The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit challenging the state Department of Correctional Services’ refusal to disclose public records about its use of ion scanning technology to screen prison visitors for exposure to drugs.
After receiving numerous complaints about the accuracy of ion scanning devices and following studies questioning the high rate of false positives associated with the test, the NYCLU in September 2009 requested access to public records concerning the technology through the state Freedom of Information Law. In response, the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) provided a single 12-page document that ignored the bulk of the NYCLU’s request.
“DOCS cannot hide from legitimate concerns about the accuracy of ion scanners at state prisons,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Thousands of New Yorkers travel long distances, often at great personal expense, to visit loved ones in state prisons. They must not be wrongfully denied the right to visit their mothers, fathers, husbands, wives or children because of faulty scanners. DOCS must make its ion scanning program available for public scrutiny.”
Ion scanners are electronic devices that aim to detect traces of drugs on clothing, body parts and other surfaces. If visitors test positive, or if they refuse the test, they are not allowed to enter prison. Photographs of visitors and their IDs are attached to positive scan results and circulated to prison officials to identify those persons during future visits..
In the decade since DOCS began using the scanners, the NYCLU has received many complaints concerning their accuracy, particularly their propensity to trigger false positive results after a visitor has handled non-contraband items, such as money, clothing or prescribed medication.
Concerns about the scanners’ accuracy were confirmed in April 2008 when all Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities suspended the use of ion scanning. The bureau reinstated the ion scanning program in October 2009 under limited conditions and after implementing policy and equipment changes deemed necessary to improve the program’s effectiveness.
After failing to respond fully to the NYCLU’s records request, DOCS ignored an administrative appeal the filed in January and a follow up letter sent in March.
“It is unfortunate that DOCS has flouted its obligations under the Freedom of Information law and forced litigation on this matter,” said Corey Stoughton, NYCLU senior staff attorney and upstate litigation coordinator. “A thorough, independent analysis of the department’s ion scanning program requires access to these records, and we are confident the courts will compel DOCS to provide them.”
The NYCLU filed the lawsuit, an Article 78 petition, in State Supreme Court of Albany County.
Working with Stoughton on the case are Katharine Bodde, Christopher Dunn and Arthur Eisenberg, all of the NYCLU.