Detecting Contraband

Advanced contraband detection — using whole body imaging technology — continues to gather momentum at detention facilities across the country.

Contraband remains a huge issue for correctional facilities across the United States. Essentially defined as anything that is criminal in nature or which poses a threat to the security of detention staff and other inmates — such as tools of escape, weapons and narcotics — contraband can also be considered money, unauthorized food or personal property as well as allowed items that have been altered, excess items and tobacco products.

In an effort to control the trafficking and use of contraband items, whole body imaging technology is becoming increasingly popular for the detection of both internal and external contraband. Correctional News recently sat down with Lt. Lisa Abernathy of the Calhoun County Jail in Anniston, Ala.; Lt. Tom Perron of the Pasco County, Fl. Sheriff Department; and Dennis Wolfe, national sales manager, security products for Virtual Imaging, a company that offers a full body security screening system called RadPRO SecurPASS, to discuss how this continuous problem can be addressed more effectively through the use of technology.

Q: How big of a problem is contraband in correctional facilities across the country?
Dennis Wolfe: Contraband is a problem in every U.S. jail. It is just a matter of what it is and how bad it is. The most common contraband depends on location. Often it is a prescription pill problem.

Lt. Lisa Abernathy: Every correctional facility in the world deals with contraband issues — some on a daily basis. At Calhoun County Jail, here in Anniston, Ala., contraband is the reason we have such strict policies and procedures. Jails have to abide by strict rules and restrictions to ensure safety and security of inmates, staff and visitors.

Lt. Tom Perron: I believe contraband to be one of the largest burden’s impacting correctional facilities across the nation. As a 22-year employee of a correctional facility, contraband has always been at the forefront of issues impacting our facilities. This problem was compounded in 2005 when some landmark strip search cases forced the hands of correctional facilities to revise their policies regarding blanket strip searches for all inmates.

Q: Why is it a constant struggle to keep contraband such as tobacco, drugs, weapons or cell phones out of detention facilities?
Abernathy: It is a given that inmates will attempt to make or introduce restricted items just because they are told not to. To some inmates, it is a game of cat and mouse. Inmates will go to extreme measures and view the risk of getting caught as minimal compared to their desire for that item. Contraband means different things to different inmates. Some inmates ‘sell’ items for personal gain — store, phone calls, money for their family on the street, etc. Tobacco and drugs can be big money markers for an inmate. Other inmates make or introduce a weapon to harm someone inside the jail — officer or inmate — or they may see it as a way for personal protection. Any reason is extremely dangerous. Cell phones are also dangerous because inmates can use them to continue criminal activity while in jail, make escape plans and even intimidate witnesses.

Perron: Inmates who know they will be incarcerated — such as walk-in warrant arrests and those sentenced to jail time while at court — are the biggest hoarders of contraband. These individuals have the time and forethought to hide contraband on or within their body in an attempt to smuggle it into the facility. Where the issue lies is when we do not have probable cause to conduct a strip search when they enter the facility. The end result is that the contraband ends up within the housing units.

Wolfe: It’s easy to breach the system. Many of these items are not metallic so they are easy to get through the normal metal detectors. If the jail does not have the latest transmission technology, like the SecurPASS, that can identify contraband in internal body cavities, then the jail will consistently have issues with stopping the contraband.

Q: What is an effective way of dealing with this problem?
Perron: Random and thorough searches of all housing units and common areas of the facility. The key is having a plan and goal to keep contraband minimized. Once you have that, the shift commanders of the facility incorporate the plan into their daily activities and ensure all areas are searched as much as possible. Intelligence gathering is also a pivotal factor in finding contraband. Sometimes an inmate or a friend of an inmate may provide information on hidden contraband and other times staff members gather clues through casual conversation and observation.

Abernathy: Inmates that succeed in introducing contraband will continue unless they are caught. Most correctional facilities use similar preventative measures in attempts to prevent contraband — pat down, strip search, cell searches, etc. However, there are issues with most of these techniques. Pat down searches will detect the most obvious items, but can often miss important items. Strip searches have constitutional limitations and can also exclude items hidden internally. Cell searches take a great deal of time and manpower, which are often the two most lacking resources.

