Prison drug scans for visitors potentially unreliable and keeping families apart, researcher says

Canadian prisons are testing visitors for illicit drugs using a potentially unreliable technology, according to a researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

Ion scanners cause stress for families of prisoners, research shows

To detect traces of drugs on visitors, Correctional Services Canada uses ion scanners like the one pictured in this photo, taken at Vacaville State Prison in Vacaville, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file) (The Associated Press)

Canadian prisons are testing visitors for illicit drugs using a potentially unreliable technology, according to a researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Stacey Hannem, who teaches in the school's criminology department, has been studying the impact of ion mobility spectrometry devices on inmates and their families. Her research was recently published in a book on technology and criminal justice.

The devices, which are also known as ion scanners, are used to detect microscopic particles of drugs.

"When you go into visit in a Canadian prison you will be swabbed," Hannem explains. "They will swab generally a piece of jewellery or your belt or something that you would've touched."

Hannem says if the scanner detects any trace of drugs it will ring, triggering a secondary review by prison staff to decide if a visitor will be allowed into the prison.

False positives common, researcher says

According to Correctional Service Canada (CSC), the goal is to prevent contraband and illicit substances from getting into correctional institutions.

But Hannem says the scanners are prone to false positives, which causes stress for many families who worry they could lose their visiting privileges.

"So what they will do is things like, you know, scrub their hands and shower from head to foot before they're getting ready to go to the prison," she says.

"They have a specific set of clothes that have been laundered and kept in a plastic bag. And they will wash all their jewellery and wash their driver's license."

Hannem says some people will still test positive despite these efforts, and the decision to deny a visit is often at the discretion of prison staff.

"There was a woman in Ottawa, a 72-year-old grandmother who hit positive for cocaine and she was bringing her young grandson in to visit his father. And their visits were denied. And of course you have to explain to a child why they can't go and see their parent."

Government 'not willing to take the risk'

In November 2017, Hannem testified at a parliamentary committee on ion scanners after a group of mothers with family in prison petitioned the federal government for change.

She spoke about some of the problems with the technology that lead to false positives.

Hannem says chemicals that are substantially similar will ring positive. Zantac, an acid reflux treatment, will ring positive for cocaine — a fact that is even mentioned in the patent application for the technology.

There was a woman in Ottawa, a 72 year-old grandmother who hit positive for cocaine and she was bringing her young grandson in to visit his father. And their visits were denied.- Stacey Hannem

She adds many people come into microscopic particles on a regular basis, either at work or out in public.

"[The committee] did find that there was lots of evidence to suggest that this is a problem," Hannem says.

"But then they came to their end of the review and said, 'Well, we don't really know what else to do. We don't know what would happen if we took them out, so we're not willing to take the risk of then removing that technology or replacing it with another protocol."

CSC says risk assessments also conducted

Hannem wants CSC to track statistics on the use of ion scanners and false positives, as well as take a closer look at how drugs and contraband actually get into prisons.

In a statement to CBC News, CSC says it conducts risk assessments in addition to the ion scanners. It says there is a low likelihood a visitor will be refused entry to a prison based on the scanner alone.

The statement adds CSC regularly reviews the use of security tools "to enhance its capacity to limit security incidents and prevent security breaches."

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