The WA Department of Corrections (DOC) is facing a lawsuit over its use of inaccurate drug field tests to throw incarcerated people in solitary confinement.
The class-action lawsuit, filed by Columbia Legal Services alleges that the DOC uses unreliable field kits to test mail for drugs. From there, the DOC uses the unverified results to put inmates in solitary confinement, move them to higher security prisons, and strip them of visitation rights and other privileges. This violates inmates’ Due Process rights and protections against cruel punishment under the state constitution, the suit argues.
According to the lawsuit, one of the plaintiffs spent four months in solitary confinement after greeting cards shipped directly to him from a card company tested positive for drugs. The results were later invalidated by a lab. Another plaintiff, Gregory Hyde, was kept in solitary confinement—meaning he was in a cell for 23 hours a day—for nearly five months. This happened because some books of crossword and sudoku puzzles that his father mailed him tested positive for “spice,” a popular drug in prisons.
“I think DOC is using its power to punish people who can’t fight back . . . My elderly father just wanted to send me some puzzle books. Now they’re saying he’s a drug dealer. Now my father is too far away to see because I got transferred to a different facility. My father is impoverished and on a fixed income. I think it’s an abuse of power.” ~Gregory Hyde, DOC inmate, in a press release.
The lawsuit comes roughly two years after a Massachusetts judge ordered that state prison system to stop using similar field tests, finding that they were “highly unreliable” and “only marginally better than a coin-flip.” That suit followed claims by over a dozen Massachusetts attorneys who said they were falsely accused of sending drugs to their incarcerated clients.
Reason reported in 2021 on how these cheap field tests, which use instant color reactions to indicate the presence of compounds found in certain drugs, are used extensively in prison systems across the country to punish inmates, despite clear warnings from the manufacturers that the results should be confirmed by outside labs.
The problem is that the compounds these kits test for are not exclusive to illicit drugs and are in fact found in dozens of legal substances. Police also use these tests during traffic stops, and over the years, officers have arrested and jailed innocent people after drug field kits returned presumptive positive results when tested on bird poop, donut glaze, cotton candy, and sand from inside a stress ball. A 2017 investigation by a Georgia news station found that one brand of test kit produced 145 false positives in the state in one year.
In criminal cases, the results of drug field tests are always verified by an outside lab. However, incarcerated people have far fewer rights in administrative disciplinary hearings, and they don’t have the right to demand that “presumptive positive” tests be sent out for confirmation.
The lawsuit says the DOC agreed to change its policies after receiving Columbia Legal Service’s threat of litigation. However, Columbia Legal Services says the changes weren’t adequate to protect incarcerated people’s rights.
“DOC’s repeated and prolonged use of solitary confinement before and after any infraction hearings is inhumane . . . Prolonged solitary confinement is internationally recognized as a form of torture. DOC must be required to stop its use of these cheap tests to unfairly punish people, especially with its barbaric use of solitary confinement.” ~Alison Bilow, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services
Clearly, prison is a terrible outcome to be avoided at all costs. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.