You are, you really are, but so friendly that it's good.
In 2015 and 2016 MOMS initiated a petition calling on the Correctional Service of Canada to review its use of the ion mobility spectrometer, better known as the ion scanner, as a drug-detecting tool to screen visitors entering federal institutions. We started this because of our own personal experience with the distressing and harmful impacts of CSC's reliance on this device.
CSC introduced the use of the ion scanner in 1995 as the primary tool in a system intended to help stop the entry of drugs into federal prisons, but there is now a clear disconnect between CSC policy, which recognizes the importance of building and maintaining family ties and community support for prisoners, and the continued reliance on an unreliable tool that fails to keep drugs out of prisons but does a very good job of deterring families from visiting. It also has negative consequences for our loved ones, regardless of the veracity of the test results.
For anybody who doesn't know, visitors, when processed through this system, are asked to give a possession, such as a key or a watch or eyeglasses or an 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 what they call a “threat risk assessment”, whereby a supervisor is called in to conduct an interview with the visitor and pronounce a decision.
The visitor may be granted a visit, or restricted to a closed visit, or ordered to leave the property immediately. If a visitor has travelled a long distance or has not seen their loved one for a long time, this humiliating interview can be quite devastating. The effects on children of being denied a visit to a parent are also deeply distressing; this happened to my own grandson.
CSC policy says that the results from the ion scanner are only one factor in their decision-making regarding what sanctions they're going to impose because of the positive hit, but this statement by CSC is uninformed and inaccurate. The information gathered by the ion scanner really only indicates that an individual such as me has been in contact with an illicit drug or a substance that gives a false positive ion scanner reading for an illicit drug, all of which may be the result of nothing more than having been in contact with contaminated objects or surfaces. There are no further efforts to confirm the presence or absence of contraband. You cannot ask for a search, because they will not do it. Results from the ion scanner are virtually useless in assessing whether or not a visitor is in fact trying to smuggle contraband into the institution. They just cannot tell.
The details of the visitor's encounter with the ion scanner are entered into the prisoner's file. Repeated positive tests affect the severity of sanctions imposed on the visitor in future; there's an escalating level of severity of sanctions. This record also has a negative impact for the prisoner's journey through the correctional system.
Now, CSC openly admits that the ion scanner frequently indicates false positives. These false readings occur in part because the ion scanner is extremely sensitive, searching for the presence of drugs down to the nanogram, and a nanogram is such a small particle of residue on clothing that many people do not realize they may pick up these trace amounts of prohibited substances when they touch everyday items such as money or credit cards or even use certain household cleaners, such as Clorox wipes or cosmetic products containing perfume, all of which can trigger the ion scanner.
The unreliability and ineffectiveness of ion scanners has been observed beyond the Canadian context.
In the U.S., the New York Civil Liberties Union 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”. That's what you have to do: prove your innocence. They noted that the ion scanner system was “unfairly, improperly, and unnecessarily resulting in innocent people being denied visitation”.
The consequences of the ion scanner's unreliability are profound not only for prisoners but also for families. For us, the threat of a false positive and its associated consequences adds an additional layer of stress when visiting our loved ones. Many of us resort to extraordinary measures, such as washing coins, getting gas for the journey the previous day, not touching door handles, and not stopping on our journey between when we leave home and when we get to the institution, in order to minimize the risk of testing positive on the ion scanner. Many other friends and family members are deterred from visiting altogether.
The scanner acts as a barrier to prisoners' access to the family support that is such an important part of their getting their lives back on track and coming home one day. It can also work against them because the hits from visitors go in their files and that can work against them in their applications for transfer, a reduced security level, or parole.
The adverse effects 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 OCI reveal that drugs remain rampant in our prisons, where rates of HIV and hepatitis C infection resulting largely from shared needles are much higher than those of the general population.
As a method of keeping drugs out of prisons, the ion scanner model is also flawed because visitors to inmates are the only people subjected to this discriminatory drug screening process. A much larger percentage of those entering these institutions, including CSC staff, construction contractors, and maintenance workers, are not tested.
