The D.C. Department of Corrections is having trouble finding the 127 guards it needs to hire to meet a court-ordered increase in security personnel at Lorton Reformatory, and corrections officials say a major part of the problem is that most applicants fail a test for use of drugs.
"It has made the hiring process very difficult and very disappointing," said William Beck, the department's head of special projects, who helps coordinate hiring.
"We've interviewed well over 500 people since May, and although we haven't compiled the data yet, I can tell you that a substantial number of candidates has been rejected because their urinalysis drug tests came out positive."
Department officials said at least half the applicants failed a urine test given immediately after they filled in their initial application form.
One official said the failure rate could be as high as 85 percent.
"We have people trying every trick in the book to come out clean," department spokesman LeRoy Anderson said.
"They were bringing in little plastic bottles of somebody else's urine and putting it in the test tubes. Now I believe we supervise the entire process."
The city's fire and police departments have faced similar problems recently.
In June, almost half of a group of 69 candidates for firefighter jobs was dropped after failing to pass urinalysis tests.
Earlier this month, Police Chief Maurice Turner announced that 35 probationary officers have been dismissed for drug use since urinalysis tests were started last year.
The Corrections Department started using urinalysis tests to screen applicants last year.
"We've been coordinating our efforts with the police department," Beck said.
"They explained the problems they've been having. They told us what to expect but, frankly, we just weren't prepared for this."
Last Wednesday, the department dismissed eight of 28 candidates who were in the second week of their training program after they failed a randomly scheduled test. The eight, who claim they do not use drugs and who successfully passed two previous tests, are challenging the results.
"We had been told they would be doing these unannounced tests throughout the program," said one of the suspended trainees, who asked that his name not be used. "Myself, I don't mess with the stuff, but only a fool would smoke when they tell you they're going to be giving tests."
Some rejected job seekers are challenging the test results as well. One candidate passed his first urine test but failed a second one last week. "I asked for another test after failing last week's examination because I know I don't smoke marijuana or hang around it," he said. "But the interviewing officer said there was nothing he could do. I said, 'Look, you can't let me miss out on a chance at employment.' But he said he didn't want to argue with me."
Corrections officials declined to comment on the specifics of the complaints raised by the dismissed trainees or the unsuccessful applicants.
Of the tests in general, Beck said: "You're always going to get people complaining about accuracy."
He said the department normally does not administer a second test to candidates who claim test results are wrong. "If they have their physician testify that this person has never used drugs, for example, we take that into account. But a little more than just their word has to be involved."
Last year, 39 police cadets dismissed for failing drug tests challenged the test results. A second test was given, and 24 of the cadets were subsequently reinstated. Police Chief Turner said then the fault appeared to lie not with the chemical accuracy of the tests, which has generally proved higher than 95 percent, but with mishandling of the urine samples.
Corrections department tests are administered and evaluated by corrections personnel. Both Anderson and Beck said they did not know what quality control procedures were used in administering the tests, but Anderson said officials are convinced of their accuracy.
"They can determine if a person has been using drugs and what kind," he said. "And they can detect drug use as much as 30 days back."
Most of the positive urinalysis tests among prospective corrections employes show marijuana use, Beck said. "But we get PCP and cocaine too."
Beck said he thinks the test results reflect a change in society. "There's been a tremendous change in standards since the '60s and '70s," he said. "And we have to recognize that."
Standards for District law enforcement officials have changed along with society. "In 1968, when Chief Turner was in charge of recruiting for the police department, applicants had to fill out a questionnaire that asked them if they'd ever used drugs. If the answer was yes, they were out," said Lt. Daniel Keller, Turner's special assistant. "Today, we use the term 'continuous use of drugs' as a disqualifier, but it's no longer necessary to reject somebody just because they fitted the mold of today's society by smoking pot at college."
But policy on current drug use by sworn officers remains inflexible. "Until the laws change, we are steadfast that if you use drugs, you will be terminated--even if 90 percent of the population smokes marijuana. Smoking and obtaining marijuana is against the law. It's as simple as that," Keller said.
The District's police department is one of the few in the country that regularly screens its members for drug use, Keller said. Officers must take a urinalysis test on every visit to the police clinic.
The Corrections Department does not have a similar program for guards. Currently, it is simply trying to meet its Sept. 1 hiring deadline.
"What we're looking for is a clean record, no drug involvement and a good attitude," Beck said. "People who are willing to work and learn on the job. We're hopeful we'll find them."