Latest Drug War News

GoodShop: You Shop...We Give!

Shop online at and a percentage of each purchase will be donated to our cause! More than 600 top stores are participating!

The Internet Our Website

Global and National Events Calendar

Bottoms Up: Guide to Grassroots Activism

Prisons and Poisons

November Coalition Projects

Get on the Soapbox! with Soap for Change

November Coalition: We Have Issues!

November Coalition Local Scenes

November Coalition Multimedia Archive

The Razor Wire
Bring Back Federal Parole!
November Coalition: Our House

Stories from Behind The WALL

November Coalition: Nora's Blog

July 29, 2007 – Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)

Prison Tests Keeping Out Some Drugs, And Visitors

By Yamil Berard, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SEAGOVILLE - Peggy San Miguel, a 65-year-old resident of Duncanville, admits taking prescription medication for her heart condition and high blood pressure -- but she is adamant that marijuana and meth aren’t her drugs of choice.

Yet she said Federal Bureau of Prisons officials have accused her of having traces of the illicit drugs on her hands. As a result, San Miguel was banned for 30 days from the low-security corrections facility southeast of Dallas, where her son is detained.

“What will I be on next? Cocaine?” she asked one balmy Thursday afternoon in the parking lot of the corrections facility. That day, she didn’t test positive. If she had, she would have been banned another 90 days.

Anyone who visits a facility run by the bureau may be subject to a high-tech drug-testing machine that the bureau says is a “minimally invasive” method of reducing the amount of drugs in prisons. The test is simple -- visitors’ hands or clothes are swabbed, and results are produced within seconds.

Prison officials say the screenings play a vital role in helping keep drugs from inmates. The machine is so sensitive, its makers say, that it’s highly unlikely anyone who has come into contact with an illegal narcotic can get past it.

That’s also the biggest problem, critics say. Touch a dollar bill or a doorknob that has been recently handled by someone with drug residue on their hands, and the screening may nab you. The machine identifies traces of drugs on someone’s skin or clothes; it does not detect whether someone has used drugs or is transporting them.

Drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and opiates are ubiquitous in our environment, said James Woodford, a Chattanooga-based chemist who specializes in forensic testing using mass spectrometry -- the machines in question.

“If you go into a place where someone has smoked some meth or cocaine, there will be thousands if not hundreds of thousands of nannograms of pollution, and these ion scanners test at the nannogram level,” he said.

You also could get tagged by being in contact with a substance that mimics drugs, say some experts in spectrometry. The prison machines identify drugs by a limited marker, which may be common to other substances and result in a false positive.

That is an area that needs further study, said Stephen Stein, a chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

No one knows precisely how many of the 140 positive tests at the Seagoville corrections facility and adjacent detention facility in a recent three-month period identified people who were drug users or were trying to bring drugs to inmates. About 5 percent of the total tests were positive, according to log sheets provided by prison officials.

The manufacturer of the machines says its false positive rate is less than 1 percent.

Numerous visitors told the Star-Telegram that they had tested positive during at least one visit. Many said they take steps to try to minimize the chance of testing positive, including rubbing their hands with sanitizers and wearing gloves before they enter the prison.

Federal prisons began using the device as early as 1997. Many prisons purchased it after a two-year pilot program indicated it could reduce drug use by inmates in medium- and low-security prisons.

Most federal prisons in Texas -- 75 percent -- have the machines. The Seagoville corrections center began using them in 2000.

A Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman said the technology is one of the tools that it uses to help reduce drugs in the prison system. Bureau officials say the screenings are needed to maintain safety and order, which it must hold above all other priorities.

“We are sensitive to the difficulty a positive test result may impose on families who travel long distances to see their loved ones,” Warden David Berkebile wrote in response to questions from the Star-Telegram. “However, it is important that visitors understand our goal in using this device is to ensure the safety and security of inmates, staff and visitors.”

The government can argue convincingly that there is a need, said Chad Trulson, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of North Texas.

“As long as a prison can link that test to keeping security in the institution, the chances that some court would overturn using such a policy, I think, are pretty small,” Trulson said.

But a 2003 report by the Department of Justice Inspector General found that efforts to stop visitors from bringing in drugs did not significantly decrease drug use in prisons from 1997 to 2001. It also reported that drugs continued to enter the prisons through staff members, who haven’t had to face the drug trace screening. While the number of employees who smuggle drugs is small, they can do more damage because they bring in larger amounts, the report found. The bureau is now looking at how to screen employees for drugs, in response to a rule adopted this month.