We would like to express our appreciation to the committee members for allowing us to testify on this very important issue. As I said, it's a momentous occasion for us. We welcome your questions.
Good morning. Thank you very much to the committee for having me here today.
I'm Stacey Hannem. I'm an associate professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University at the Brantford campus.
I've been thinking about, writing about, and talking about ion scanners since 2005, when I was working on my doctoral research. My doctoral research was intended to focus on the difficulties in issues faced by families who have an incarcerated loved one. I expected very much to find issues of stigma, financial issues, and emotional distress. What I did not expect to find was that our own correctional institutions were so drastically compounding these issues for families.
The IONSCAN technology came up in my research first in 2005. In 2015, I worked with the Canadian Families and Corrections Network to do an online survey and follow-up interviews with families of incarcerated people in Canada about their mental health issues. Once again, the ion scanner, 10 years later, showed up in my data as a still significant issue.
Because of this issue of false positives and the questions being raised by families, I started to look in more detail into the technology itself. I am not a scientist—my Ph.D. is in sociology—but I spent quite a bit of time and effort in studying the scientific literature and consulting with colleagues in physics and chemistry to better understand it and to give myself a layperson's understanding of the technology. That is what I would like to offer the committee today: a better understanding of how the technology works and why it is subject to false positives.
The science underlying the IONSCAN technology first emerged in the 1970s and has not been significantly refined since that time. It was originally devised as a means of detecting trace particles of explosives. The newer machines have since been calibrated to look for drugs. Every member of this committee will be familiar with the IONSCAN machine. It is the very same machine that is used in airports across this country and internationally to scan for explosives, but in Canadian prisons they're used to look for drugs.
The principle of ion mobility spectrometry is quite simple. The sample is swabbed, as Anne has said, from a zipper, a ring, or your glasses, and the trace particles collected on the swab are then put into the machine and ionized: they are subjected to a radioactive source that will create either a positively or a negatively charged ion. The ionization process breaks down that substance into all of its constituent particles. The ions that belong inside the molecule are of varying sizes and weights, if you remember your high school chemistry, and all of these ionized particles will travel at different speeds.
The ionized particles are put into the machine. They travel through what's called a “drift tube”. This is literally a short tube that has an electromagnetic plate at the far end. The IMS machine measures the amount of time, down to the nanosecond, that these various particles take to reach the far end of the drift tube. The drift tube has an inert gas inside that is designed to create friction and to collide with the particles. All of the various sizes of the particles will reach the drift tube at varying times, depending on how big or heavy they are.
The device measures all of this and generates a drift spectrum that looks like a little graph, which shows the drift times of all the composite ions. It will compare that generated graph to the known drift spectrums of the substances it is searching for—in this case, illicit drugs. The IMS machine will alarm if the drift times of the ion mobility spectrum of the sample match one of the substances in its database with a sufficient threshold.
That's how it works. The issue of false positives, of course, is the reason why this was brought to Parliament. False positives were highlighted in 2008 in the United States, when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons suspended the use of ion scanners in all of its prisons. There was a lawsuit alleging that a prisoner's family members had been unfairly denied visits due to false positive readings. When they resumed the use of the IONSCAN in 2009, the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the United States no longer authorized the machine for screening visitors, only for screening mail, work areas, and prisoner belongings.
CSC's own 2011 report by Johnson and Dastouri found that the devices are, quote, “oversensitive and are limited in their ability to detect certain forms of drugs”. The use of IONSCAN to identify people suspected of trafficking drugs is complicated by the fact that the technology itself has several known—although often unacknowledged—shortcomings.
Its first shortcoming is that, unlike human fingerprints, ion mobility spectrums that are generated and read by the IONSCAN machines are not unique identifiers; that is, the ion mobility spectrums of closely related or similar chemical compounds may be so nearly identical that the technology is unable to differentiate them. According to the original patent by Smiths Detection for the IONSCAN, Ranitidine, which is a common antacid often known as Zantac, tests positive for cocaine. The only way to identify this as a false positive is to run a second scan in negative ion mode, and in that case, Ranitidine will ring and cocaine will not.
