False Alarm

IN THE FIGHT to keep drugs out of prisons, wardens resort to all kinds of arcane and invasive tactics. They turn cameras on visitors, let dogs sniff bags, and require extensive pat-down searches. Before being allowed into a visiting area, people must shake out their hair, pull out their pockets, strip off their belts, remove their shoes, open their mouths, and even remove their false teeth.

Now wardens are turning to what they call a "non-intrusive" method of discovering drug smuggling among prison visitors: the Itemiser Contraband Detector. The electronic drug-detection device — manufactured by Ion Track Instruments (ITI), in Wilmington, Massachusetts — seems simple to use. Prison visitors receive a piece of paper that looks like a coffee filter. They rub it on their hands, between their fingers, over their pockets, and on their shoes. The paper is inserted into the machine, which uses ion-mobility spectrometry — a scientific technique that measures charged atoms, or ions, as they move through an electromagnetic field — to scan for 40 different illegal substances, including cocaine, LSD, heroin, and PCP. Machines are currently in place at United States embassies, along state highways, and at customs checkpoints. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to install the Itemiser in 400 airports nationwide. And the device can be found at nearly 125 prisons in 28 states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, and, as of January, Massachusetts. Under a pilot program, prison officials installed an Itemiser at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) in Shirley, MA, a "maximum" facility featuring the most restrictive, state-of-the-art security measures in the Massachusetts prison system. Just six months into the program, however, prison visitors have joined a class-action lawsuit charging that use of the machine violates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches, as well as due-process guarantees. The suit also alleges that use of the machine violates Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) regulations detailing what kinds of searches prison visitors may be subjected to. No DOC rule authorizes searching people with an electronic scanner.

The desktop device looks innocent enough. Suzanne Glacken, 57, a retired Milford educator who first underwent the drill last January during a trip to visit her 30-year-old son Derek, compares it to an electrocardiograph. And she believed she had as little to fear from the Itemiser as she did from a heart machine. She says she’s never ingested an illegal substance in her life. She quit smoking cigarettes 40 years ago. She doesn’t even like using Tylenol. "The only drugs I touch are prescribed by my doctor," says Glacken, who takes medication for arthritis, asthma, and anxiety. "I figured, I don’t use illegal drugs. Why worry?"

But just a few weeks later, Glacken returned for another visit with her son, who’s serving a life sentence for murder. She routinely swiped her clothing and skin as required, and the machine’s computer panel lit up with a flashing red light. She was told she had tested positive for not one, but two street drugs: heroin and marijuana. "I nearly fell over," she recalls. "I thought, ‘You have got to be kidding me. This machine is wrong.’"

Glacken pleaded with SBCC guards for a retest, but they refused. She demanded to see a copy of her results, to no avail. Insulted and reduced to tears, she left that day and hasn’t returned since. Glacken is one of 237 visitors among 4442 — just over five percent — who have registered at least one positive scan by the Itemiser since January. Although she misses her son "terribly," she is convinced that she could touch off the Itemiser again — something that she does not want to risk. According to DOC policy, visitors who test positive once must submit to a pat-down search; if no contraband is found, they can enter the facility. People who receive a second positive result lose the right to "contact visits" for six months. Instead, they must be separated from prisoners by a plexiglass wall while they talk over a phone. Visitors with a third positive are barred from the prison for as long as DOC officials see fit. Glacken can’t shake her fear of being banned from visiting her son, she says. Nor can she shake the sense of shame that comes from "being flagged a heroin user by a machine."

"It’s like I’m Hester Prynne," Glacken adds. "I’ve got this big scarlet letter on my chest. Except I haven’t done anything wrong."

MASSACHUSETTS ISN’T the only place where the Itemiser — and its competitor, the Ionscan, manufactured by Barringer Technologies, Inc. in Warren, New Jersey — has come under fire. In October 1999, criticism prompted Missouri legislators to institute a temporary moratorium on using the Itemiser. And after a lawsuit was filed in that state similar to the one just filed in Massachusetts, Missouri lawmakers voted to maintain the ban indefinitely. The Itemiser also faces challenges in Colorado, California, and Louisiana.

More recently, Iowa erupted in controversy last summer when its Department of Corrections installed the Itemiser at nine facilities. Dozens of visitors — from six-year-old kids to 60-year-old grandmothers — appealed to the Iowa Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) after facing sanctions for what they claimed were false positives. Randall Wilson, who heads the ICLU legal division, says prison officials not only rescinded the visitation rights of those who had tested positive, but also released their names to law-enforcement agencies. In several cases, police seized the results as reason to investigate people on suspicion of drug-related crimes. When a toddler scanned positive for marijuana, his mother became the subject of a child-welfare probe by the state. At one facility, a warden grew so fed up with complaints that he volunteered to test the device for accuracy, Wilson says — only to test positive himself.

