Drug screening in prisons

The toxicology lab for the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) is a busy place. In 2013 alone, it processed more than 118,000 samples. That work is primarily done by a laboratory staff of eight, led by Carol Bates, the lab’s manager.

Carol and her colleagues provide drug screening and confirmation for all offenders under the jurisdiction of the MDOC. They also process samples from MDOC employees statewide, who are subject to routine drug screening, and from potential employees during the pre-screening process. The samples, all urine, arrive from across the state—via regular mail, couriers, overnight delivery, etc.—and, in most cases, are processed within 24 hours.

Since 2005, Carol’s lab has used Thermo Scientific™ DRI™ drugs of abuse assays to screen as many as 600 samples each day. Screening is done for everything from opiates and cocaine to barbiturates and THC (Cannabinoid). Last year, the MDOC lab confirmed more than 6,400 of the screened samples as positive for a banned substance using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.

Carol can’t imagine doing her job without the benefit of DRI drugs of abuse assays. According to her, the liquid, ready-to-use screening assays are “the most cost-effective method for screening, and this is especially key in state government where costs are closely watched.”

MDOC measures its screening “performance” on a per-test basis, and they constantly look for ways to lower the average cost. “You can’t do what we’re doing for lower cost than we’re doing it today,” she adds.

What makes DRI assays so ideal for labs such as MDOC’s is the versatility, ease and speed. First introduced in the mid-1990s, DRI assays have filled a critical need for speed without sacrificing accuracy and lot-to-lot consistency. There is no need for time-consuming reagent preparation and DRI assays can run on a range of analyzers.

So why is all this important? Because drug use in prison has been a historic problem. But that’s changing, and more frequent, accurate and faster testing may be an important factor. But we still have work to do, and a recent Washington Post blog post, “Ron Paul thinks drug use is rampant inside prisons. He’s wrong,” highlights this. The post suggests that perception of drug use in prison doesn’t match reality and further education is needed to see what progress is being—and can be—made.

The post’s author, Prof. Keith Humphreys, uses the example of the Louisiana state prison system, where there were 1,402 positive drug tests of prisoners over a three-year period. As Prof. Humphreys points out, however, given that Louisiana administered 120,000 tests during that same period, that would put drug use system-wide around one percent, 50 times lower than we’d expect to see outside prison. In Missouri, the number would be approximately five percent based on its own 2013 figures.

The situation in California’s prisons seems to argue for testing as well. A recent San Francisco Examiner article claimed that "California prisons find 1 in 4 inmates used drugs." But, as of the writing of that piece, California didn’t require mandatory drug testing across its prisons. If the data from Louisiana and Missouri are any indication, California and other states would be wise to consider a more comprehensive—and streamlined—drugs of abuse screening and confirmation regimen.

The last word here goes to Carol Bates, however. She says that, at least for the screening and confirmation part of that regimen, today’s rapid, reliable assays will make testing at this scale “a whole lot easier.” The “Show Me” state – particularly its MDOC lab – is indeed showing other states the way.

Automated testing and analysis for drugs of abuse

Automated random access benchtop solution for small and medium laboratory settings.