‘Like an extra set of eyes': Ky. jails use new technology to help monitor inmates’ health
The contact-free system uses radar technology to monitor patients’ vital signs by responding to the tiny vibrations in their bodies created by the movement of their heart and lungs
By Karla Ward
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Some Kentucky jails are among the first in the country to get new contact-free technology that can measure a patient’s heart and respiratory rates using a sensor mounted in the wall or ceiling, allowing jail officials to better monitor whether inmates are having health issues.
The system uses radar technology to monitor patients’ vital signs by responding to the tiny vibrations in their bodies created by the movement of their heart and lungs.
The developers say the goal is to help detention centers detect and respond to inmate overdoses or other medical emergencies, saving lives. Often, people being booked into detention centers come in intoxicated or are detoxing, putting them at risk for a medical emergency, said Dr. Scott Wilson.
“They may not want to openly come forward and say, ‘Oh, I just used methamphetamine,’” Wilson said. “They may have swallowed a handful of pills before being arrested” in an attempt to get rid of the drugs.
He said the radar sensors are “revolutionary” when it comes to “monitoring people who may not be extremely complaint with monitoring devices.”
In 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, 24 people died while being held in local jails in Kentucky and 1,200 died in local jails nationwide, according to the Department of Justice. Nearly 60% had been incarcerated 30 days or fewer.
Nationally, most of the deaths in local jails, 46.1%, were as a result of illness; 26.9% were as a result of suicide; and 15.3% were from drug or alcohol intoxication, which was an increase over the 4.1% who died from intoxication in 2000, according to the DOJ.
“It is a solution that gives reassurance to the custodian of that person that you otherwise would not have,” Wilson said.
The technology has been deployed in more than 20 correctional facilities, most of which are in Kentucky, and a number of others are in the process of getting it installed, Wilson, of Reassurance Solutions, said in an interview earlier this year.
Wilson said he and his business partner in Reassurance Solutions decided to partner with Xandar Kardian after “we saw how groundbreaking this was in all aspects of health care.”
Sam Yang , CEO of Xandar Kardian, said the system isn’t designed to replace jail staff.
Instead, he said, “our sensors are designed to focus staff” on those who need attention.
“No facility in the United States has a one to one staff to inmate ratio,” Wilson said.
He said the intervals between checks are “the scary time period” when something could happen.
Simpson County Jailer Eric Vaughn said his jail had the sensors installed in its medical cells and holding cells for new intakes about six or seven months ago.
“It’s like an extra set of eyes,” he said.
Vaughn also serves as vice president of the Kentucky Jailers Association, and he said that within a week, he was getting calls from other jailers, asking how they liked the system. Since then, he said, “they spread like wildfire across the state of Kentucky.”
Vaughn said the jail’s protocol is to put new inmates in a single holding cell for one to six hours when they first come in.
“If it alarms, there’s definitely something going on,” he said.
McCracken County Chief Deputy Jailer Stephen Carter said the detention center where he works had 16 sensors installed in its isolation and observation cells last spring as “just another layer of security.”
People who are being held in those cells are “either detoxing or they’re on medical watch or they’re on suicide watch,” he said.
He said each of those cells has a camera running at all times, and staff must do regular checks as well.
The sensors are an “extra layer of safety and security for the inmates,” Carter said.
Vaughn agreed, saying the jail still must conduct cell checks every 10 to 15 minutes.
“They’re definitely not a replacement for the deputies,” he said.
Sometimes people are brought into the jail having taken drugs before their arrival. Vaughn said sometimes people even ingest drugs they have in their possession, hoping to avoid another criminal charge.
“They were fine one minute, but then that drug kicks in,” he said.
It’s “a very crucial time” as people detox, Carter said, and “your vitals can go off the charts pretty quick.”
“A lot of people that they bring in the back door don’t disclose what they’ve used,” said Fulton County Jailer Steven Williams.
Vaughn said the sensor is “just one more tool in our toolbox.”
“It’s a preventative for the unknown,” he said. “It’s a good thing.”
How it works
An ultra-wideband radar sensor mounted to the wall or ceiling in each cell sends data about the inmate’s vital signs to a computer monitor or screen in a control room monitored by jail staff. The data on the screen is highlighted in green when all is well. It changes to yellow or red if the person’s resting heart rate or respiratory rate goes outside a set range, alerting staff to check on them.
Reassurance Solutions says the system is compliant with HIPAA regulations.
Williams said inmates’ privacy is protected since the screen does not display a name, only the cell number.
Each sensor can be set to alert based on what is typical for individual inmates.
Yang said changes in vital signs can help clinicians more quickly detect oncoming illnesses such as COVID-19, pneumonia or a urinary tract infection.
Yang said other applications for the technology include health care settings like hospitals and nursing homes.
He said the same team has been working on the system for almost 10 years based on research conducted 12 years ago.
After receiving FDA clearance two years ago, Yang said the company rolled out the system first among hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, when medical facilities were looking for ways to keep nurses from having to go into patient rooms as frequently.
This year, it began reaching out to corrections facilities and nursing homes.
Next year, Yang said, the company has plans to begin marketing it for home use.
He said the company believes there’s a large market for the system among people with chronic conditions who could benefit from continuous monitoring.
“Next year, we’re going to be ramping up and growing fast,” he said.
So far, Yang said, more than 5,000 sensors have been deployed in the U.S. and about 8,000 worldwide.
“It’s so exciting to be able to help people. We save people’s lives,” he said.
Yang admitted the product’s biggest limitation is that it can only be used in cells with one person in them, so it doesn’t work in areas with multiple inmates.
Vaughn said he’s looking forward to a future generation of the product that could monitor multiple people at once.
In August, Williams said he had 26 sensors installed in the Fulton County detention center, which has 525 beds, at a cost of about $80,000.
Since then, “we’ve had several alerts,” he said.
Williams said sometimes those alerts are false alarms, and “sometimes somebody just didn’t take blood pressure medicine.”
But overall, he said the system is working well, though he said “there’s still kinks and bugs to be worked out.”
Wilson said the sensors cost $4,000 to $5,000 each, plus installation costs and monitoring, as well as an annual maintenance fee.
All three jailers interviewed for this report said they used their jails’ commissary funds to pay for the sensors, though Wilson said some facilities might seek grants or rely on public funding to install them.
“It’s not cheap,” Williams said.
Yang said the infrastructure needed to install sensors in buildings with concrete walls adds to the cost.
Carter said in an interview that jails can spend commissary funds on “anything that’s beneficial to the inmate,” and this meets that criterion.
“This is an expensive device, but the ability to save a life is priceless,” Wilson said.
He said jail staff help protect the community but also are responsible for making sure inmates are cared for.
“They’re people,” Yang said. “They should be able to have the same health care.”