/ Articles / A sign of the times — Oneida County Sheriff’s Department seeks body scanner for prisoners

A sign of the times — Oneida County Sheriff’s Department seeks body scanner for prisoners

August 27, 2019 by Richard Moore

The Oneida County Sheriff’s Department is seeking $138,000 to purchase and install a body scanner to help stop the smuggling of drugs and other contraband into the county jail.

Supervisor Robb Jensen, the chairman of the county’s capital improvements subcommittee, said the request was a sign of the times, and chief deputy Dan Hess, who made the request to the committee, said the machine is a high priority.

“It’s a body scanner for the jail,” Hess said. “We’ve been seeing a large increase of drugs and contraband coming into the jail through people’s body cavities, which is continuing to be a problem.”

In 2016, Hess said there were three instances of such smuggling; in 2017, five; in 2018, 15; and so far in 2019 there have been nine.

“And if we get those drugs into the jail, our liability goes way up because if someone dies by taking those drugs, did we do everything we were supposed to to stop that from coming into the jail?” he questioned.

The machine, which is not exactly the same but similar to those used in airport terminals for security, is not inexpensive at $130,625 (plus another $7,318 for installation), but Hess said the department had done its due diligence in searching for an effective scanner at a reasonable price.

“We went to numerous departments, and most counties have them already,” he said. “We’re kind of behind the eight ball on this one. The one that we found was $130,000. I know Dane County spent a lot more. It depends on what you want. This is one that we can get by with. The price is reasonable, if you call $130,000 reasonable.”

Jensen said the scanners were becoming standard equipment for law enforcement around the state and around the nation, and a Lakeland Times review confirmed that fact. The scanners are used in hundreds of jails and prisons around the U.S., from small sheriff’s departments like Hamilton County, Ohio, to large law enforcement agencies such as Los Angeles County and prisons such as Rikers.

And they have been effective. In Montgomery County, Ohio, for example, officers discovered 600 contraband items at booking in 2018, most of it because of the scanner, the department reported.

And while looking for concealed drugs is a top priority, the scanners also help officers discover other contraband, such as cell phones, weapons such as knives and razor blades, and tobacco products.

During Hess’s presentation to the capital improvements projects subcommittee, Jensen wanted to know, because the department does not yet have a scanner, if the department was performing cavity searches.

Hess said that had happened.

“We have taken people over to St. Mary’s and obtained search warrants,” he said.

However, captain Terri Hook added, that only happens if the sheriff’s department actually has information the person is carrying drugs. Probable cause is needed for a warrant.

“The problem is, we don’t necessarily know that,” Hook said. 

Hess pointed out some of the jail population involves prisoners who are allowed to work and return to the jail after their work shift, also known as Huber inmates, and the scanner would help there, too.

“Huber inmates coming in and out do get strip searched, but you’re not going to see (contraband in body cavities) unless you can scan them,” he said.

Hess said he knew of one sheriff’s department, which he did not name, that didn’t have a scanner.

“They are running over to the hospital all the time for scans and it is costing them a bunch of money,” he said. “We’ve had different drugs come into a block and thank God that no one has died. The scanner is a big priority.”

According to the department’s research, just one drug overdose lawsuit could easily cost the county 10 times the cost of the scanner.

Hess said the machine would be retrofitted into the property room in the booking area.

“We looked at putting it into the sally port where we drop prisoners off, but we thought there would be issues with salt in the winter time because of all those cars and buses coming through there,” he said. “So we believe it should be inside in a better location.” 

Not an alternative to strip searching

Since law enforcement first started using body scanners in jails and prisons in a significant way, around 2011, a debate has emerged about whether the scanners offer an alternative to strip searches, or are merely a tool to supplement those searches.

A 2017 review of body scanners presented to the Washington state Legislature by that state’s Department of Corrections touted the machines as an alternative to strip searches.

“The greatest advantage of body scanning technology is the ability to discover contraband hidden under an individual’s clothes and/or concealed in their body cavities without the need for them to undress in front of employees,” the review stated. “In addition, a more effective search is performed than a standard strip search because strip searches generally do not detect contraband concealed in body cavities unless it is protruding or the individual is using body posturing or other mechanisms to limit physical inspection of body openings.”

Still, the review acknowledged, body scanners are not foolproof and strip searches would still have to be performed in limited circumstances.

“Body-scanning technology is also not a guaranteed method for detecting contraband,” the review stated. “In the majority of scans, employees could reasonably determine that the individual is not hiding contraband. However, depending on the scan, the size of the object, location of concealed contraband, or employee subjectivity, some individuals scanned may require additional screening such as a strip search or other security protocols to confirm contraband is or is not present.”

Others who support body scanners say those other security protocols, such as strip searches, should be performed anyway, not merely in limited circumstances, because inmates are remarkably adept at getting around detection by scanners. The scanners should be an additional, if effective, tool, they say.

A 2014 study by scientists at Johns Hopkins and the University of Michigan of Secure 1000 scanners, which were one of the most widely deployed in the world until 2013 when they were removed from airports because of privacy concerns but were repurposed for use in many jails, found the machines to be startlingly ineffective and easily defeated by “low-tech technology.”

“We find that the system provides weak protection against adaptive adversaries,” the researchers wrote. “It is possible to conceal knives, guns, and explosives from detection by exploiting properties of the device’s backscatter X-ray technology.”

However, body scanners have come a long way since then, and the scanner the sheriff’s department wants to purchase — a SOTER RS body scanner — has been found to be far more effective, using transmission image technology with greater detection than scans generated by the backscatter devices such as the Secure 1000.

Still, the department says the new scanner will be an additional aid and not a replacement for other security procedures now being used.

“This piece of equipment would not replace the current protocols in place, but add an extra step in preventing contraband into the facility and possibly save lives,” the department’s proposal states.

“If they are Hubers,” Hess assured the committee, “they would do the scan and the strip search.”

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.

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