Screened OUT: Sophisticated Tech Combats Contraband at Key Entry Point

By Zach Chouteau

Contraband will always be a concern when it comes to corrections, but with limited staff and resources handy it can be hard for facilities to keep up with the never-ending effort to infiltrate facilities with illegal goods. While it really requires a well-rounded approach that often includes scanning of staff and visitors, drone defense systems and other tools and tactics, one key point of entry that can’t be downplayed is incoming personal mail.

With that in mind, CN touched base with Alex Sappok, Ph.D., the CEO of RaySecur, a security imaging company that has created a widely used scanner for mail and package threat detection in the corrections industry. He shared his insights on a number of key facets tied to this vital area of combatting contraband.

CN: Why do you think contraband remains such a key challenge with modern correctional facilities?

Sappok: Smuggling techniques and the types of contraband are constantly changing and becoming more advanced, and it’s hard for prisons and jails to keep up. Very few correctional facilities have the staff and resources to screen the volumes of mail they receive. Even those facilities that have moved to copying or digitizing personal mail still need to manually process legal mail, which has become a major avenue for smuggling as it is constitutionally protected.

The problem is compounded by the large variation in synthetics including K2 and K3, in addition to the widespread availability of drugs, like fentanyl or ISO, that are extremely potent in very small quantities. Given how dangerous they are in even trace amounts, they are easier to hide and harder to detect while posing a serious health and safety risk for screeners. Not to mention, drugs are commonly hidden by being sprayed or soaked onto paper, which is imperceptible to the human eye once it has dried.

Traditional screening methods, like X-ray, are insufficient, as it cannot detect small amounts of powders, liquids, or drug-laced papers. As a result, many facilities resort to manual screening which is inefficient, time-consuming, and puts the screener at risk. In the meantime, contraband continues to slip past conventional methods, resulting in drug exposure and hospitalization for corrections staff and overdoses for inmates.

CN: How is advanced mail screening technology playing a role in helping curtail contraband today?

Sappok: Some facilities, like Fulton County jails in Georgia, are already implementing advanced screening technologies. New T-ray imaging systems can produce real-time 3D video of the contents inside of mail items without requiring the operator to open it. These same T-ray screening systems are already used to screen mail for G8 world leaders and Fortune 500 corporations to keep them safe from mail threats, including potential harmful powders and liquids, among others. This same T-ray screening technology is now being adopted by correctional facilities across the country.

With T-ray screening, corrections staff are no longer at risk of exposure as these scanners can detect tiny amounts of powders, liquids, and drug-laced papers, all without opening the mail item. The applications of T-ray screening within corrections is broad and extend beyond mail.  Additional uses include screening legal documents and files which may be hand-carried from court, and deployments in a battery-powered mobile system for screening personal items as part of cell searches including bedding and clothing for contraband such as drugs, electronics, and weapons.

CN: What advice would you give a facility concerned about the cost or commitment of implementing smarter mail screening tech?

Sappok: It is important to weigh the costs of implementing new technology against the status quo.  Oftentimes operating costs get overlooked when overly manual processes are employed, as is the case with legacy approaches to mail screening today.  Whether it’s manually opening and photocopying personal mail, running trace detection on every page of a letter, or reaching out to law firms to verify the legitimacy of each piece of legal mail, the operating costs are significant.

The overall cost – benefit analysis needs to include an accurate assessment not just of the upfront costs of procuring a new piece of equipment, for example, but also of the overall efficiencies new screening approaches can deliver, relative to legacy processes.  At a time when most facilities are chronically understaffed, the savings of freeing up staff to carry out their work more efficiently should not be overlooked.

In addition to capital expenses and operating costs, the expected benefits of more effective drug and contraband interdiction also need to be considered.  Whether due to an overdose or accidental staff exposure, the associated medical and workers compensation-related costs are not insignificant, nor are the costs associated with responding to drug-related violence that occurs daily in most facilities.

Beyond simply looking at the numbers, the health and safety of corrections staff and persons under their care is paramount, and easily bolstered by the adoption of better processes and more effective technologies to keep harmful substances out of correctional facilities.

CN: Are there any keys ‘do’s or don’ts’ for facilities trying to combat contraband with today’s tech?

Sappok: Advanced technologies, such as T-ray screening systems provide corrections staff with the right tools to combat contraband, but having the right tools at your disposal is only part of the solution.  Developing a comprehensive interdiction solution hinges on several key elements including: updating processes and procedures to maximize the benefit of advanced screening tech, training staff on those new processes, and continually keeping those processes up to date as contraband smuggling methods and substances evolve.

Oftentimes organizations implement technology without first thinking through how that technology will be used.  This is how correctional facilities end up with new technology that adds additional steps onto existing legacy processes, consumes more time and resources to implement, and realizes only a fraction of the benefits envisioned at the outset. On the other hand, starting with a focus on the process first, will result in a much simpler, more efficient implementation of new technology, which ultimately saves time and maximizes the benefits, as the process and technology work hand-in-hand.

Staff training is another area that is often overlooked or treated as an afterthought. When it is considered, oftentimes the training focuses exclusively on the use of the new technology. To be truly effective, a comprehensive training program should not only enable staff to quickly become proficient with a new piece of equipment, but more importantly understand how it fits into their daily workflow, updated processes, and the facility’s overall interdiction approach.

