Going to visit an inmate in a federal prison? Good luck!
If you or someone you know plan to visit an inmate in a federal prison, you should be aware of my experiences with this. I have a nephew who is serving some time in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. I am not sure if the problems I am about to describe are specific to that prison, or if others are like this too.

The federal prisons have a program of testing visitors for illegal drugs. I can understand the reasoning behind this, after all the last thing we need in prisons is to have the inmates using drugs. But the procedures used for the testing are full of flaws. The result is that people who drive, or even fly, hundreds of miles for a visit, often test positive falsely, and are turned away.

In my case, I often go with my sister to visit. This involves me staying awake for 30 hours or more, leaving home around 2 am, sometimes one or both of us taking a day off of work, and driving for 8 hours from Wisconsin to Indiana. Several hundred dollars would be a reasonable cost to put on this trip. Well worth it if we get to visit the guy for a few hours. A disaster if we get turned away in 15 minutes!

More often than not, we get turned away. The first time it happened, we were told that we have to be more careful what we touch on the way there. They said that public places, and even money, often have enough drug residue to contaminate you, and cause a positive test. I want to point out that neither my sister or I have ever used any illegal drugs of any kind. We don't even know what they look like, or how they're used.

So on future visits, we took extreme measures. Just prior to our trip, we washed all the clothes we were going to wear, and sealed them in new plastic bags. Then we would shower, and put on the "sanitized" clothes just before walking out the door. All of our billfolds, wallets and the like were sealed in zip-lock bags. Nothing in the pockets. Even the change used for toll booths was washed with soap and water, and kept in bags. Of course the car was cleaned and "sanitized" inside, too. Once we were on our way, we kept the stops to a minimum, gas and potty breaks. We need a couple of those on the 8 hour drive. But extreme care was taken at the breaks, gas paid for with a credit card, and not brushing up against anyone or anything. And I must add it is a very boring trip!

But even with all these precautions in place, it's still hit-and-miss, very likely that one or the other of us won't get in. Or worse, neither of us. And if one does, and one don't, the one that don't must "leave the premises immediately", and find something to do for 3 hours, in a strange town. And if you are turned away, you cannot try again for 48 hours. But in 48 hours, there is no more visiting!

Now about the test itself. The equipment used is a GE Itemiser III or similar drug screening machine. It consists of 2 parts. One is a battery-powered, hand-held wand that looks similar to a 'dust-buster' vacuum. At the tip of the wand is a replaceable 'test strip', and the vacuum action of the wand draws air over the strip as the wand is brushed along the area to be tested. I assume the strip is sticky, to trap any substances. The second part of the machine is the base unit. After the test strip is removed from the wand, the operator inserts it into an opening on the base unit. After several seconds, the machine indicates on it's built-in screen, the results of the test. This is kept from your view. On the first few tests we had, the machine would beep if the test was positive, but they changed that, now it don't. That's to "protect your privacy". The machine can also print out a hard copy of the results, but you can't see that either.

The policy at the prison is that if you fail the drug screening the first time, you are entitled to a second test, which must indicate the same substance as the first test, for you to be turned away. And they have a policy that after your second positive test (on a different day), your visiting privileges are suspended for 30 days, and additional positive tests can cause suspensions for many months, even  a lifetime!

That would be all fine and dandy, but the problem is that the damned thing don't work! Whether it's a problem with the machine, or more likely, a problem with the operators, I don't know. But I do know that MANY people have spent MANY hours and THOUSANDS of dollars, to go visit an inmate, and are needlessly told to GO HOME!

On my second false-positive test, I questioned their procedures, even getting the operator's supervisor involved. At first, the conversation was pleasant, with them insisting that I had to come into contact with drugs somewhere along the way. No way were they doing anything wrong, and there's nothing they can do about it. We suggested that one of the two men test the other, in our presence, to show that the machine actually works. They declined, and one of them said "We'd probably test positive" After my sister left the room (she got in to visit), and I was on my way out the door, I mentioned to the officers that I was going to contact 60 minutes about this. The supervisor flared up and told me he "could make life rough for me" and "have my car towed" from the prison lot. I asked him why, and he said I was "threatening" him. When I asked how I threatened him, he replied "you're threatening to call 60 minutes". I left the premises immediately!