Smiths Detection suggests in its patent that users should operate two machines, one in positive ion mode and one in negative ion mode, in order to control for this. To my knowledge, (a) CSC doesn't actually operate that way, and (b) it's a very simplistic kind of fix, because it assumes that Ranitidine is the only other substance that would ring positive for cocaine and it is not.
A number of legal pharmaceutical medications and other substances are known to alarm the IONSCAN machines because they have a similar chemical composition or share some chemical compound with illicit drugs. Correctional staff admit to keeping a short list of medications on other substances known to set off alarms: asthma inhalers, nitroglycerin for heart problems, and Adderall for ADHD will all alarm as methamphetamines; antifungal creams used to treat athlete's foot or thrush will alarm as an opiate, as will poppy seeds from bagels and other baked goods; and, chlorine baby wipes and some perfumes and lotions are prone to alarm as various types of drugs. Research by Dussy et al in 2008 found that several types of detergents will alarm as heroin.
This is the number one problem: these are not unique identifying markers. Therefore, this is quite prone to false positives.
Second, as Anne has already mentioned, there's also a high potential for cross-contamination and for individuals to inadvertently come into contact with trace amounts of drugs.
Sometimes an alarm is not chemically false. What the machine is picking up is actually a very small particle of illicit drugs, but that doesn't mean that the individual came into contact with that drug substance on purpose, nor that it's present in significant enough quantities to warrant concern about visiting a family member. Many banknotes contain micrograms of illicit drugs—cocaine being the most common—which is far more than the threshold required to alarm the IONSCAN. Some studies have found that up to 90% of banknotes will test positive for cocaine. Handling cash, as Anne has said, can cause people to alarm.
A third issue, of course, is the assumption that the people who alarm positive are attempting to traffic, and there's no evidence to suggest that.
Also, the IONSCAN is subject to the possibility of operator error. It needs to be very carefully cleaned in the event of a positive alarm. I witnessed this problem at an airport just recently. One positive alarm and then the failure to subsequently clean the machine effectively will result in subsequent positive alarms. If an alarm is activated in CSC, the operator is required to change their gloves, clean the countertop surfaces, and run clean swabs until the machine no longer alarms, but when the visiting room is busy, these things don't always happen.
In 2006, when CSC conducted an internal audit of its drug interdiction activities, they noted that in five of 11 audited institutions, the IMS device policy and procedures were not being followed. Operator error is a problem.
A last but kind of unlikely issue is the fact that the operator can alarm the machine at will. The device has to be calibrated on a regular basis with exposure to the subject substances, which means they have pieces of the drugs there to calibrate the machines. In her 2016 memoir, Diane Schoemperlen, a noted Canadian author, recounted that in her final visit to her now ex-partner at a medium security institution the correctional officer responsible for running the ion scanner set the machine off on purpose, as a joke. This raises questions about how it could possibly be used to target people who are already under suspicion.
CSC does not have any documentation about the reliability of the machine. They rely on the idea that the manufacturer says that the false positive rate is below 0.1%, but they continue to note that there are instances of false positives and they're quite aware of it.
I have more information on the reliability question, but I'm happy to answer on that during the question period.
Again, thank you very much for inviting me to participate. I feel honoured to be here. I hope what I have to say will give you some insight and some help with this issue.
I'm probably not as deferential as the previous speakers here. I worked in the system for six years as a parole officer. As a teacher, I was the principal of a school there. I can take questions about that later.
I've done a lot of research on this. I've read a lot of what Stacey wrote, what Anne wrote, and what other people in Canada and the United States have written. To me, this issue to me is very close to a breach of the charter, and it needs to be addressed.
I'm requesting that an immediate moratorium be placed on the use of the IMS device in all federal penitentiaries in the screening of inmate visitors, pending the completion of an independent study, done either by Parliament or by an outside body, to confirm the effectiveness of this device as a screening tool for drugs in the institutions.
I request that Parliament order the commissioner of Correctional Services to curtail this use immediately, that Parliament study this issue, and also that the visiting status of any visitors who have been unjustly, without evidence, deprived of visiting rights be reinstated until it's found that they deserve to have their visiting status taken away.