"The test is too sensitive," Wilson charges. He has since negotiated a "strict" Itemiser policy with the Iowa DOC. Positive scans can be retaken, followed by searches, and appealed. The DOC has also ceased handing results over to police. "This device discovers contact with illegal substances," he says, "but it cannot discriminate between innocence and guilt. In real life, the science is guesswork."

Despite these pockets of debate, however, ITI officials have evaded public scrutiny. The scientific community accepts ion-mobility spectrometry as sound. Independent analysts have verified the machine’s accuracy; according to the company, the FAA performed a battery of evaluations that showed the Itemiser to be effective at detecting explosives. ITI officials, in short, stand by their product — so much so that they declined to answer the Phoenix’s questions about the recent problems at SBCC. Explains ITI marketing director Jim Bergen, "We do not comment on how clients use the equipment." The company has trained SBCC staff to operate it, he says. "We provide the equipment, and it does what we say it does."

But not every scientist trusts ion-mobility spectrometry to detect drugs accurately. James Woodford, an independent scientist who has studied drug-detection devices for 25 years and who’s worked at forensic laboratories for the US Army and the US Customs Service, speaks for many chemists when he describes the Itemiser as "a watered-down, cheapened version of the real thing." By Woodford’s standard — and by those of government crime labs and the courts — the only truly reliable devices use gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to detect drugs.

In a GC/MS system, substances taken from the filter paper are put in a chamber where they are converted into gas. The vapors are heated and broken down into ions, which are shot through an electromagnetic field. To identify the substances, the GC/MS machine is calibrated to measure various characteristics of the ions, including their mass, their chemical composition, and the time it takes them to move through the field.

The Itemiser, on the other hand, does not purify a substance by converting its components into gases. Instead, the machine bakes material to reduce it to ions. Unlike a GC/MS machine, the Itemiser simply measures the time it takes these ions to move through the electromagnetic field. By focusing on just one of many traits, Woodford says, the Itemiser comes to a premature conclusion. "Any chemist knows the length of time an ion flies doesn’t tell you much about a substance," he explains. "It’s like trying to construct a face but ending up with only an eyelid or a nose."

Simply put, it does not require much to trigger a positive result on these machines. Sometimes, the Itemiser correctly identifies a substance but can’t determine whether it’s coming from illegal drugs or prescription medication; for example, the Itemiser has no way of distinguishing the illegal compound methamphetamine from the kind of stimulants found in numerous prescription drugs. More often, the machine detects such tiny traces of contraband that, as Graham Boyd of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project notes, "people can show up positive just because drug residue is so common in our society." If someone rents an apartment in which the previous renter had smoked pot, for example, the new tenant could produce a positive scan for marijuana. Someone who sorts significant amounts of money while working at a bank could test positive for cocaine (Woodford and other chemists have found that as much as 90 percent of American currency carries cocaine traces).

At a May meeting between the DOC and the class-action plaintiffs, even an ITI chemist admitted that it is possible for people to set off the Itemiser if they’ve had unknowing or innocuous exposure to drugs. In an account of the session obtained by the Phoenix, the ITI chemist recognized that a woman could test positive for marijuana if her son had smoked pot in the family car, and she later touched its steering wheel or dashboard. Likewise, a prison visitor who snorts cocaine before entering the facility could contaminate portions of the lobby. Those who touched the same doorknob or locker as that visitor could then test positive for cocaine.

MAYBE THAT’S what happened to Sherrad Barton, a 35-year-old social worker from Dorchester, MA who counsels recovering substance abusers. Once a week, Barton visits her long-time friend Darrell, who is serving a life sentence for murder. During nearly every visit since February, Barton has watched one visitor after another succumb to anger, frustration, and even tears after a positive result from the Itemiser. Once, Barton observed a personal acquaintance — a veteran teacher and devout Muslim — test positive for heroin. The woman "has no tolerance for drugs," Barton says. "That she would test positive for heroin seemed ridiculous." Other times, she has seen elderly women, some with grandchildren in tow, flunk after the device detected substances such as amphetamines, PCP, and cocaine.

"I couldn’t help but think this machine is messed up,’" recalls Barton. "I have regular contact with substance abusers. I thought, ‘This is a scam, and my day is coming.’"

Barton’s suspicions turned out to be correct. On May 5, after spending a work day at a Quincy, MA-based substance-abuse clinic, she arrived at SBCC for her routine visit — only to set off the Itemiser’s alarm. The guards staffing the machine told her that she had scanned positive for trace particles of amphetamines. They then informed her of the DOC policy regarding test results.