Continuous education and a focus on access to timely intelligence reporting is critical for facilities to keep up with the rapid evolution of smuggling methods and substances, such as variations in K2 or K3 formulations, the use of laced-papers, and even the method of introduction into the facility whether through legal mail or hand-carried from court appearances. One example of the rapid evolution in drug chemistry is the blending of Xylazine, a powerful tranquilizer, with fentanyl. The resulting drug compound renders Narcan relatively ineffective. Keeping staff informed and procedures updated is critical not only for staff safety but also to ensure new substances and smuggling methods continue to be detected.

CN: Why do you think effective mail screening technology is key to a well-rounded approach to stopping contraband?

Sappok: Mail is a top entry point for contraband because it’s low-risk, low-cost, and hard to counteract. Drug-treated papers are typically impossible to detect with the human eye, and can be cut up into strips and sold for thousands of dollars inside jails and prisons, providing significant financial incentive to fuel criminal activity. In addition, not a week goes by without incidents making the news in which corrections officers are exposed to dangerous substances due to drugs sent in the mail, or persons in their care die from overdoses.

Some facilities have tried to solve the problem by copying or digitizing incoming personal mail, with mixed results. The practice has also triggered privacy lawsuits, and still places the person who opens the material to scan it at risk of exposure. As a result, fraudulent legal mail, which is constitutionally protected, has emerged as a primary means to smuggle contraband, as it can not easily be copied or digitized.

The magnitude of the problem requires new technologies better-suited to address both the methods and substances smuggled into correctional facilities. The problem has persisted as relatively ineffective, time-consuming, and manual methods continue to be employed, without taking a step back to understand the complete scope of the problem. The prevalence of drug-laced papers and the trend toward more potent and smaller quantities of drugs that can be easily concealed in a small envelope require more advanced screening tools capable of detecting them.

CN: As illegal contraband efforts become more sophisticated, how can screening technology evolve?

Sappok: First and foremost, it’s important to understand the job you need the technology to do, and that starts with understanding the difference between detection and identification technologies.  Detection technologies can be thought of as a first line of defense, to quickly detect something out of the ordinary.  Once an anomaly or suspect item is detected, that’s where identification tools come in, as a secondary step to confirm and identify the anomaly.

Detection and identification tools are very different in how they keep pace with changes in contraband smuggling. In the case of mail screening, T-ray screening systems are a good example of a detection tool. These systems provide a live video view of the contents inside a mail item, so the screener can see grains of loose powder moving in an envelope or regions or pages that have been laced with a foreign substance, but it does not identify the substance.  Regardless of whether the chemistry of the powder or drug-laced paper changes, the visual detection system is still able to “see” it and flag the anomaly.

On the other hand chemical identification systems, whether trace detection instruments or chemical test kits, are developed and calibrated to identify specific chemical substances, such as cocaine or fentanyl for example. As the drug chemistry changes, these systems need to continuously update their calibrations or chemical libraries to keep pace, which is one of the reasons so many variants of K2 and K3 have flooded the market. The chemistry changes faster than the identification technology.

Understanding these key differences, including the benefits and limitations of detection and identification technologies, is critical to selecting the right technology for the right job and ensuring that your solution continues to be highly effective in the years to come.

CN: How do new mail screening technologies help simplify contraband interdiction for corrections facilities?

Sappok: When it comes to keeping drugs and contraband out of correctional facilities it’s important to first understand the desired outcome in order to simplify the process.  Are cases of contraband sent in the mail being investigated and prosecuted in your facility, or is there simply a need to flag and reject suspect items? Once the end state is well-understood, there are countless examples of how other industries have implemented simple, yet highly-effective security screening processes to draw from.

Email virus scanning is a security screening process everyone is familiar with. Digital mail is quickly screened without delay, normal emails are cleared and routed directly to your inbox, while abnormal emails are flagged and quarantined for later inspection or deletion. TSA employs a similar approach at airport checkpoints, quickly screening all passengers through a primary detection system, and only flagging a small handful for secondary identification processes, such as swiping their bags to test for explosive residue. The vast majority of passengers walk right through the primary detection system and are sent on their way.

Implementing advanced mail screening technologies in corrections facilities can follow a similar path. The use of T-ray detection systems now allows unopened mail to be quickly screened for abnormalities.  The vast majority of normal mail can then be delivered directly to the incarcerated person, in its original unopened form, thereby ensuring staff safety, maintaining confidentiality, and allowing mail to flow unimpeded. Following the same process, suspect mail items can quickly be flagged and set aside or quarantined, much like suspect email, and later processed in accordance with the facility’s specific procedures – whether through secondary identification technologies or other protocols for rejecting abnormal mail.

At the end of the end of the day, selecting the right technology tool for the job, and updating processes and procedures to fully-realize the benefits of new technologies, while leaning on established security best practices, can not only significantly reduce the mail screening workload, but make it safer and more effective for corrections staff and people in their care alike.

Alex Sappok, Ph.D., is the CEO of RaySecur, a security imaging company with the DHS Safety Act-designated T-ray desktop scanner for mail and package threat detection. Prior to RaySecur, Alex was the founder and CEO of FST, Inc, an MIT spin-out advanced sensors company acquired by CTS Corporation (NYSE: CTS). He holds over a dozen patents in the fields of radio frequency sensing and S.M. and Ph.D. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. 

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Correctional News.