering drugs and policing. Their reporting has appeared in publications including Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, Vice and Complex. They live in New Jersey.

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