Experiences with ion scanners in Canadian prisons

Have you experienced a ‘false positive’ on the ion scanner when visiting a Canadian prison? If so, we want to hear your story.

Ion Mobility Spectrometry, better known as the Ion Scanner, is a drug-detection system used by Correctional Service Canada (CSC) in federal prisons. Introduced in 1995, the system was intended to help stop the entry of drugs into prisons.

When processed through this system, visitors are asked to give a possession (e.g. keys, watch) or article of clothing to be swabbed. The swab is then placed in the ionizer to be analyzed for drugs.

If there is a positive “hit,” staff conduct a Threat Risk Assessment (TRA). The visitor is interviewed and a decision is made as to whether the visitor can be admitted to the institution.

The details of the visitor’s encounter with the ionizer are entered into the prisoner’s file and are used to determine the severity of sanctions if visitors test positive in the future. Information from visitors’ run-ins with the scanner may also impact the prisoner by affecting future decisions about his or her transfers and/or parole.

CSC has admitted that ion scanners frequently indicate “false positives,” meaning visitors who are drug-free test positive for drugs. This problem occurs because the scanner is extremely sensitive, searching for the presence of drugs down to the nanogram. Many people do not realize that they may pick up trace amounts of prohibited substances when they touch things like money and credit cards, or use certain household cleaners (e.g. Clorox wipes) or cosmetic products (e.g. perfume). Furthermore, a 2006 internal audit by CSC found that “ion scan policies and procedures were not being followed.”

The unreliability and ineffectiveness of ion scanners has been observed beyond the Canadian context. In the US, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) noted in 2004 that they had received numerous complaints from “individuals mystified by the results of the scan and distraught by their powerlessness to prove their innocence.” They noted that the ion scanner system was “unfairly, improperly, and unnecessarily resulting in innocent people being denied visitation.”

These consequences of the ion scanner’s unreliability are profound for not only prisoners, but also for families.

For family members, the threat of a false positive, and its associated consequences, adds an additional layer of stress when visiting their loved ones. Many visitors take extraordinary measures, such as washing coins, getting gas the previous day, and not touching door handles, in order to minimize the risk of testing positive on the ionizer, while others are deterred from visiting altogether.

CSC recognizes the important role families have to play in the rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates. Yet the ion scanner is serving as barrier to inmates’ access to the family support that can assist them in getting their lives back on track and coming home one day.

The adverse affects of the ion scanner are not offset by its benefits. Even a cursory review of recent media, studies by organizations such as the Canadian Drug Coalition, and reports from the Office of Correctional Investigator (OCI), reveals that drugs remain rampant in our prisons, where rates of HIV and Hepatitis C infection resulting largely from shared needles are much higher than rates in the general population.

As a method of keeping drugs out of prisons, the ion scanner model is also flawed because – while visitors and prisoners are subjected to this drug screening process – staff, volunteers and others who enter the institution are not tested.

While this campaign has arisen from my own painful experiences when visiting my son at a federal institution, I know that it is not a unique or local problem. These issues are systemic throughout the country.

I have written to Minister Goodale asking for a review but I know that there is strength in numbers, therefore I am asking for anyone who has had an experience with the ion scanner to send me your story.

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