Thousands of prison records expunged, drug tests yielded false positives
ALBANY — Some 2,500 state prison disciplinary records have been expunged after a determination the Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision was relying on flawed drug tests that repeatedly yielded false positives for illicit drugs.
A scathing report issued Tuesday by state Inspector General Lucy Lang found that some 1,600 inmates were inappropriately sent to solitary confinement, had their parole release date delayed and had family visits canceled because of the faulty drug tests involving equipment from a private vendor, Microgenics. The state has since dropped that contractor.
“This report really speaks for itself as a perfect storm of a series of bad decisions and sometimes accidents that led to really catastrophic results and traumatized many, many New Yorkers,” Lang told reporters.
Troubled by the impacts on those sanctioned as a result of the false positives, Lang’s agency advised the prison system to release from disciplinary housing any prisoners whose punishment was linked to a positive finding from Microgenics equipment.
The prison agency also complied with the inspector general’s suggestion that it reverse and expunge the disciplinary records of an estimated 2,500 inmates found guilty of drug consumption based upon a Microgenics test result.
Problems with the drug tests were first publicly spotlighted in an August 2020 CNHI news story that revealed the state had halted all inmate drug testing following questions about the reliability of the tests.
The leader of the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), Michael B. Powers, said then the lack of accurate testing equipment had made prisons more dangerous for the officers.
Lang acknowledged her agency began scrutinizing the state’s use of Microgenics tests after being consulted by the prison system’s office of special investigations, which functions as an internal affairs investigations unit.
Over an eight-month span in 2019, 3,018 inmates tested positive for drug use, with positive results indicated for buprenorphine in 2,199 cases and 1,632 of those individuals ending up facing punishment, The investigation also found that a DOCCS associate commissioner, who has since left the agency, failed to take follow-up action after learning in August 2019 that five inmates who tested positive for buprenorphine with Microgenics equipment had no detectable level of the drug in their urine.
‘Travesty of justice’
Lang’s report also chastised Microgenics representatives for allegedly misleading prison agency officials when inmates disputed the accuracy of the drug-testing equipment.
“The fact that incarcerated New Yorkers were further deprived of their liberty without cause or due process is devastating,” Lang said, noting the prison agency failed to get confirmation of test results even after questions surfaced about their reliability.
Karen Murtaugh, the executive director of Prisoners Legal Services, called it a “travesty of justice” that inmates were disciplined based on flawed drug tests.
“The Inspector General’s report shines a much-needed spotlight on activities within the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that have significantly impacted the basic human rights of incarcerated people,” Murtaugh said NYSCOPBA, meanwhile, has been clamoring for the state to bring back what was known as the secure vendor package program to make it more difficult to smuggle contraband into the prisons. Illicit drugs and materials that can be fashioned into weapons have at times turned up in packages sent to inmates. The union’s proposal would require that items sent to prisoners be purchased through a pre-approved list of vendors.
$1.6 Million contract
The report noted that the Microgenics drug-testing equipment was acquired by DOCCS in an October 2018 contract paying Microgenics $1.6 million over five years. The procurement, the report noted, was coordinated by Corey Bedard, who at the time was the agency’s administrator of the drug-testing program.
Microgenics installed its drug-testing systems at 52 state correctional facilities in early 2019.
When questioned by the inspector general’s investigators, Bedard stated, “The science behind this is not my forte,” according to the report.
The investigation also concluded DOCCS failed to adequately train drug-testing staff and hearing officers on the drug tests and instruments.
Thomas Mailey, spokesman for DOCCS, said his agency “fully cooperated” with the investigation.
“DOCCS has adopted and is implementing all of the Inspector General’s recommendations,” Mailey said. “We appreciate the thoroughness of the investigation as DOCCS strives to run fair, safe and secure facilities across the state.”
Lang lamented that a female prisoner, as a result of a false positive test finding she had synthetic marijuana in her urine, was kicked out of a shock incarceration program at the Lakeview Facility in Western New York and transferred to Albion Correctional Facility, prolonging her time behind bars.
The inaccurate test led to the woman missing the birth of a grandchild, Lang said.
Several lawsuits arising from the testing troubles are pending, she said.