During an eight-month period in 2019, approximately 1,600 inmates in New York's prison system were penalized for faulty drug tests.
According to a report released in January 2022 by the State Office of the Inspector General, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DCCS) started using Microgenics' drug tests, resulting in "rampant" false positives for synthetic cannabinoids and the opioid buprenorphine.
Punishment for positive drug tests is harsh. It includes solitary confinement, termination from prison jobs, lost privileges, canceled parole hearings, release delays, and denied family visits.
At least 140 prisoners ended up in solitary confinement for weeks or months due to faulty testing.
Failure to Confirm Positive Tests
Directions for the Microgenics tests stated that any positive result needed confirmation via a second, more sensitive test. DCCS personnel failed to follow this directive.
Instead of using a different second test, as indicated, they simply gave the original test a second time. Doing so resulted in a second positive test. Microgenics also failed to inform prison officials that the sweetener Stevia and over-the-counter antacids can cause false positives.
Most of the inmates receiving false positives had never tested positive for drugs before or during incarceration.
Upon learning that numerous prisoners were being charged with drug violations and punished, DCCS failed to take prompt action to investigate the situation.
Eventually, the Inspector General's office sent six positive Microgenics tests to two outside laboratories. These laboratories determined that four of the six tests were false positives.
Blame on Two Individuals
The Inspector General's report lays much of the blame on two specific individuals, the former administrator of the Incarcerated Individual Drug Testing Program and a salesperson for Microgenics.
Neither person had the necessary background or training to conduct legal and scientific reviews, but they revised the DCCS drug testing policy to support Microgenics' drug-testing system.
No evidence of a legal and scientific review was presented prior to the revision. The investigation found that DCCS violated State Finance Law when procuring drug testing systems.
Lawsuits by some affected inmates have already been filed. In March 2021, plaintiff Nadezda Steele-Warrick, individually and on behalf of others, filed a lawsuit against Microgenics and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., citing negligence.
Thermo Fisher, the parent company of Microgenics, manufactures and markets drug-testing machines for urinalysis.
According to the lawsuit, Steele-Warrick and thousands of other incarcerated people "suffered undeserved discipline on the basis of false-positive drug test reports."
Steele-Warrick had earned privileges for good behavior that included participation in a program permitting longer family visits. After the false-positive test results for buprenorphine, she lost her privileges and was confined to her cell for 11 days.
In September 2019, she learned the drug use finding had been overturned because the DCCS identified the test's cross-reactivity issues.
A lawsuit filed by NY Attorney General Letitia James on behalf of the Department of Corrections against Microgenics alleging breach of contract is still pending.