BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Nadezda Steele-Warrick was a model prisoner. She’d earned a spot in preferred housing, secured her GED, and worked as a teacher’s assistant and exercise coach. She also snagged a spot in the family reunification program, through which her husband and son could visit her and stay overnight in a private setting.
Then a false positive on a prison drug test turned her life upside down.
Steele-Warrick, who lives in Queens, filed a federal class action Wednesday against two diagnostic companies whose drug tests she says produced false positives, leading to punishment for inmates who were in fact clean. The 36-year-old former inmate sued Delaware-based Microgenics Corporation, which makes clinical diagnostic products, and Thermo Fisher Scientific, which manufactured the urine-analysis drug tests.
“What happened is not only – the effects are – not only shocking, but just the magnitude is shocking,” said attorney Alanna Kaufman of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, who represents Steele-Warrick. “This is a lot of people, hundreds of people, some of whom spent extra months in prison for things they didn’t do….they’re entitled to damages commensurate to their injuries.”
Kaufman said this is the first suit on the issue that she knows of on behalf of an incarcerated person.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, entered into a five-year contract with Microgenics in 2018 to provide the tests to 52 facilities in New York, according to the complaint.
Steele-Warrick was held at Albion Correctional Facility near Rochester from June 2015 until May 2019.
The April 2019 drug test, a requirement for her participation in the family reunification program, twice in a row falsely tested positive for the opioid suboxone/buprenorphine, Steele-Warrick’s complaint says. Rumors had reportedly been swirling about false positives.
“Even before Ms. Steele-Warrick had a false positive result, correction officers told her that they believed something was wrong with the machines,” the lawsuit states.
After the false positives, Steele-Warrick and other inmates were allegedly punished with solitary confinement, loss of privileges like family visitation and preferred work assignments, and denial of parole release.
“When the sergeant and correction officer informed her of the charge, Ms. Steele-
Warrick thought at first they were joking, as she knew it was not possible for her to have a true positive result,” the complaint says. “She quickly learned they were serious when they handcuffed her, walked her out of her housing unit, and confined her in a disciplinary keeplock cell where she remained for 11 days.”
Officers confiscated her personal belongings, moved her to a different cell that had steel bars instead of a door, and gave her a formal disciplinary hearing. She couldn’t get to her toothbrush, shampoo, or soap. She lost her recreation privileges and was denied her last visit with her husband and son, which was extra devastating because she was undergoing immigration proceedings that she feared would lead to her deportation, the lawsuit says.
According to the complaint, DOCCS is currently in the process of overturning all positive results generated by the faulty tests, which it says are the result of a “cross reactivity” issue.
“After being alerted to concerns regarding the accuracy of a new buprenorphine drug test, DOCCS suspended use of the test, and out of an abundance of caution, immediately reversed any actions taken as a result of these tests, and restored privileges to any potentially affected inmates. The matter has been referred to both the Inspector General’s office and DOCCS Office of Special Investigations. We are now preparing to pursue all legal remedies to the fullest possible extent under the law,” DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey said in a statement Thursday.
Thermo Fisher did not immediately return a request for comment, and Microgenics could not be reached for comment.