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NY State Prisons Finally Stop Using Faulty Drug Testing Equipment; Class Action Lawsuit Filed by Victims

Nadezda Steele-Warrick, a prisoner at Albion Correctional Facility, was on the right track. After her 2015 conviction for assault, she had been a model prisoner, obtaining her GED, securing a spot in preferred housing, and working as a teacher’s assistant and exercise coach. She even earned her way into a family reunification program, which allowed her husband and son to stay with her overnight in private settings. She’d passed random drug screenings throughout her nearly four years in prison, and the reunification program rules required testing just before and after such visits.

During a day off from teaching classes in April 2019, Steele-Warrick was reading a book in her cell when guards informed her that her second drug test came back positive. At her disciplinary hearing, her husband testified that he did not see her use any drugs during their visit. She was found guilty of the violation and spent 11 days in a disciplinary Keeplock cell. She didn’t have access to hygiene items except during the one hour per day she was allowed out of her cell.

She was denied visitation with her family until her release in May 2019.

It turns out that she almost certainly had not used drugs because the testing equipment created by Microgenics Corporation and Thermo Fisher Scientific was suspected of being faulty. So faulty, in fact, that the prison ceased using the devices only a year into a five-year contract. Steele-Warrick has alleged that even before she got a false positive result, guards told her that they “believed something was wrong with the machines.”

In November, 2019, six months after her release, Steele-Warrick was named as the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed against the two companies “on behalf of hundreds of current and former incarcerated New Yorkers who were unjustly punished for false positive drug test results” The lawsuit was filed by Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. 

The prison system had entered into a $1.6 million contract with Microgenics in 2018 to supply its 52 prisons with its “Indiko Plus urinalysis analyzers,” whose brochure claimed to “provide true operational reliability.”

Prisoners began complaining soon after the new machines came into use. Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, a nonprofit that assists prisoners, received complaints from 158 prisoners saying that despite not having used drugs, they tested positive and suffered harsh punishments as a result.

According to Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for DCCS, the prisons stopped using the testing devices immediately after determining they were unreliable, though the agency did not elaborate on how it made this conclusion. He also said they “immediately reversed any actions taken as a result of these tests, and restored privileges to any potentially effected inmates.”

But for many people, the damage can’t be undone. Michael Kearney had been clean from his crack cocaine addiction for two years when he tested positive for opioids. A week before he was to be released, he was sentenced to 120 days in solitary instead. After missing his March 6 release date, he lost out on a construction job he had lined up for his release. He was finally freed in October.

“If you’re going to arrest somebody and put them in the box and treat them like a locked-up dog, get the right results,” said Kearney. See: Steele Warrick v. Microgenics Corporation, U.S.D.C. (E.D. N.Y.), Case No. 1:19-cv-06558. 


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Related legal case

Steele Warrick v. Microgenics Corporation