"I was livid," she says. She requested another test, but the guards refused. She asked for her results — again, the guards declined. After submitting to a search that yielded no illegal substances, Barton was allowed to pass. But she walked away from the experience determined to prove the Itemiser wrong.

Three days later, as soon as she could contact her own primary-care physician, she went to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she shelled out $458 for blood and urine analyses. Both came back negative for illegal drugs. On May 16 she sent a letter to SBCC superintendent Edward Ficco expressing her concerns about the Itemiser, and she enclosed her drug-free test results. Because of her daily exposure to substance abusers — to people who use and handle drugs — Barton started scrubbing her hands with soap and alcohol before entering SBCC. She even purchased a new pair of shoes for such occasions.

Despite her precautions, Barton flunked the Itemiser screening again on June 26 — this time, purportedly for cocaine. Seven days later, she failed the test for the third time after getting another positive hit for cocaine. The situation has made her realize how her clients must feel when they complain about a faulty drug-detection device. "I’m used to people saying they didn’t do anything; it’s the machine," she explains. "Now I’m saying it, and it’s humiliating."

Her humiliation is shared by scores of people who visit prisoners at SBCC. Soon after the Itemiser was installed last January, complaints about its accuracy began flowing into the Boston-based Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services (MCLS). MCLS attorney Jim Pingeon has taken affidavits from 50 visitors, including Barton. He says people from ministers to business owners to grandmothers claim the device produces erroneous results. "It would be one thing if a few people called," he says. "But dozens of people who don’t fit the [drug-smuggler] stereotype have complained."

In March, Pingeon filed Bouchard, et al. v. Ficco, et al. at Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of five women who, like Barton, have been denied visitation rights because of the Itemiser. They’re suing SBCC superintendent Ficco and DOC commissioner Michael Maloney for using "an unreliable electronic drug-detection device that falsely labels [plaintiffs] a drug user or smuggler." The DOC policy recognizes that a positive result does not prove a visitor is using or smuggling illegal drugs. But prison officials believe a positive result proves that a visitor has had direct contact with such drugs — a proposition they take very seriously. Yet Pingeon says the DOC is wrong to make that assumption. "Taking action based on the idea that a visitor [who tests positive] may be a security risk is too speculative," he says. The suit asks the court to find that use of the Itemiser violates DOC visitation regulations, the state Administrative Procedures Act, and the constitutional rights of prison visitors, and order the DOC to get rid of it.

The problem, Pingeon explains, is not simply that prison officials use the device, but that they allow a machine to serve as final arbiter. As a result, people who insist they have never intentionally touched an illicit substance — let alone tried to sneak such substances behind prison walls — have found themselves in a tough spot. The DOC policy leaves them with little chance to challenge the results. "This mysterious machine declares a positive, and people are denied entrance," he says. "A test that isn’t reliable is not a legitimate reason for denying people rights."

Pingeon is convinced that innocent people are suffering — people like Glacken, Barton, and Mary Ann Basile. Basile, 52, a Watertown, MA administrative assistant, has a 29-year-old son, Salvatore, who is in prison for robbery. She has not returned to SBCC to visit him since she scanned positive for heroin and marijuana twice last April; she fears an indefinite prison ban if she tests positive a third time. "I don’t want to take the chance of not being able to see my son," says Basile, who suspects that the Itemiser is detecting the medication she gives her 10-year-old granddaughter for attention-deficit disorder. Basile misses her weekly encounters with her son — seeing him in the flesh, offering him a hug. "When I’m not mad about this," she says, "I’m sad. I feel at the mercy of this machine."

DOC spokesperson Justin Latini contends that the department does not hold positive results against visitors because "we don’t accuse people of illegal activity." He says the department doesn’t report those results to outside law-enforcement agencies. When asked whether stripping away visitation rights is fair treatment for people whose positive scans may be no fault of their own, he replies, "For a machine to err three times on the same person doesn’t seem likely."

Even Latini, though, seems aware that the machine can be set off by legal drugs; he admits the DOC keeps "a short list" of prescription drugs that can trigger positive readings, though he declines to identify them. According to Woodford, numerous medications — including nitroglycerin, diet aids, and asthma inhalers — can touch off the Itemiser because they contain amphetamines. Medicines for attention-deficit disorder — such as Adderall, which Basile gives her granddaughter — also consist of amphetamines. Latini maintains that those who take DOC-specified medications will not be denied prison access if they produce a doctor’s note. "Anyone else," he says, "can appeal to the commissioner.... There is opportunity to be heard."

