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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington prison system changes drug-testing policy after inmates complain of unwarranted punishment

The Airway Heights Corrections Center is shown in a June 4, 2018, photo. Washington’s Department of Corrections recently changed its drug-testing policies after inmates complained they were unfairly punished for false or misleading urinalysis results. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington’s Department of Corrections has changed its drug-testing policies after inmates complained they were unfairly punished for false or misleading urinalysis results.

Last week, the DOC stopped testing for cannabis in prisoners just entering the system, as traces of the drug can remain in the body weeks after it is used.

The department also is looking to contract with a private lab to redo tests for inmates who dispute they’ve taken drugs. Inmates would be on the hook for the cost of the secondary test if it confirms the presence of an illicit substance.

“We are within a few months of being able to offer that confirmation test,” DOC spokeswoman Karen Takacs said.

The changes follow an inquiry by Washington’s Office of Corrections Ombuds, which was established last year to look after the welfare of people held in state prisons. The office is led by Joanna Carns.

According to a report summarizing the investigation, the ombuds office received two complaints in November having to do with drug tests. The report identifies the complainants as Inmate A and Inmate B.

Inmate A entered the system in late July at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, and in late September he submitted to a urinalysis in order to be transferred to a work-release program, according to the report. The test revealed the presence of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Takacs said all inmates are screened for drugs upon entering Washington prisons, and later if their behavior leads prison staff to suspect drug use. The tests are administered by corrections officers.

Inmate A argued his test had detected residual THC from pot use prior to his incarceration, not from contraband use inside the prison. But according to the ombuds report, DOC officials responded by denying him work-release, ordering him confined to his cell for 30 days and revoking 30 days of “good time” – credit for good behavior that could have been used to shorten his imprisonment.

They also transferred Inmate A to another facility three hours from his fiancée, who was pregnant with their child and due in December, according to the report.

“Inmate A’s appeal allegedly took 48 days for a response, and he was kept in close confinement during this time,” the report states.

After the ombuds office began investigating, DOC officials agreed to reclassify Inmate A to medium security, but they refused to reinstate his good time and transfer him back closer to his family, in part because he was nearing his release date, according to the report.

Under the DOC’s new policy, inmates are screened for various drugs upon entering the system, but they won’t be tested for THC for 45 days because of the long-term residual effect.

Inmate B had a history of positive drug-test results because of prescribed medications, according to the report. He passed one random test in November but shortly afterward tested positive for “spice,” a name for a synthetic drug that is applied to plant material to resemble marijuana.

“He was immediately transferred from a camp inside a secure perimeter facility,” the report states. “Inmate B also lost his visits, work-release, good time, privileges and was reclassified.”

The ombuds office found that DOC officials had appropriately screened Inmate B’s medications to ensure they wouldn’t produce a false positive. There was no way to reanalyze his urine sample, so his complaint was considered unsubstantiated.

Citing a 2016 survey by the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the ombuds office found that 25 states sought to confirm all positive drug tests, most of them using off-site laboratories. Another 12 states granted confirmation tests if requested by an inmate.

Until recently, Washington was among three states that did not allow confirmation tests.

“False positive drug tests do occur, and people shouldn’t be punished because of it,” said Mark Cooke, policy director for the ACLU of Washington’s Campaign for Smart Justice.