I speak for thousands of Canadians who have loved ones or friends incarcerated in federal institutions across this country. On any given day, up to about 12,000 people, plus or minus, are serving time in a federal prison. The visitors, the families, and the supporters of these inmates are law-abiding people. We have been legally vetted and we have been approved to be visitors to institutions. We know what the CSC policy is related to inmate visitors. We're insulted by the patronizing and dismissive attitude given to us by CSC when we voice our outrage regarding the abuse of this device in our presence.
I have letters both from the minister and from Correctional Services that merely restate what it says in the policy rather than addressing the issues that we present to them. As I've said, I worked in the system for six years, and I witnessed the effects of the ion scanner on innocent family members who were either turned away or who had visits restricted, despite having asked for a search to prove their innocence. I witnessed the devastating impact it had on inmates who were deprived of a long-awaited visit from their mother, wife, or child, and all of this in the face of no wrongdoing at all on the part of the visitor other than a hit—one hit—on the ion scanner.
I speak for many people who have rebutted the unfair decisions following the ion scanner results and have come away disillusioned about the seriousness of the government and agencies in terms of upholding and appearing to uphold the law in this regard. They face retributive action when they protest; this is documented in the experience of those who dare to complain. Such behaviour under the very nose of those charged with safeguarding the integrity of our correctional and criminal justice system must not continue if Canadians are to have confidence in the administration of justice in this country.
Now, as for where we agree with Corrections, there are many things we agree with. Drugs and other contraband have no place in our federal institutions. These things cause untold damage in our prisons among inmates, staff, and visitors. We must keep drugs out of our prisons. Everyone who enters a penitentiary is a potential importer of contraband. Every one of us comes into inadvertent contact at some time or other with threshold amounts of drugs through handling money and gas pumps and things, as we've heard here. We can pick it up anywhere. If you reached into your pocket right now and felt the change in your pocket, you probably would have enough cocaine on your hands that you would ring positive on an ion scanner.
Many illegal substances share the same ionic properties as illegal substances. This was discussed already by Stacey Hannem. The ion scanner authorized by Commissioner's Directive 566-8-1 is a flawed device, as admitted by CSC, in that it yields an excessive number of false positives.
Ion scanners are poorly maintained, as we've already said. Quite often, they're not calibrated properly. They're not operated correctly by the staff; they often don't clean them, which results in subsequent hits. For example, if someone who went it before me got a hit, I might get a hit. I fortunately have never had hit, by the way, but if they don't clean it right, I have every chance of hitting.
Drugs continue to enter our prisons at very alarming rates, despite these procedures being in place. The scanners are not used on staff, contractors, guests, and other people. There needs to be more focus by CSC on these people as possible importers of drugs into our institutions.
It is a privilege, not a right, to be allowed entry into a prison. Visitors are acknowledged by CSC legislation and policy to be playing a vital role in the rehabilitation and successful reintegration of offenders. This is documented in studies that I have here. They say that inmates who have visitation do a lot better on release and are more likely to get parole. The ones who sit there until a statutory release often don't have visitors. Visitation is deemed by CSC to be a major component in the rehabilitation of offenders, yet, the policies and practices they have in place fly directly in the face of what they say on paper.
What CSC does not address is another area I'd like to go into.
As we've said, only the visitors are subject to the ion scanner. The research I did on in Canada and the United States shows that about 10%—maybe less, maybe a little more—of all the people going into a prison on any given day are scanned, so 90% are not scanned, and drugs keep coming in at an alarming rate.
I'm going to have to skip a lot, because I'm running out of time, so maybe I'll skip to the end.
To me, ion scanners do not find drugs on people. Ion scanners simply tell you whether you came in contact with drugs—maybe. Maybe you did or maybe you didn't. It could be a false positive. There's no search done. They're required to search you, but they don't, so there's a cloud of suspicion over the person. You could go in a hundred times and never hit and they'll be friendly and treat you very well and everything, but the minute you hit, the whole dynamic between you and the staff changes. You're under a cloud of suspicion, then, even though they never searched you to find anything and there's no evidence that you are bringing in contraband.
