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Scanning of prison visitors under fire

Inaccurate drug detector prompts unfair penalties

Monday, August 27, 2001

By Mike Bucsko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Guards and visitors alike were a little skeptical last week when an electronic drug detection device at the state prison on the North Side produced positive results on a steady succession of visitors.

More eyebrows were raised when the electronic ion scanner indicated a positive result for cocaine after a test on Capt. Gregory Claiborne, the guards' shift commander.

Claiborne, who was tested because of concern about the machine's operation, ordered it shut down but not before the bogus results angered some visitors.

"People were getting a little mad," said Carol Scire, spokeswoman for the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh in Woods Run.

Not every visitor is tested, but penalties for a positive test are serious. The first time, the person is forbidden on prison grounds for six months. The second time, it's a year, and the third time, you're out for good.

Those who visited Aug. 19 and tested positive when the machine was suspected of producing faulty results will have their records cleared, Scire said.

But there is no remedy for others who may have tested positive unfairly in the past.

Narcotics and explosives leave microscopic particles behind on clothing and hands when handled. The ion scanners, used in 15 Pennsylvania state prisons for about five years, use trace detection technology to register the presence of those microscopic particles and vapors after they're gathered by a paper used to wipe hands or clothing or a hand-held vacuum.

The machines can test for 40 different drugs, but Pennsylvania has used the scanners to detect only 15, including cocaine, marijuana and PCP, according to information former Corrections Secretary Martin Horn provided in a 1998 article in a correctional officers publication.

The state Department of Corrections did not respond to verbal and written requests for information about the use of the scanners, including reports about the machines' effectiveness, whether appeals or waivers on positive tests can be sought under state policies and the number of false positive tests by scanners.

Lisa Aaron, a department spokeswoman, said she had referred questions from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to Secretary Jeffrey Beard and Beard's office did not respond.

Problems with the scanners have not been serious enough to warrant action by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Executive Director Witold "Vic" Walczak said.

People who visit a prison should expect to be searched, but Walczak said the scanners may not be the most reliable way to determine whether someone should be allowed to visit an inmate.

The use of scanners has been challenged in other states and resulted in negotiated agreements for lesser penalties for positive tests.

Iowa had penalties similar to those in Pennsylvania for visitors who tested positive for drugs with ion scanners, but the state agreed to substantially decrease them after numerous complaints from citizens and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union.

The ICLU challenged the use of the scanners after it received complaints from prison visitors, including a 68-year-old woman who erroneously tested positive for the hallucinogenic drug LSD, said Randall C. Wilson, the ICLU's legal director in Des Moines.

Iowa prison officials shared results of the positive tests with other law enforcement agencies in the state, which caused problems for people who believed they were unfairly stuck with positive results, Wilson said.

"They gave information to other law enforcement agencies, so as a result of having even an insignificant reading on the scanner, you could be listed on a national crime index as a drug dealer," he said. "Sixty-eight-year-old grandmothers don't like that."

Ion scanners are sophisticated equipment that would be more suitable for laboratory use than for public purposes, Wilson said. The training provided for prison guards is not adequate and that causes problems with the readings, he said.

In Iowa, a prison visitor can be retested if the result is positive and often the result is not duplicated.

The scanners produce positive results from microscopic particles of drugs that could be found on some items, particularly paper money, most of which contains traces of narcotics.

The scanner used at SCI Pittsburgh and other state prisons, called an Itemiser, is made by Ion Track Instruments in Wilmington, Mass. The product is used in 30 states in federal and state prisons, as well as at more than 40 airports, company spokesman Jim Bergen said.

When a scanner produces a positive result, it has found narcotics to be present and it is not a false positive result, Bergen said. The result could be from minute traces of drugs on money or from the drugs themselves, but what agencies or institutions, such as prisons, do with those results is up to them, he said.

"When you go through a metal detector at an airport and it goes off, it doesn't mean that it's a false positive, or that you have a gun or a knife on you; it just means that it detected something that's metal," Bergen said. "We stand by our equipment and are very confident that it does what it's designed to do."

Wilson said the scanners should be a starting point to examine prison visitors and not an end in itself.

"The problem is you have accusations being thrown out by the machine based on some arbitrary level set by some faceless bureaucrat," Wilson said. "The big problem then is, what is the response? The tendency is to overreact to a positive result.

"A positive result should only be an indication for further inquiry. The reality of it is that it's being used as a litmus test to punish people."

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