Judge Orders Massachusetts Prisons To Stop Using ‘Highly Unreliable’ Drug Field Tests To Punish Inmates
A Massachusetts judge has ordered the state prison system to stop using drug field tests with well-known reliability issues after incarcerated people and their lawyers claimed they were falsely accused of smuggling drugs for exchanging legitimate legal mail.
In July, several Massachusetts inmates and attorneys, represented by Justice Catalyst Law and the law firm BraunHagey & Borden, filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) uses NARK II test kits to detect synthetic cannabinoids even though those tests have an error rate so high that they’re akin to “witchcraft, phrenology or simply picking a number out of a hat.”
On Tuesday, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Brian Davis issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the DOC from punishing inmates based solely on the results of unverified NARK II field tests. Davis found that the tests were “highly unreliable” and “only marginally better than a coin-flip.” He ruled that the DOC’s practice of placing inmates in solitary confinement and restricting access to their lawyers before those field tests were verified by outside labs “constitutes an arbitrary and unlawful interference with Plaintiffs’ right to counsel, as well as their right to due process.”
As Reason reported earlier this year, such drug field test kits are manufactured by several different companies and are used by police departments and prison systems across the country, despite hundreds of documented wrongful arrests and clear instructions from the manufacturers that the tests should be verified by crime labs. The federal Bureau of Prisons, for instance, uses such tests to put incarcerated people in solitary confinement and strip them of good behavior credits and visitation privileges, all without ever sending the test to outside labs for confirmation.
The test kits use instant color reactions to indicate the presence of certain compounds found in illegal drugs, but those same compounds are also found in dozens of known licit substances. An Atlanta woman was recently jailed for nearly six months after sand inside a stress ball in her purse allegedly tested positive for cocaine. Last year in Georgia, a college football quarterback was arrested after bird poop on his car tested po
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