What they need to do is use a full body scanner instead of an ion scanner to find contraband. If this whole drug interdiction process is about contraband and not about abuse of authority, perhaps, they need to use something that's going to find contraband. Drug interdiction is about intercepting contraband, and the ion scanner does none of that.
I'd like to conclude by saying that right now, as we speak today, there are countless innocent law-abiding visitors to penitentiaries across this country who will face being impugned in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing. Many will have travelled great distances at great expense to spend time with their loved ones and will face sanctions based on only one ion scanner reading. The inmates affected will be set back in their reintegration efforts, and some will endure severe emotional upheaval after being deprived of an opportunity to visit with their loved ones. There's documented evidence that inmates have committed suicide because they couldn't see their mother.
Anyway, I guess I'm done.
Good morning, committee members.
My name is Gail LeSarge. Let me start by saying that I am very pleased that the committee has agreed to undertake this study, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be here and speak today.
I want to give you a bit of my personal experience. To start, I will say that I am a regular visitor to an inmate at a federal institution, and I have had my share of negative experiences related to the ion scanner. Last December, I wrote a letter to Minister with my complaints about my experiences. About a month and a half later, I got a letter back from a representative from CSC. It was a brief letter that really didn't address the things I had said in mine. Essentially, what it said was: one, drugs are a big problem in prison; two, inmates, staff, and visitors are all searched and screened to help prevent the flow of drugs into prison; three, the ion scanner is considered a reliable tool in this fight; and four, the ion scanner is only one part of the whole risk assessment. That is basically what it said, so I want to talk about some of those things.
First of all, when it comes to ensuring safety and security in federal institutions, I couldn't agree more with CSC's objectives. That's not the question here. Let's do everything we can to make prisons as safe as possible, including keeping contraband out of them. This is an important goal, for sure. Drugs can cause a whole range of serious problems. Anne talked about it. These problems can include violence and disease, so we all agree that drugs are not a good thing in prison. That's not in question.
There are some policies are in place to address it. CSC will point out that searches of visitors, inmates and staff are all part of this, but just to be clear, staff members are not subjected to the same kind of search as visitors, not at all. Actually, I worked at CSC for nine years, so that means I entered the institution probably over 2,000 times. Just so you know, not once was I ever subjected to the ion scanner or a drug dog. They'll say searching is for everybody. But the same kind of searching is not for everybody.
If in fact CSC takes safety and security in its prisons really seriously, as they claim, and if the IMS device is such an effective weapon in the war against drugs, why is it only used, as Peggy said, on a small percentage of the people who come through the front door every day? It doesn't seem to make much sense. Every person who enters the institution has the potential to be carrying contraband.
CSC states that the ion scanner is considered an effective drug detection tool. This is hard to understand, when the device does absolutely nothing to demonstrate that a person is carrying contraband. It can only say that there may have been contact with an illegal substance, which is not the same thing at all. As the other witnesses have said: one, the machines aren't always operated properly; two, other substances besides drugs can set off the machine; and three, even if there are illegal drugs, you can pick them up anywhere. Given these factors, it's absolutely clear that the ion scanner is not a reliable tool, in my opinion, in the fight against drugs in prisons.
Personally, I have zero involvement with any kind of drugs in my life. I don't hang around with people who use drugs. I don't even use prescription medications. I have set off that machine a few times. In my opinion, there is something seriously flawed about a non-intrusive search tool that so often generates a result of punishing innocent people like me.
When you consider how the airport security uses this, it seems to be the way it should be used. I believe it is correct to say that if the scanner detects particles of explosives at the airport, it prompts a search. That is how they follow up on an ion scan alarm at the airport—with a search. The search is to clearly establish the presence or absence of contraband or explosives.
If something is found, yes, there will be consequences. They won't be able to board their flight. If nothing is found, they go on their way. There is no negative record of anything and there are no consequences. Can you imagine if travellers going on important flights for leisure or business were not allowed to board the flight based on the ion scan alone, without further searching to determine the presence of explosives? Supposing the security people said that explosives are a very serious problem and they consider it to be a reliable tool, and that was their only answer. Can you imagine what the public would have to say about that? I think that would be rectified very quickly, but somehow we and our loved ones in prison are seen as expendable.