The next day, I called the prison from home to discuss the matter. Being a federal holiday, the warden had the day off. The person I talked to told me he was aware of problems with the drug tests, and he didn't really believe in them. He also told me that the supervisor that gave me the rough time the day before, was in charge of the the drug-testing program. He used the words "that's his baby". The following day, I got a hold of the warden. He told me that the test is 100% accurate, and that even though I took all the precautions I mentioned earlier, that a "microfiber could be floating in the air, and land on you as you walk from your car to the building", and that would be enough to trigger the positive test. I told him that in that case, the tests are way too sensitive. If a "microfiber" lands on me in the prison parking lot, I don't believe that that's cause to deny a visit. His answer was that the machine is factory calibrated, and if it says you're positive, then you're positive. Turn around and go home! But the policy states that the machine should not register positive from 'trace' amounts of drugs that one might get on them through "incidental contact".

A big part of the problem is inconsistency in how the tests are done. The prison policy states that a new test strip will be used for every test, which certainly is not the case. I've witnessed many times, that they continue to use the old strip, on several people, until a positive test occurs. Then they put in a new strip. But I'm quite sure that substances build up on the used strips, until some unlucky soul pushes it over the limit. In my opinion, that fact can "waste" the first of the two tests that you are entitled to. Then when you flunk the first test and they replace the strip, they 'vacuum' the entire area around the machine and desk with the new strip, probably contaminating it already 90% of the way to flunking, before re-testing you. Additionally, different operators use the wand differently. The policy states that the operator is to touch the wand to the front and back of your hands, and pants-leg bottoms, and around your pockets. If they actually DO that, you have a chance of passing the test. But often, they'll practically vacuum the front and back of your shirt and pants, and all the way up and down your arms. Good luck! The policy also states that the machine operators are fully trained in it's use. One lady operating it told us that "someday she's going to get some training on how to use the machine".

After many futile trips and several suspensions, many phone calls were made, many letters written, and several complaints filed, about this whole operation. And so far, the answer from them has been 'we're right, and you're wrong'. My sister even talked with a microbiologist about the situation. He suggested it could be something as simple as the laundry detergent we were using, triggering these false tests. After changing detergents, we actually got in a time or two, but the problem came back. Thinking it could be something in our well water, we washed the clothes at a laundromat the last time we went. My sister was still suspended from before, but I got in with no problem, but that time the drug test was carried out properly also, as mentioned in the paragraph above.

Recently, 3 different family members went from Green Bay to visit him, including his 81 year old grandmother in a wheelchair. This was a two-day operation, spending a night in a motel. Although they arrived at the prison around 11:30 am, they were told that they couldn't let anyone visit yet, because the drug tester was out of order. Finally at 2:30 pm, they allowed the whole room full of people in to visit, without the tests, until visiting hours ended at 3:00 pm! So they spent 2 days, drove 16 hours, and got a half-hour visit!

In my opinion, if the person doing the tests doesn't like your hairdo, they have ways to flunk you. I think there should be a security camera recording all of the drug tests, including the test strips being installed in the wand. Then if there is a dispute about the way the test was done, some outside person should have access to the tapes to see if proper procedure was followed. I don't believe in "internal investigations" of law enforcement tactics. The outcome is the same as it would be if you were to let a burglar decide his own case in court. " I have found that I didn't do anything wrong".

Other policy issues at the prison include alternatives, if you fail the drug test. We would gladly submit to a "pat down", or even a "non-contact" visit through glass windows. But "we don't do that here" is their answer, contrary to what it says in writing. I think these people are forgetting who's paying their salary!

If anyone else out there is having similar problems, please email me!


A recent attempt to visit reinforced my thoughts about the way this place operates. With my nephew being in a 'special housing unit' at the prison, visiting is only allowed on weekends, and holidays. Weekends don't work for me because of my job.