Meanwhile, visitors face the prospect of being tagged with an illegal activity and being barred from seeing family members.

“To paint all these people with a brush of criminality is outrageous,” said Chip Pitts, chairman of the Bill of Rights Defense committee’s national and Dallas chapters.“These are innocent family members who are visiting sons and cousins and brothers in a minimum-security prison.”

Trapping Particles

How does the device work?

A “trap” cloth is swiped across a visitor’s hands, pockets, waist or shoes. The trap is then inserted into a desktop machine that analyzes the microscopic particles. It checks for any match with those emitted by illegal drugs.

It can detect “minute particles of narcotics” and is so sensitive that it can detect a packet of sugar dropped in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, said Steve Hill, spokesman for GE Security, which makes the machines.

“If you’ve been in contact with the substances we’re looking for, there’s a pretty good probability that we’re going to be able to detect them,” he said.

Prison officials say the machine is calibrated to minimize positive test results based on “inadvertent casual contact.”

But if the contact has been innocent, the machine has no way of knowing that, Hill acknowledged. If someone touches a doorknob that is contaminated, he said, that person would probably test positive.

Some Seagoville prison visitors say the guards who operate the machine aren’t consistent. Some frequently clean the equipment; others do not. Some are much more likely to test visitors than others.

In addition, visitors sign the visiting list with a shared pen, San Miguel said.

“Who is to say that that pen doesn’t have bits of drugs on it?” she said.

Some visitors, including San Miguel and her husband, Luis, are so worried that they do everything they can think of to try and avoid a positive test. The San Miguels say they refrain from eating certain products, such as sesame breads or poppy seed bagels, in the belief that they could set off the machine (they won’t, according to the manufacturer).

Some spray their hands with sanitizer or wash with bleach before visiting, said Claudia Castillo, whose husband is housed at the corrections facility. Others arrive wearing gloves; they said they have been told by correctional officers a visitor can test positive by shaking a contaminated hand.

Alarms on the machine that signify a positive test result are supposed to be turned off to lessen embarrassment, but numerous visitors say the emotional outbursts from those who test positive can be overwhelming.

“I’ve seen other people test positive, and they’ve been crying and upset,” said Demetria, a Dallas woman who did not want to give her last name.

She was not allowed to visit for 48 hours after she tested positive. “I don’t do drugs, and I was really upset because I thought there was something on me,” she said.

Results Can Be Appealed

A visitor who tests positive must wait 48 hours to seek entry and will be tested every visit for one year. After a second positive test, the wait is 30 days; three tests, 90 days; four tests or more, 180 days.

The name of anyone who refuses to be tested is referred to a prison investigative office “for intelligence purposes,” according to prison documents.

The bureau allows anyone who tests positive to appeal to the warden, but that leaves no recourse for those who travel from great distances. Appeals can include a physician’s verification of a prescribed substance that explains a positive test result. Visitors who are dissatisfied with the warden’s response can appeal up the chain of command.Some say the prison does make exceptions. One 79-year-old woman tested positive and was denied admission after traveling from Chihuahua, Mexico, to see her son. But after the family complained, prison officials admitted her the same day, said Elena, a friend from Houston who drove the family to Seagoville.

Prison officials disputed that, saying all visitors are subject to the same rules.

Use of the device could be challenged as being intrusive, say some legal experts.

“The scope of the intrusion is what’s at issue,” said Kimi Lynn King, associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas who specializes in constitutional law. “Searches that are overbroad are going to trigger a court challenge.”

Some visitors have written to the prison about their concerns but say they are cautious about making too much noise.

“It’s hard, because you don’t want to hurt your inmate and then have them suffer,” said a Fort Worth woman who was visiting her husband on Father’s Day with their school-aged daughter. “You have to be careful, because you want to be allowed to see your inmate.”

That’s why Castillo hasn’t complained. She had to walk away with her crying 8-year-old after testing positive.

“It is really disheartening to get turned away,” the Pleasant Grove resident said.

“They even turn away elderly people who just tear up when they can’t get in.

It’s so sad. It is a humiliating experience.”

Trulson, the UNT criminal justice professor, says the test may be too sensitive. If so, prison officials might want to look a little more closely at how it is being used, he said.

“Unless they get that machine to where it tells us exactly that this person has used this substances or has it on their possession, I think that might be a difficult thing to ban a husband, wife or child or relative from an institution.”

Reach Yamil Berard at 817-390-7239 or

For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below

We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

The Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Drug Sense and The Media Awareness Project

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Questions or problems? Contact