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Kansas inmates got punished for drinking alcohol when the prison system was misusing tests

A\ swab getting dipped into a dark brown liquid.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas Department of Corrections is looking for a new way to test for alcohol in drinks.

The prison system announced the change after the Kansas News Service pointed out possible issues.

TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas prison system admits it's been misusing an alcohol-detecting test that it’s relied on for years and relied on to sort out punishment for inmates it suspected were drinking.

Prison officials had been dipping the test strips into drinks to detect alcohol when it’s only certified for sniffing out alcohol levels in saliva. The Kansas Department of Corrections says it’s now switching its use of the tests.

The ALCO-Screen Standard Saliva test have been used for decades to test alcohol content in either drinks or saliva, But the Food and Drug Administration certified the test in 2013 for detecting alcohol in saliva samples — not for dipping in drinks the way prison officials have done for years even after that FDA assessment of the test.

“The device can only be used to test saliva samples,” said the decision summary from the FDA.

That message did not get to Kansas prisons. Some companies that distribute the test still promote outdated information. Kansas prisons provided copies of product inserts from ALCO Pro and craigmedical.com that advertise the product as accurate when used to check drinks, despite that information being almost a decade out of date.

The prison changed its policy after the Kansas News Service pointed out the discrepancy.

“(We) have begun searching for an effective method to ensure that our prisons remain alcohol-free,” Randall Bowman, KDOC’s director of public affairs, said in an email. “The safety of residents, staff and the public remains our top priority”

Prison officials did not directly say how they’ll use the tests going forward.

"Distributors of the ALCO Screen Saliva Alcohol Test Strips currently publish instructions that clearly state these tests may be used to detect the presence of alcohol in fluids,” Bowman said in an email. “We have since confirmed with the manufacturer that the information provided by the distributors is outdated.”

Calls to Chematics, the company that makes the test, confirm that third-party companies that sell its products are wrong to suggest they’re a reliable tool for testing alcohol content in drinks.

Instructional packets from the manufacturer show someone the correct light to read the test in, how long to wait for results and the temperature to store them at. Noticeably absent: Any steps on how to test anything other than saliva.

“The intended use of the product is for saliva,” said Richard Zoltek, Senior Research and Development Chemist at Chematics. “Unfortunately we do not have control (on) how customers utilize this test in the field.”

These tests are so sensitive that instructions warn against using it if there are alcohol vapors in the air, like those from hand sanitizer with ethyl alcohol.

Inmates say tea, apple juice and cleaning products all got them rung up with a charge despite their insistence that the liquid contained no booze.

Zoltek said the test is calibrated perfectly for saliva because of the one-to-one ratio of alcohol in saliva and blood alcohol content. He said the tests are accurate when used correctly.

“The chemistry design has been calibrated for saliva,” Zoltek said. “If it is used in a beverage or an aqueous solution to determine alcohol concentration, the color development and color matching system is invalidated.”

The product measures someone’s blood alcohol content by testing their saliva and will turn a certain color depending on the level of alcohol in the saliva. The higher the blood alcohol content the darker the color.

Inmate Jeremy Williams was one person written up for having alcohol based on the test.

Williams could have fought the write-up, but the drink allegedly containing alcohol was destroyed and the only evidence in his case was the incorrectly used swab.

“Officers always do it this way,” Williams said. “I was left with no defense, no real due process, nothing but the mercy of the (disciplinary) report officer.”

Williams pleaded no contest to the violation to take lower charges because his write-up was a Class I violation, one of the highest level offenses. Fighting the write-up and being found guilty — which he said was almost a guarantee — can bring up to a $20 fine, loss of good time or up to 45 days in segregated housing.

Williams said segregative housing messes with people’s mental health. Inmates are put into a room “with nothing,” including limited access to showers.

“If prison conditions are something that I felt like wasn't right,” he said, “I would protest it and they wouldn't listen to me.”

Inmates say they complained about the issue and the department ignored them. They are further frustrated that the boxes clearly say the saliva test kit measures blood alcohol content, and again, make no mention of testing other liquids.

While some online materials contained incorrect information, one instructional packet provided by the prison system said the tests should be used on saliva and made no mention of testing other liquids.

It took state prison officials three months and multiple open records requests to confirm what tests were inside of prison and that staff did test the drinks. One request was rejected because it contained information that the corrections department said could identify an inmate and had information that would reveal private medical information.

An inmate mailed the Kansas News Service a copy of two write-ups. Neither write-up had health information on it and state law says the department should have redacted parts of the write-up and provided the records.

“If a public record contains material that is not subject to disclosure pursuant to this act,” Kansas statute says, “the public agency shall separate or delete such material and make available to the requester that material in the public record that is subject to disclosure pursuant to this act.”

The department did say 14 people were written up for possession from Aug. 1 through Aug. 15, but that doesn’t mean all 14 were written up for no reason. Some inmates who spoke to the Kansas News Service said people are written up for good reason, while others say erroneous write-ups are rampant.

Alcohol is not allowed in prisons, but it isn’t uncommon for inmates to brew their own.

For inmates like Williams, the damage has already been done. The corrections department didn’t say whether it would begin looking at past write-ups to undo old mistakes.

“I just wanted to … stay out of trouble,” he said. “It seems like every time I get close to being in a better spot or situation, something like this happens … I begin to think, who’s the real criminal here?”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As a criminal justice and social service reporter, it's my job to ensure the systems designed to help people are working as intended. Thousands of Kansans deal with the criminal justice or foster care systems each day. I strive to hold all agencies and departments accountable for the work they are doing. blaise@kcur.org.
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