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Prison visitors petition Ottawa to scrap sensitive drug scanners

Families of inmates are urging the government to find an alternative to ion scanners that used for drug screening at federal prisons.

DanHenson1/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Every regular prison visitor has a cleansing ritual. For Eileen Pawliuk, it's all about the Lysol.

"I Lysol everything," says the Saskatchewan registered nurse. "I Lysol my coins, my licence. I make sure my car keys are Lysoled. This is what I have to do. I'm not OCD, really."

Every day, scores of federal prison visitors such as Ms. Pawliuk scrub in like surgeons headed for heart surgery as they prepare for the screening that awaits them before they can see loved ones behind bars. The cause of their antiseptic vigilance is an electronic sentry called an ion mobility spectrometry device, a machine that can detect drug residue on jewellery or other accessories.

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But families of inmates have long complained that the machines are oversensitive, and that a single false positive reading can lead to a loss of visiting rights, stigmatization and general demoralization. After 20 years of navigating the vagaries of the scanners, families have banded together to petition the government to scrap the electronic sniffers in favour of more effective measures for stopping the unchecked drug trade that takes place in most jails and prisons across the country.

Ms. Pawliuk visits her husband at Saskatchewan Institution in Prince Albert twice a week, where he's serving a manslaughter sentence for inadvertently stabbing a drunken intruder several years ago. The trek has added 40,000 kilometres to her pickup truck's odometer over the past year and contributed immeasurably to his well-being.

When she began her visits last year, she paid little attention to the correctional officers as they swabbed her driver's licence and passed it through the scanner. But then came her first "hit."

"It was shortly after he started in minimum security," she said. "They swiped a button on my clothes. It showed levels of morphine and THC. I was shocked."

Officers took her aside, questioned her and placed several restrictions on her visit. She told them she was a nurse who occasionally administered morphine. The THC, she couldn't explain. "They said they couldn't help me," she says. That's when she started investing in Lysol, wearing latex gloves to wash her designated visitation clothes, having her truck washed and detailed weekly and, on one occasion, placing a plastic bag over the driver's seat.

"I would drive four hours for the visit and not stop anywhere to avoid contamination," she said. "If I had to pee, I'd wait. I take my gloves off only when I get to the front door of the pen, then I use a pinky finger to open the door. This is my new normal."

Despite the obsessive measures, she scanned positive for fentanyl in December and was turned away. "I left crying," she said.

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The Correctional Service of Canada pressed the ion scanners into service in 1996. They can detect particulate down to a single nanogram – roughly the mass of a single human cell. They subject the swabbed material to an electrical charge and measure the subsequent movement of ions. Each ion moves at a velocity that can help pinpoint its source material. It's a quick way of sniffing out residue that could identify those trying to smuggle drugs into jails, a lethal problem that triggers around 30 overdoses a year in federal institutions, according to a Correctional Service analysis.

But there are problems with being so sensitive. Recent studies have found that about 90 per cent of all cash tests positive for cocaine and 70 per cent for heroin.

"We probably all come into contact with trace amounts of drugs at some time," said Stacey Hannem, the criminology chair at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who's currently researching ion scan technology. "An ion scanner just identifies these trace particles that are everywhere. You don't know where people picked that up."

Sensitivity is different from accuracy. The machines often confuse common prescription drugs with their more illicit relatives. Zantac can ring positive for cocaine.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons stopped using ion scanners on visitors in 2009 when faced with a lawsuit arguing they were unconstitutional and after a study found the rate of false positives was as high as 91 per cent.

Correctional Service guidelines dictate that a positive ion scanner hit should not be considered proof of contraband, but rather a prompt for further screening, including a detailed "threat assessment" interview by a correctional manager. "Consistent use of this equipment to screen persons entering our facilities is a deterrent as well as a means of detection of illegal drugs that might be smuggled in," said Correctional Service spokeswoman Esther Mailhot in an e-mailed statement. "Positive indication on an ion scanner is combined with other search methods and a threat risk assessment to determine whether a person will be permitted to enter, be offered a closed visit or held for possible arrest by the police.

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In surveys of at least 250 inmates, Dr. Hannem has found that the official procedure rarely translates into on-the-ground practice.

"As soon as someone rings positive, they are immediately under suspicion," she said. "The attitude of the staff changes. People feel like they are treated like criminals. Lots of times they are turned away. They can lose visiting privileges. That's a real worry."

A single thwarted visit can have a devastating impact on inmates, according to one former staff member.

"Inmates used to come to me in tears because a wife or girlfriend was sent away by the ion scanner," said Peggie Fitzpatrick, who was an institutional parole officer for six years. "The scanner did more harm than good."

Ms. Fitzpatrick recently added her name to a petition on the Parliament of Canada website urging lawmakers to look at new alternatives.

"My idea is to have inmates go through full body scanners before and after they meet with visitors," said Anne Cattral, who started the petition after she and her grandson were turned away from a prison that held the boy's father because she tested positive for drugs.

Launched two months ago, her petition has garnered 546 signatures and will be presented to the House on April 5.

"It's clear the ion scanner is a failed experiment," Dr. Hannem said. "It's not keeping drugs out of prison."

Video: Take a look inside the private family visit unit at a federal prison (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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