Positive drug tests prompt stricter policies at N.H. prisons

  • Inmate Communications Committee members Evenor Pineda and Jeremy Semprebon talk about drug use at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on Thursday, March 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

  • Instant urine drug testing cups used by the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. Courtesy


Monitor staff
Published: 8/5/2017 11:18:23 PM

At a cost of $4.45, state officials can test for 12 drugs – including fentanyl – in one urine sample provided by an inmate.

And in less than five minutes, they can have the preliminary results of those 12 tests without having to send the samples to the state’s forensics lab in Concord. From there, they can discard all urine cups with negative readings and forward only the positive samples to lab technicians for a final confirmation, which comes at a cost of $75 to $100.

Enhancements in technology have made it possible for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections to perform thousands of additional drug tests annually on its prisoners – something that officials argue is necessary given the current opioid crisis in New Hampshire.

They cite an annual increase in positive drug tests since 2012 as part of their justification for more restrictive policies – including in the prisons’ visiting rooms – aimed at curtailing the drug flow. But a closer review of the data reveals that the spike is due to an increase in testing, not necessarily a rise in drug use. In fact, the percentage of inmates testing positive has hardly changed over five years.

Nonetheless, officials say the increase is noteworthy of a continued drug problem and should not be overlooked.

“We’re testing more because we know that there seems to be more Suboxone in the system than we originally thought,” Commissioner William Wrenn told the Monitor. “We test not just to verify that there are drugs in there, but it also gives us something to watch to see if there’s an increase in a particular unit.”

Between 2014 and 2016, corrections officials drug tested an additional 64,793 inmates, with the number of total tests rising from 25,790 to 90,583. The Department of Safety, which oversees the forensics lab, foots the bill for the urine cups and any additional testing. At $4.45 per cup, the department spent $403,094 just for urine cups used within the state’s three prisons last year.

The significant jump in drug tests administered between 2014 and 2016 was, in part, a response to the rising popularity of Suboxone strips behind prison walls, Wrenn said. The clear strips, which dissolve under the tongue, are legally prescribed to help treat narcotics addictions, but are also used illicitly to get high.

In the years that corrections officials administered more urine drug tests to inmates, they noted an increase in the number of positive results at the three prisons in Berlin, Goffstown and Concord. For example, the department documented a total of 492 positive dirty urine tests in 2014 compared to 1,327 in 2015.

However, when the percentage of positive tests are calculated the data reveals no real spike at all. Because officials administered an additional 44,414 drug tests in 2015 than in 2014, the percentage of positive samples to total tests is largely unchanged at 1.91 percent in 2014 and 1.89 percent in 2015.

At the women’s prison in Goffstown, the percentage of positive drug tests dropped significantly between 2014 and 2015, from 5.7 to 1.1 percent, even though the prison went from 158 tests, to 1,677 in a one year span.

Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons cited the nine positive drug tests in 2014 at the women’s prison when asked how drug tests over the last five years have justified a stricter visitation policy.

“A near six percent increase from 2013-14 is significant to us,” Lyons said. “We had hoped that with the substance abuse treatment services that we provide we would have seen a decrease. While we are still seeing smaller increases in the ensuing years, we think this shows that our efforts to curtail the introduction of contraband coupled with our substance abuse services are showing positive results.”

But the percentage of positive drug tests in the prison system was already dropping from 2015 to 2016, before the stricter visitation policies were put in place, according to the prison’s data.

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