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
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.”
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
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
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
“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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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