Many years have passed since the introduction of the ion scanner. From what I've seen, there is little actual evidence of its effectiveness. A lot of drugs are still getting in, and I know of no instances of an ion scan hit leading to a seizure of drugs, because it doesn't get that far. They don't search you. They just do the ion scan test, yet victimization of innocent visitors and the inmates they visit is very real, and it continues year after year.
Now, on the part about the risk assessment, current policy says that the ion scan result is not used in isolation and is always combined with other information, but the reality is that visits can go along forever without any issue until that ion scan hit. When the machine alarms, a threat risk assessment is conducted, which consists of a correctional manager asking you why the machine alarmed. You say that you don't have any idea, and the drug dog doesn't detect anything, so all they really do is ask you questions and look at any previous ion scan history. But there will be punishment. Is that a risk assessment with all kinds of other pieces that they're considering before punishment? It doesn't seem that way to me.
Then, as Anne said, there might be different options. They might send you away. They might offer you a closed visit. Then, a little later, there's another step, and that's the visits review board. At the visits review board, further punishments can be dealt out. If you have PFVs, those will invariably be suspended. I've never heard of a person who didn't have any sanctions following a hit on an ion scanner—never heard of it. There always will be.
At both of these stages, there's unlimited potential for staff to select whatever pieces of information they choose and to create a very subjective assessment of risk.
I see that I had better move on due to the time, but these are the things. This risk assessment thing isn't what they say it is. It's not done fairly. A change in policy is definitely in order if CSC is to going to keep the scanner.
I just want to say that when you have a loved one in prison there's no way to overstate the importance of those visits. It's the best thing you have to maintain those ties. Your visit times are very special times. They are just so beneficial to the inmate and to his eventual reintegration. They're like a lifeline to the community helping to give him hope for the future and the affirmation that he's cared for. To destroy these links in the absence of compelling proof of risk is nothing short of inhumane, in my opinion.
Last year, my partner and I were scheduled for a PFV around Christmastime. We had been looking forward to it for months because the PFV houses had been closed for renovation. Then, because of the ion scanner, the visit was cancelled one day before it was to begin. It was really devastating. It was really hard.
How would the average person feel if this most special time with a loved one were taken away through no fault of his or her own? Thousands of visitors and inmates across Canada are being subjected to this unfair treatment. In my opinion, it should not continue because it's a challenge to ensure that the device is used in a fair way and also because its effectiveness is difficult to determine. In my opinion, the use of the IMS device should cease. Every day the scanner is used, innocent Canadians are being victimized.
Thanks so much for being here this morning. It's greatly appreciated. I was certainly happy to table the petition and perhaps less satisfied with the response, but we'll get to that.
We had the corrections investigator table his report this week and once again mentioning the number of false positives being a source of concern and again recommending the review and study of this. Considering that while it's being reviewed and studied these things are still happening, it's certainly worth considering a moratorium.
I wanted to go back to the issue of and the question about what we would call “trusted sources”; staff, professionals, and contractors were mentioned. With your indulgence, I want to read for you something Howard Sapers said a few years ago when he was the correctional investigator. He said: “There's no evidence to show that this spike”—in drugs in prison—“is because people are smuggling things in through an infant's diaper. In fact, just the opposite...”. He also said: “You're less likely to find something coming in through a legitimate visit than you are from other sources—other people coming in to the prison, sometimes even trusted people...staff. So focusing just on visitors is out of balance with where the problem is.”
I want to understand this from your perspective as people offering mutual support to loved ones. The word “deterrent” was used, and I think that's something we haven't gone into detail with and just the impact it has on even the incentives that you have to make these trips out. If you're going to Kingston, say, it might be a three- or four-hour drive for some people, or even more depending on where you live. How does it dis-incentivize wanting to go and visit, knowing that you might actually be causing more harm than good to the loved one by coming to visit?
Go ahead, please.