Weapons Detection

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The introduction, manufacturing and use of weapons by inmates in correctional facilities poses one of the most serious and life-threatening problems facing our prison systems. The ability to detect weapons concealed on an inmate’s person is paramount to intercepting their use and preventing a violent and potentially deadly outcome.

While pat searches are the most frequently used method for detecting concealed weapons, they may not result in detection of well-hidden weapons and are prone to human error. Current industry standard technology such as hand-held and walk-through metal detectors, while effective to some degree, have significant weaknesses. Some magnetometers may be less effective or are unable to detect nonferrous metals. Additionally, they may not detect small metal items that are well concealed.

Inmates have cleverly adapted to these weaknesses by manufacturing weapons made from nonmetallic materials in order to circumvent existing procedural and technological security systems. Evolving threats include polymers, wood and glass. The National Institute of Justice recognized the need for technology to detect nonmetallic concealed weapons for law enforcement and corrections and was instrumental in bringing the issue to the forefront by providing guidance and funding to stimulate the private sector to research and develop these much needed technologies.

Concurrently, the same concerns were occurring in aviation security due to domestic terrorism threats. Once developed, the Transportation Security Administration began introducing advanced imaging technology such as millimeter wave and backscatter X-rays in major airports. To date, many such systems have been installed in airports, but not without much public controversy. Some passengers have expressed privacy concerns due to the intrusive nature of full body imagery scanning technology, as well as potential exposure to radiation.

A number of companies have developed systems utilizing different methodologies to achieve the same net result. Some are fully developed, proven effective, and available on the open market. Others are still in the infancy stages of development or utilization. All systems have particular strengths but some are able to detect anomalies better than others. Of all concealed weapons detection systems, advanced body imaging is the most mature and effective technology. As such, backscatter X-ray and millimeter wave advanced body imaging are currently the most widely used in the security sensitive public and private domain.

Backscatter technology uses X-ray radiation to see through an individual’s clothing and other materials. X-rays are projected onto a person and the radiation is reflected back from the individual and constructed into an image that appears on a screen for security analysis.

Millimeter wave technology utilizes extremely high radio frequencies that are transmitted by rotating two antennas around an individual’s body to create a three-dimensional image, which is displayed on a monitor. Organic material such as clothing becomes translucent, allowing the imagery to be further analyzed. These technologies can be instrumental in identifying weapons and other security threats by projecting images of nonmetallic anomalies that are otherwise undetectable by traditional metal detection screening.

Keeping in mind that these systems were originally developed for law enforcement and corrections, the technology itself is quite effective in providing a solution to the specific threat it is designed to mitigate. While the technology is proven to work with no significant technical problems and the same privacy issues encountered in the public sector are not applicable in a correctional setting, there are other challenges to implementation in the correctional industry.

The technology identifies the shape of the anomaly, but identifying if the image is a potential weapon that requires physical inspection is subject to human interpretation. The highly technical skills necessary to discern differences and successfully utilize the equipment require substantial training and it is not the typical “green light, red light” technology that the correctional industry is accustomed to.

As with any new technology, the most significant challenge to implementation is the cost, which ranges from $75,000 to $150,000 per unit. The good news is that, as with any new technology that starts out with a high price tag, once it is widely purchased, the price will surely go down.

Given that it is indeed utilized by other industries, this technology promises to be the standard equipment within the arsenal of concealed weapons detection systems of the future.

After 29 years with the Massachusetts Department of Correction, Alex Fox retired from his position as director of security technology to launch a private consulting venture. Dorothy Fox served as director of systems development during a 22-year career with the Massachusetts Department of Correction.