Wolfe: The best way to detect contraband, regardless of whether it is external or internal, metallic or nonmetallic, organic or inorganic, is to use transmission imaging, which the SecurPASS does. It will allow the correction officers to be more efficient with their time while at the same time it is safer for them and the inmates being imaged. The technology was developed about seven years ago in Europe. It’s been used primarily for gold and diamond mines in Africa. Because we have so many prisons and jails in the United States — more so than any other country — the technology morphed over to law enforcement in order to be able to detect contraband. The dose of radiation is extremely low.

Q: How can technology help?
Abernathy: Technology reduces the risk for human error; it can reduce time and manpower. Over time, inventions and innovations have made daily practices easier, faster and more productive. Whole body imaging in corrections is one of those innovations. The science is not entirely new, but the concept has been broadened to include contraband detection.

Perron: Technology is paramount, but sometimes intrusive and controversial. I believe airports have run into some issues utilizing full body scanners, as citizens believe the technology is violating personal privacy and is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. The technology used by most airports is a back splatter X-ray machine. The issue faced is that the images show the contour of the individual’s body, which includes the genital and breast area. You can see why this has some citizens quite upset.

Q: What whole body imaging technologies are available for the detection of internal and external contraband and are these wide available and being used in detention facilities?
Wolfe: The SecurPASS utilizes transmission imaging and has been approved by the FDA and certified by Intertek Labs (ETL). ETL is an independent U.S. Government certified laboratory that has verified every published specification including scatter and dosage measurements. Every detention facility would like to have a SecurPASS, but for some it is harder to get the budgeting approved. About 80 percent of the SecurPASS systems are being purchased with forfeiture or SCAAP (State Criminal Alien Assistance Program) funds.

Abernathy: Metal detectors have been widely used in correctional facilities and courthouses. They are often too big and expensive for equipment that only detects metal. Aside from handheld metal detectors, our agency was limited to physical searches of inmates and their property. In 2008, our jail was the first county jail in the world to acquire the SecurPASS Body Imaging System from Virtual Imaging. This system has benefited our agency in numerous ways. The low-dose X-ray system allows one officer less than 10 seconds to take a scan of an inmate or scan property of an inmate. It immediately produces an image on a computer screen that looks just like an X-ray. The officer reviews the image to find any item(s) that the inmate may have hidden on or in that inmate, as well as any property that is scanned. Scans are based on density, so any item with density can be seen. This makes searches less intrusive and improves the efficiency and productivity in relation to time management and manpower. The system can do the job of multiple officers in a third of the time. Before the system, human error likely missed an immeasurable amount of contraband.

Perron: Knowing the issues faced by airports utilizing the back splatter technology, we were hesitant to move forward in that direction. This changed in 2010 when we saw a demonstration of a SecurPASS System at the Coleman Federal Correctional Facility. The technology this equipment utilized seemed a lot less intrusive compared to the back splatter technology. This equipment was being utilized by their staff to do full body scans of inmates as they entered the facility. A member of their staff would evaluate the image taken on a monitor and determine if contraband was suspect on the individual. The image looked like a typical X-ray that you would see at the doctor’s office. This seemed like a highly effective piece of equipment, so I made a proposal for our agency to purchase one. In October 2012, our SecurPASS was installed and has been extremely effective in locating contraband and minimizing some of our contraband hoarding issues.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Wolfe: The SecurPASS is a terrific way to avoid being implicated in a law suit for strip searching an arrestee without probable cause. Think about it, the facility can image an arrestee in eight seconds and determine immediately if they are hiding drugs, weapons or a cell phone internally or externally. If they are, the probable cause evidence is there and documented.

Abernathy: The system training takes a matter of minutes and is very user friendly. Spotting items with greater density can be done by even an untrained eye — i.e. cellphone, gun, knife, or anything metal. These items jump out at you because their density is much different than the density around the object. It will take new officers experience over the course of repeated scans for them to develop their “spotting techniques” when it comes to smaller, less dense items such as loose tobacco, pills or drugs in powdered form. These can be seen on a scan, but it takes a “good eye.”