Nearly one month into a widespread health fiasco that sent people home from work and play indefinitely and has even Boston’s elite hospitals on the brink of unfathomable meltdown, state, county, and municipal officials are doing everything in their power to prevent the further spread of coronavirus.
Actually, no, not exactly, unless you consider having drug offenders still reporting to probation appointments to pee into cups to be a critical safety measure.
On one front, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and the qualified cabinet members and deputies fighting COVID-19 alongside him are brave, informed, and cool in the face of significant disaster. On the other hand, they’re still bowing to prohibitionist pressures—stopping recreational cannabis sales despite allowing package stores to remain open; resisting calls to release low-level prisoners, many of whom are drug offenders; and in thousands of cases, continuing to drug test.
Not everybody caught in the Mass system has to piss on command with the threat of coronavirus looming. On March 16, the Executive Office of the Trial Court issued an emergency administrative order “concerning probation conditions as a result COVID-19,” including guidance, effective until “further notice,” for “no in-person drug testing [to take place] at courts by the Massachusetts Probation Service (MPS) itself.” But that’s not how everybody on the state’s leash gets examined; for the rest, the order noted, “If your probation/pretrial testing is conducted by outside vendors or entities other than the MPS, including Averhealth and sheriff’s departments, you must continue testing, unless and until instructed otherwise by the vendor. If the outside vendor suspends testing, notify your PO immediately.”
If you are one of the thousands of people who are tested by Averhealth, which has nine locations across Mass including in the South End near Boston Medical Center, your weekdays start with you calling an automated message service, which runs an algorithm to determine if you have to get tested that day. According to company materials, “Averhealth has partnered with courts and social service programs nationwide, providing best-in-class drug testing services” since 1995. They claim their “customers are able to better identify addiction, accurately measure program effectiveness, and identify high-risk clients based on evidence-based practices,” and to do that they sometimes ask people to come into one of their facilities as many as three times a week.
According to one probationer who I spoke with for this column, that routine—which they had to go through twice last week—involves waiting in a lobby close to other people, riding in an elevator with an Averhealth employee, pulling their pants down and shirt up, peeing in a cup, and handing over the goods. If you fail to show up or provide compromised urine, you risk violating the terms of your punishment, and can face further penalties including incarceration.
In a memo on their website titled Averhealth’s COVID-19 Action Plan, the company’s CEO Jason Herzog explains why the business will stop at nothing to collect and analyze pee, as well as how they rationalize their centers continuing to operate.
“Averhealth provides an essential health benefit that is even more critical in the current high stress environment across all of our communities,” Herzog writes. “State mandates preclude Essential Critical Infrastructure and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has provided guidance to ensure that substance use disorder treatment services are uninterrupted during this public health emergency – a duty we will strive to fulfill.”
The SAMHSA guidance Herzog references actually states, “in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing, as well as state or local government-issued bans or guidelines on gatherings of multiple people, many substance use disorder treatment provider offices are closed, or patients are not able to present for treatment services in person. Therefore, there has been an increased need for telehealth services, and in some areas without adequate telehealth technology, providers are offering telephonic consultations to patients.”
The Averhealth COVID-19 Action Plan doesn’t merely mischaracterize federal guidance, which in no way whatsoever says that people should risk their lives to administer or take drug tests at this time. It also lays out the company’s “collective efforts to keep clients safe and healthy.” Included among their stated precautions: “Ensured proper use of personal protective equipment (e.g. gloves, masks)”; “Increased Patient Care Center (PCC) cleaning and sanitation”; “Promoted social distancing, including: Encouraging clients to visit during slow times.”
According to my source, as recently as last week, the Boston site was hardly set up prudently. For starters, on one visit, there were 10 people in the lobby at once, including employees and people waiting to get tested. “Everybody there had a terrified look on their face,” according to this probationer, who explained that people in their situation already live in constant fear of the state, and may now have added anxiety since they have no choice but to show up to Averhealth upon random instruction.
As it turns out, there’s a lot of money being pissed away on urinalysis in the Bay State. Averhealth’s parent company, Avertest, started doing business with Mass in 2016, contracting with the state trial court for “community corrections administration.” In 2018, the Commonwealth spent $1.44 million with the Virginia-based company, expanding its services into specialty drug courts, a recidivism pilot program, county corrections departments, and probation. Last year, Avertest made $1.88 million off Mass; this year, the state’s already paid them $1.5 million, including more than $230,000 in the latter half of March.
In a bench ruling last Friday that addressed several issues around prison, parole, and probation in Mass relative to preventing the further spread of COVID-19 among those populations, the Supreme Judicial Court had an opportunity to adopt language, suggested by attorneys advocating on behalf of state supervisees, that “drug-testing that cannot be completed without adherence to social distancing guidelines shall be suspended.” Judges declined, though, spurring CourtWatch MA, a “community of volunteers supporting neighbors + shifting power dynamics in #MA courts by exposing decisions of judges & prosecutors,” to tweet: “PEOPLE ARE STILL REQUIRED TO GO PEE IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE, PER COURT ORDER CDC guidelines on physical distancing be damned.”
CHRIS FARAONE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF