New York’s prison system unjustly penalized more than 1,600 inmates based on faulty drug tests, putting them in solitary confinement, delaying their parole hearings and denying them family visits, the New York State inspector general said Tuesday, the New York Times reports. The arbitrary penalties were handed out across the state over eight months in 2019, while the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision relied on improperly administered drug tests made by the company Microgenics. The tests led to “rampant false positive” results for buprenorphine, an opioid used to treat addiction, and synthetic cannabinoids. “This stands as a heartbreaking example of how the absence of transparency can undermine due process and basic human rights,” said inspector general Lucy Lang. The department started using the tests in January 2019. The manufacturer’s directions specified that a positive result should be confirmed with a second, more sensitive test, but officials neglected to do so. Instead, they carried out the same test a second time.
The rate of positive tests immediately spiked, but the department failed to address widespread concerns among prisoners, their families and advocates that many of the results were false positives. The report cited several examples of the consequences for prisoners. One woman at Albion Correctional Facility, near Rochester, who had never tested positive for drug use during her two years in custody, suddenly tested positive for synthetic cannabinoids. She was then confined to her cell for 40 days and placed in solitary confinement for 45 days. She lost her prison job and privileges like recreation time, receipt of packages and phone use for months. She was also denied visits with her three children. A review of internal Microgenics documents found that even ingesting over-the-counter antacids and the sweetener Stevia could potentially lead to false positives. The company failed to disclose those possibilities. The corrections department said it cooperated with the inspector general’s investigation and adopted all its recommendations, which included ending solitary confinement in response to drug tests and improving drug-test training and data collection.