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3 key strategies for effective visitor screening

Consider these tools and techniques to help maintain the constant vigilance necessary to keep contraband drugs, phones and weapons out of your facility

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Use X-ray technology to screen the belongings of every visitor to speed up the process as well as improve accuracy. Drugs or weapons that might be concealed from view in the lining of a bag can’t escape the X-ray.


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Contraband is a constant challenge for correctional facilities, and visitors often try to sneak “goodies” to inmates. There are various strategies and tools to help thwart these activities, but many of them are time-consuming and require a level of focus that can be difficult to maintain throughout an eight-hour shift, especially if you’re short-staffed.

So what additional measures can correctional facilities take to shut down this route for smuggling?

Here are three key strategies for screening visitors to help catch more contraband before it gets inside secured areas. All three are non-invasive, which means time-consuming physical pat-downs or rummaging through belongings are needed only as secondary measures for further investigation.

1. Look inside visitor belongings with X-ray screening

Think of airport security, where every bag is subject to X-ray inspection. TSA agents find weapons this way every day. Imagine how much longer those security lines would be if they had to examine every bag manually!

Applying this same screening method in the corrections environment can speed up visitor screening as well as improve accuracy. Whereas a baggie of pills or a sharp object might be concealed from view in the lining of a purse, it’s much less likely to escape the X-ray.

For example, the HI-SCAN 6040i X-ray unit from Smiths Detection is designed specifically for screening personal belongings. It provides high-resolution images with a zoom option, plus material discrimination to help operators identify potential threats quickly.

2. Screen individuals with walk-through metal detectors

It’s no secret that people hide all kinds of things in all kinds of places in an effort to sneak them into correctional facilities.

After ongoing problems triggered a statewide contraband crackdown in 2019, Nebraska’s state corrections administrator lamented that a small number of determined smugglers – including individuals willing to hide drugs and weapons inside their bodies – are responsible for much of the contraband that slips through the cracks.

Walk-through metal detectors offer another tool to help close that gap. While a thorough manual search of each individual who enters the facility could take hours – straining an already-stretched workforce in most facilities – technology can be a force multiplier. A quick pass through the metal detector instantly reveals who might be hiding a weapon or a cellphone and should be further searched.

Corrections1 columnist Gary York recommends the following steps for effective screening with a metal detector:

  • Ensure all pockets are empty and caps, belts, shoes and hairpieces are off before a visitor enters the metal detector.
  • Ensure all items removed from visitors go through the metal detector, and then do a secondary physical check of items.

Some items that will set off the machine can’t be removed. With tracking software, your facility can identify and track individuals who have implants or unseen body piercings. This can speed up your screening process by automatically diverting those individuals to a wand or pat-down search.

Better yet, consider a multi-material detector like the eqo from Smiths Detection, which uses a flat-panel millimeter-wave technology to detect concealed contraband of any material type, including metals, ceramics, plastics and liquids. The system software indicates concealed object locations by displaying a marker on a silhouetted figure that represents the person being screened.

3. Use trace detection and chemical identifiers to investigate suspicious substances

Drug smuggling is a persistent problem for most jails and prisons. Screening for illicit substances can be done quickly and effectively with trace detection tools like the IONSCAN 600 from Smiths Detection.

Swipe packages, letters, bags and even hands with a disposable swab that is then inserted into the unit to scan for traces of prohibited substances, such as Suboxone or fentanyl, with results in minutes. Again, this is similar to the secondary screening performed by airport agents looking for explosives.

This method can detect drug residue that no amount of hand-washing can erase, and it can alert officers that a potentially dangerous narcotic may be present but hidden, providing a layer of protection against accidental contact with potentially harmful materials.

When a suspicious substance is visible, like pills, use a chemical identifier like the Target-ID, to identify exactly what substance you’re dealing with.

Training is key

No single screening approach is a magic bullet. Applying a layered approach with multiple screening methods allows fewer gaps for contraband to slip through, and your facility will need to develop a policy and procedure for how to use each tool. Be sure that your training covers all your screening tools and that your policy covers when to flag something/someone for secondary screening.

Screening technologies, including X-ray machines, metal detectors and chemical analyzers offer an opportunity to identify and seize contraband before it enters a facility. With a layered approach, correctional facilities can close the gaps in their screening efforts and reduce the risk of disruptive contraband making its way behind bars.

For more information, visit Smiths Detection.

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Rachel Zoch is a branded content project lead for Lexipol, where she has written about public safety products and issues important to police, fire, EMS and corrections since 2015. A University of Texas journalism graduate, she previously worked the copy desk of a local daily newspaper and served as managing editor of a trade magazine for the multifamily housing industry.