We decided to go on Monday, February 19th, which was President's Day, a federal holiday. So the week before on Wednesday, my sister called the prison to confirm that there was visiting on this date, and that we were on the approved visitors' list, and that there wasn't any other reason we couldn't get in to visit. She was assured that everything was all set, but she was told to call again just before leaving home to make sure the prison wasn't locked down for some reason. She scheduled the day off from work.

So at about 1 am on Monday morning, we called the prison and confirmed that visiting was still scheduled for Monday, and they looked up my nephew on the computer and told us everything was fine, he's still there, and no lockdown. So we set out on the 8 hour trip once again. Of course our big concern was dealing with that damned drug tester again, but I made up my mind to not raise a fuss or anything, and hopefully pass the thing, seeing that I had passed it on the last couple trips. My sister was a bit more worried because she had just come off of a 6 month suspension for failing the test.

So we walk in the door at the place, the receptionist looks up my mephew on the computer, and says "there is no visiting for him." I was a bit upset, and I said "what do you mean there is no visiting, we were told twice that there was". She made some phone calls, and told us there was some kind of a "memo from the warden" that my nephew can't have any visits. I then complained that they should have told us that before the trip, and we wouldn't have come.

She called some other guy into the office to talk to us. For the record, this guy seems to be the only human being in the place. He was sympathetic, and decided to arrange a 'supervised' visit, but said it could only be for two hours. We were happy with that, until some other jerk called him and said he can't do that. He apologized to us and said he'd been "overridden", and we thanked him for trying anyway. He left.

The receptionist told us that a "duty officer" was coming to see us. After several minutes, some other pea-brain who said he was a 'counselor' showed up in the office and asked the receptionist "why are they still here" in a mad tone of voice. Then he came over to us and using the same tone of voice, started out with "I'll tell you how it works......." and tried to tell us that WE are the ones not following proper procedures, that we were supposed to set up a specific time to visit in advance, with my nephew's counselor, and blah, blah, blah. That's the first we, or my nephew, heard of that! When we asked him why we weren't told about that when we called to okay the visit, he said it was "a lack of communication". It certainly is. But I guess that's what to expect when there's also a lack of a brain. He escorted us to the door, we never did see the 'duty officer' we were waiting for. Twenty minutes after our arrival, we were departing!

After a few phone calls later that week, we learned of a lawyer considering a class-action lawsuit regarding the drug testing machine. We didn't jump on it yet, because my nephew is scheduled to be transferred out of there soon. But if your interested in it, drop me an email and I'll forward the lawyer's name to you.

Another lawyer claims that there is no such thing as a "memo from the warden" preventing a visit.

Last but not least, of course the warden had that day off, federal holiday you know. Just think, the poor suckers like us paying the salary of something like that!! I gotta get me one of those Government Jobs!!

More on this 5/07. My nephew has since been transferred to another prison. He said he had a personal meeting with the warden at Indiana, who told him he knew nothing about any "memo from the warden"

I've concluded that most of the problem lies with the Head Of Security at the Indiana prison. I'll call him Kojak. Contrary to the title of his position, this man is the absolute authority there. He is way above the Warden, the President, and God. As a matter of fact, there is NO ONE ELSE ON EARTH as great as this man. When He goes to the bathroom, His entire staff gathers just outside the bathroom door, just hoping to catch a whiff of His essence.  He is fully in charge of every aspect of running the prison, the state of Indiana, maybe even the entire United States! You report to Him, He reports to NO ONE! If He thinks your hair is too long, or you are not wearing the right brand of shoes, He has EVERY RIGHT to see to it that you fail that drug test! And if you "threaten" to report any of His actions to "60 minutes" or the like, He certainly will "make life rough for you".


Just got back from a visiting trip in Florida. The prison is nearly identical to the one in Indiana. They have the same drug testing machine also. But they appear to have real people working at this one! My sister and I both got in 2 days in a row for visits. They didn't even use the drug tester on us. They were real picky about the metal detector, but we can live with that!

MORE AGAIN 7/25/08

Went to Florida a few weeks ago for a 3-day visit. No testing machine present at all. No problems! And I also got the word from my nephew that "Kojak" over in Indiana earned himself a DEMOTION. Yeah!

Now just like they kept telling us in Indiana, Go