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Inmates and lawyers sue to block DOC’s use of ‘faulty’ drug test

The Massachusetts Department of Correction is being sued by a group of inmates and criminal defense attorneys who accuse the agency of using a test that falsely indicates the presence of drugs on mail sent to DOC facilities, according to a complaint filed Wednesday in Suffolk Superior Court.

The tests, made by Sirchie Acquisition Company LLC, are used to detect synthetic cannabinoids, but the tests can be “fooled by innocuous chemicals present in most commercial paper,” according to a statement from the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

As a result, inmates and their attorneys are falsely accused of sending drugs in the mail, according to the lawsuit filed by San Francisco law firm and a nonprofit New York firm specializing in social justice issues.


The lawyers say that some of them “have been subjected by the DOC to systemic and repeated false accusations and slander” because of false positive results to the tests.

The suit, which alleges that the tests violate incarcerated peoples’ constitutional rights, also names Sirchie and its sales agent Premier Biotech Inc. as defendants.

Ellen Leonida, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said in the statement that they “brought this lawsuit to protect disempowered people incarcerated by the DOC from the unconscionable decision to use these tests in the face of overwhelming evidence of their inaccuracy.”

“We also intend to hold the drug companies liable for knowingly profiting from the misuse of these tests and the misery they are causing,” said Leonia, a partner at the San Francisco firm BraunHagey & Borden, which brought the lawsuit in cooperation with the nonprofit law firm Justice Catalyst Law.

A spokesman for the Department of Correction said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Representatives of Sirchie and Premier Biotech could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday night.


Prisoners whose mail tests positive for drugs then must either plead guilty and face punishment or deny the allegations and be placed in solitary confinement, losing privileges for months while a laboratory test is conducted, according to the attorneys’ statement. The lab tests come with additional penalties for inmates, including fines, expenses, and testing costs, according to the statement.

The fear of false positive results has led some incarcerated people to stop accepting mail, cutting off their main source of contact with the outside world during the coronavirus pandemic, the lawyers say. Prisoners are afraid to accept letters even from their lawyers, interfering with their constitutional rights, including the rights to counsel and to due process, the attorneys argue.

They allege that the Department of Correction punishes “incarcerated people solely on the basis that they were named as the recipient of legal mail that failed these faulty Sirchie tests, although the DOC well knows that the incarcerated person did not and could not have participated in creating or sending the allegedly tainted legal mail.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at Follow him @jeremycfox.