Twice a week, a line of prisoners forms outside the communal bathroom in the education building here at the California State Prison in Los Angeles County. One latex-gloved guard sits at a small desk outside the toilet area, checking identification cards against a computer printout. After confirming you’re on the list, he takes a small piece of cloth, rubs it on one of your hands, and then slips it into a small baggie with your name on it.
Another gloved guard looms, holding a small, clear, plastic bottle. “Try and fill it up to this line,” he tells you as he hands you a pair of blue latex gloves and watches you put them on before giving you the sample bottle.
After more than 35 continuous years of prison and at least a hundred urinalysis tests, I don’t have any trouble going while someone watches. It’s uncomfortable, and holding yourself with gloves on feels particularly unnatural, but I do what I have to and move on.
For many of my peers, however, the whole process is a grueling battle between modesty, cultural prohibitions, general resentment, and punitive possibilities. In every group of 20 or 30 men, there are at least a couple who either can’t or won’t fill it up to the line in the requisite amount of time. The consequences for failing to provide a sample are severe — things like loss of visiting privileges and outside yard time, to start — and the consequences get progressively worse for each “refusal.”
This is the War on Drugs as practiced in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has doubled down its efforts to identify users and punish them into sobriety.
Random, widespread urinalysis is but one facet of the strategy. Guards in black shirts wander around the prison accompanied by dogs decked out in little camo-green collars with the world “police” emblazoned on top and a mock badge dangling at the bottom. You see lines of prisoners posted up against a wall while a dog moves from one to the next, sniffing away.
The most controversial devices are the ion scanners now being used at several test sites out of the Golden State’s vast empire of 34 prisons.
A random selection of outside visitors must allow a guard to take one of those same small pieces of cloth and rub it on their hands. The cloth is then placed inside a machine that scans for traces (in parts per billion) of prohibited substances. If the machine detects anything untoward, a second scan is conducted.
A second positive scan sets off a series of steps that can culminate in a body search. Visitors can refuse the search, but that could result in them being barred from coming back.
The trouble with the ion scanners is that they are simultaneously unreliable and too sensitive. Visitors report testing positive for one substance, washing their hands, and then testing positive for a completely different and unrelated substance — neither of which they’ve consciously handled.