ALBANY — The state prison system has halted all drug testing of contraband sent to inmates after they produced erroneous results, sparking an ongoing investigation, officials confirmed Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision, Rachel Connors confirmed in response to a CNHI inquiry that false positives reported after the testing are now being investigated by the state Inspector General's Office.
Michael B. Powers, president of the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, said that without testing, the prisons have become a more dangerous workplace for his union members.
He called on the state agency to rectify the problem with testing immediately, noting the department first became aware of the situation last week.
The on-site testing gear, when working as intended, allows officers to get tests of samples back in about 90 minutes, Powers told CNHI.
"Regardless of what happens with this investigation, my members are in harm's way" until the situation is fully rectified and the testing resumes, Powers added.
Connors, citing the fact there is an ongoing investigation, would not elaborate about the ongoing inquiry.
An internal DOCCS memo sent to all facility superintendents last week and subsequently acquired by CNHI said any pending disciplinary hearing involving a drug possession accusation and the administration of a drug test should be adjourned.
The memo also indicated that any inmates ordered held in solitary confinement in connection with the testing of contraband should be released from the special housing units if no additional disciplinary charges were pending against those inmates.
Powers said it is unknown how long the DOCCS on-site testing kits had been producing faulty results.
However, because of the problems, inmates facing discipline for violating prison rules are now being released from special housing units "in large numbers," he added.
“Steps need to be taken immediately to ensure that the hard working men and women of NYSCOPBA can properly administer these tests to ensure that prison rules are not flouted and the safety of our members is not further jeopardized,” Powers said.
The NARKII test kits at the center of the New York inquiry are controversial, with questions arising about their accuracy in several states.
A 2016 inquiry by ProPublica, a not-for-profit journalism project, found that NARKII tests are "prone to error."
Powers said the ability to conduct field tests on suspected contraband is vital to the effort to keep illicit drugs out of the prisons.
"NYSCOPBA members are trained to be on high alert at all times for all manner of trafficking in illegal drugs and they do a fantastic job putting those skills to use," Powers said.
As a result of DOCCS halting the contraband testing, he said, "Employees have lost an invaluable mechanism by which to protect facilities and to hold inmates accountable for their actions. They cannot test, morale among the employees is dangerously low, and inmates are bound to know that."
He also said the agency last year failed to properly administer urinalysis tests of inmates under the influence of contraband drugs and alcohol.
Powers emphasized his union members are prepared to assist the prison agency in keeping facilities safe.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.