Despite all the complaints, Latini insists the Itemiser is worth it. SBCC officials have never found illegal drugs on any of the 237 visitors who have tested positive with the Itemiser screening, he confirms. But he stresses that positive results have dropped in the past six months from eight percent in January to 5.3 percent today. When asked what’s responsible for the decline, he responds, "I don’t know. It could be people are staying away from drugs."

Or it could be that, like Barton, visitors have begun donning new shoes and scrubbing their hands clean before entering the prison.

Regardless, the Itemiser represents a technology that’s probably here to stay — false positives or no. Correctional departments have a legitimate need to ensure that their facilities remain free from contraband. Latini says, "We try to use any technology or new system that we feel is good to prevent the introduction of drugs and explosives into our facilities." This device, he adds, "is just one more tool to assist us."

Besides, Americans are dazzled by science, awed by newfangled machinery. The spread of drug-detection equipment throughout the country’s prisons essentially mirrors what has happened in other social arenas, observes Lewis Maltby of the Princeton, New Jersey–based National Work Rights Institute. Maltby has long tracked the practice of drug testing in the workplace. Whenever another device appears, he says, "employers are so gung ho to use it that they forget all about accuracy." He points to hair tests and sweat patches — two devices that have grown more and more popular among employers despite criticism. Employers, Maltby adds, "don’t care whether these tests are good; they just want the technology."

Woodford, too, has seen questionable new devices ease into the mainstream after their introduction in such venues as prisons, airports, and housing projects, where people remain powerless to object. Police now use a "passive alcohol sensor" that does not meet certified breath-analysis standards. Sheriffs’ departments have turned to an instrument known as the "modified Duquenois," which supposedly determines whether a plant is marijuana. But things like coffee, animal urine, and everyday hemp can trigger false positives.

"Technology is so intoxicating, it’s unstoppable," says the ICLU’s Wilson. Today, the Itemiser may be relegated to prisons. But tomorrow, it could come to a school or an employer near you if the technology catches on — as its manufacturer hopes it will. And without safe and skeptical policies regarding its use, says Wilson, the device results in "not good, but evil." In Iowa, the ICLU still receives the occasional complaint about its accuracy. But now that positive scans in that state can be retested and appealed, there are far fewer complaints. The Iowa DOC has become more realistic about the Itemiser. "The controversy has taught officials this is not a magic machine," Wilson explains. "They are prepared to use it with healthy skepticism."

And they should. After all, critics say, the experiences of Glacken, Barton, and Basile show what can happen when people place blind faith in technology. According to Kent Holtorf, an anesthesiologist who researches drug-detection equipment, "No drug test or device is free from error." Even the GC/MS test — the gold standard in drug-detection equipment — has a four percent error rate. Too often, however, these machines get treated as infallible. "It’s guilty before proven innocent," he says, "and that’s a problem." As America turns to technology to combat drugs, Holtorf predicts, "you will find more innocent people getting hurt."

This seems especially true for the Itemiser, which, as the DOC’s Latini admits, cannot root out a drug smuggler. When it comes to achieving that goal, it’s less effective than the inspections that each visitor to SBCC must undergo; during that routine search, a guard who notices anything suspicious already has the right to pat down the visitor. "This technology will not stop drug smuggling because it cannot detect drug smuggling," Boyd says bluntly. "In reality, it shouldn’t be used at all."

Perhaps DOC officials recognize the merit in these arguments. They have made a nod toward settling the lawsuit by proposing changes to the Itemiser policy, says Pingeon. He declines to get specific because of ongoing settlement talks. Still, he describes the offer as an "improvement" that would increase safeguards against false positives and reduce sanctions.

Latini, meanwhile, contends that the DOC has yet to determine the pilot program’s efficacy by comparing SBCC statistics about positive Itemiser results with results at other prisons operating the machine, as well as with the manufacturer’s guidelines. If the Itemiser is found effective, the DOC may install it in all 22 facilities statewide. "We are in the process of measuring efficacy," he says. "No decision has been made." Still, he emphasizes that the Itemiser must be "fairly effective" for the staff at SBCC to continue using it.

But if the DOC needs a reminder of the harm that technology can cause, it should look no further than Suzanne Glacken. Five months after her positive scan, she’s just now mustering the nerve to return to SBCC. In April, she sent prison officials a letter from her doctor outlining her medical regimen. She’s bought a new outfit — down to the undergarments — to wear during her next visit. She’s even keeping the clothes in their packages, which she will open just before going to the prison. "I always said I’d do whatever it takes to see Derek," Glacken says. "I guess I never thought a machine would be what holds me back."

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi@phx.com.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.