NY lawmaker, CO union want drug testing of contraband to be reinstated
Last month, officials halted the testing after on-site kits were found to have been producing faulty results
By Cara Chapman
DANNEMORA, N.Y. — Speaking across the street from the Clinton Correctional Facility entrance Friday, Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Lake) and the union representing correctional officers voiced support for measures they say would help ensure the safety of those who cross that threshold each day.
“They’ve gone in to work through this crisis we’re going through, through this pandemic, and the least we can do is make sure we stand up and help protect them,” said Jones, himself a former CO, in the Maggy Pharmacy parking lot.
Both Jones and New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association Northern Region Vice President John Roberts argued for swiftly reinstating drug testing of contraband.
Last month, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision halted the testing after on-site kits were found to have been producing faulty results.
The agency told The Press-Republican Friday that current procedures for testing suspected contraband drugs were under review, that testing was suspended during the review and that DOCCS was working with the Office of the Inspector General.
Asked about any measures taken to protect COs and inmates from exposure to potentially lethal substances, DOCCS said staff "continue to perform their duties in an exemplary manner including the detection of contraband drugs."
DOCCS additionally deploys K9 teams to help intercept contraband drugs.
Roberts said DOCCS was trying to find a replacement for the tests, noting the challenges of training people on something new and establishing a new contract.
“I believe DOCCS just wanted to make sure the drug testing they were doing was as close to 100 percent as possible to alleviate false positives.”
According to Roberts, since the drug testing stopped, facilities have seen significant increases in the use of the overdose reversal drug Narcan on inmates and the number of inmates having to go to an outside hospital for a suspected overdose.
DOCCS did not confirm that, but said staff deploy Narcan as part of their standard response to unresponsive inmates.
While medical staff may be able to help identify drugs in pill form, Roberts said, there is currently no way to test a substance that may be K2, marijuana, heroin or fentanyl.
He said COs who inspect packages do not want to take away something that incarcerated individuals are entitled to have, but also want to avoid passing along drugs.
Something like fentanyl, he continued, would be dangerous for anyone who came in contact with it, and it is hard to know what exactly is in drugs that are made synthetically.
“It may be mixed with some PCP or heroin or fentanyl and it just causes massive overdoses to inmates, which is not safe for officers, it’s not safe for inmates, it’s not safe for the medical staff or the communities that have to deal with the overdose at the hospital once they get to an outside hospital.”
Jones additionally noted the ongoing suspension of urinalysis testing of inmates, which he would like to see brought back.
DOCCS said a review of urinalysis procedures was ongoing, and that the agency has continued to conduct targeted testing of the inmate population using an outside laboratory.
DOCCS did not provide a timeline for when either contraband testing or urinalysis testing would be reinstated.
Jones also advocated for the elimination of double-bunking in correctional facilities.
Earlier this year, he reintroduced a bill that would end the practice, which he called a recipe for danger and disaster.
“You’re asking two grown men to set up in a cell or in a cube that is not meant to have two grown men in a space that wide, or that small I should say.”
According to assembly.ny.gov, the bill was referred to the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Correction in January.
Jones said it has been tough to get the bill through, but credited DOCCS with taking procedural measures to end double-bunking.
“There’s certain questions being made about it and a lot of times when you propose legislation to state agencies, it’s not always welcomed with open arms."
DOCCS noted a 49 percent reduction in inmate population across its facilities since 1999, and said the agency has discontinued the use of top bunks in its medium-security facilities during the public health crisis.
"As the incarceration has declined, the department has now taken the step to remove approximately 3,200 top bunks."
SECURE VENDOR PROGRAM
NYSCOPBA is also pushing for a secure vendor program, Roberts said, “to help keep out drugs from being mailed into facilities.”
In January 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo rescinded a pilot version of the program less than two weeks after its launch.
The Press-Republican reported then that opponents to the program cited unnecessary adverse impacts on inmates and their families, arguing among other things that limited vendors had led to inflated pricing of goods.
Jones said union members, local representatives and DOCCS had collaborated to bring the program to fruition.
“We want to see these facilities safe and secure, for everyone inside those facilities, officers, civilians and inmates alike, so I have to question why we keep not instituting programs or why we would eliminate programs that help keep these facilities safe.”
DOCCS said the secure vendor program was temporarily suspended.
Given the associated safety issues, Jones did not think he and NYSCOPBA were asking for too much.
He argued that the programs were not punitive to anyone, and that supporting them was part of an effort to make sure everything was being done to make prisons safe and secure.
“We’re out here because we care about the safety and the security of these facilities and the people that are behind those walls.”
©2020 the Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, N.Y.)