Faulty Drug Tests From 2023 Lawsuit Behind WA Prison Greeting Card Ban

    The Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) decision to ban greeting cards and postcards was informed by its continued use of unreliable drug-testing kits without confirming the results. The department had previously declared that it no longer used the practice to punish people in its custody.

    On May 22, Filter reported that WDOC will stop delivering all greeting cards and postcards mailed to the approximately 14,700 people incarcerated in state prisons, effective June 15. Instead, it will deliver photocopies of the cards and then destroy the cards themselves, stating that this is a necessary measure to combat the rise in synthetic drugs entering prisons by mail.

    On May 28, in response to Filter’s initial inquiries, WDOC confirmed that “colorimetric tests, such as NIK testing, are being used along with other testing methods to determine whether incoming mail contains synthetic cannabinoids. These tests are a quick and effective method for initial drug detection.”

    Colorimetric test results aren’t intended to be used as evidence on their own. They’re supposed to be confirmed at a forensics lab; many manufacturers list it in the instructions as a requirement, and the initial results are notoriously prone to false positives. WDOC told Filter it had begun contracting with NMS Labs, but was only sending mail for confirmatory testing “in some cases.”

    Some states have moved away from NIK tests, specifically, because they weren’t suitable for synthetic cannabinoids.

    While it’s true that colorimetric tests are a quick method of initial drug detection, they’ve been widely established as an ineffective one—particularly for synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as “Spice” or “K2.” In September 2023, amid a class-action lawsuit, WDOC announced it would no longer sanction prisoners based solely on unconfirmed results from colorimetric tests. In December Filter reported that the department had continued the practice.

    NMS Labs obtains confirmatory results through Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry analysis, which is considered the gold-standard in forensic drug-checking. WDOC obtains its initial results through subjective determinations by staff by about whether the chemical reagent has changed to something that’s more of a yellow or an orange or a brown. Some state prison systems have moved away from NIK kits, specifically, because they weren’t suited to testing for synthetic cannabinoids.

    “While it’s understood that this policy may affect many for the actions of a few, the safety and security of the facility and its inhabitants are of utmost importance,” WDOC stated to Filter, “especially with the prevalence of websites openly selling drug laced paper and greeting cards, and only a fraction of which is needed to cause serious intoxication.” The department did not directly respond to Filter‘s inquiry about its stance on group punishment and whether the ban was being used as such.

     

     

    “[A] single 5×7 greeting card can be divided up into over 1000 individual doses and sold for up to $10,000,” WDOC continued, “which puts the entire population at risk.”

    According to multiple people currently in WDOC custody, one standard “hit” is a quarter-inch square of paper sold for $5, meaning a 5″ x 7″ card would yield 560 hits, which could be sold for $2,800. In order for the department’s statement to bear out, hits would have be either shrunk down to one-eighth by one-eighth of an inch, or priced at $20; there’s no real market for either.

    WDOC said the ban on greeting cards and postcards was decided in collaboration with the state attorney general’s office. The department did not provide specifics about the increases in the mailroom detections of “synthetic drugs” referenced in its initial announcement of the ban, nor the “increase of violence.”

    It did, however, explain that its reference to an increase in drug-related medical emergencies included “overdoses and the administration of Narcan.” The overdose antidote works on synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, but it has no effect on the synthetic cannabinoids that WDOC said it’s detecting on incoming mail. Nor on the other synthetic drugs that would be relevant to the situation, namely methamphetamine and bath salts.

    Aside from the fact that it only works on opioids, administration of Narcan is not in and of itself evidence that an overdose actually happened. Narcan is used unnecessarily all the time, most notably by law enforcement operating under misinformation about what opioid overdose looks like and how to respond to it.

    For example, a sign posted in the visit room at Washington Corrections Center (Shelton), where Jonathan is currently incarcerated, states that a common symptom used to identify opioid overdose is seizures. This is an extremely rare reaction to opioids—synthetic or otherwise—that is much more indicative of synthetic cannabinoids, or stimulants.

    One man told Filter that he and his daughter communicate entirely through greeting cards.

    At Shelton, the culture around corrections officers’ use of Narcan has changed drastically over the past year. Whereas they once openly refused to to administer it, since being cleared to carry it on them at all times in October 2023 it’s become a running joke on the compound that they’ll Narcan you for something like the common cold—because, “You never know!”

    Greeting cards and postcards are currently the primary source of color on display inside Washington State prisons, and a particularly meaningful form of connection between loved ones separated by state custody.

    One man currently incarcerated at Shelton told Filter that he and his daughter communicate entirely through greeting cards. His conviction did not involve her or any family members, but prohibits him from having unsupervised contact with children, even his own. His daughter currently attends therapy, and her therapist keeps a stack of greeting cards for her. Each week she picks out a card, and the therapist mails it to her dad; it’s their only means of contact.

    Now, each week he’ll get a black-and-white photocopy on 8.5” x 11” printer paper, and WDOC will destroy the one his daughter wrote on.

    Asked about the potential negative impacts on mental health and community ties, WDOC told Filter it is “looking into the costs and possibility of providing color copies.”

     


     

    Top photograph (cropped) via Arkansas State Crime Laboratory. Inset graphic via New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

       

      Kastalia is Filter‘s deputy editor. She previously worked at a number of other media outlets and wouldn’t recommend the drug coverage at any of them. When not at Filter, she works with drug users in NYC and drug checkers in North Carolina to track hyperlocal supply changes, and cohosts a national stimulant users call with Isaac Jackson. 

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