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Catch more contraband with X-ray technology

Improve the effectiveness of your screening process with tools that let you see inside items and individuals coming into your facility

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The ability to spot contraband items inside an inmate’s body can greatly increase the level of security and operational efficiency for correctional facilities.

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Sponsored by Smiths Detection

By Melissa Mann for Corrections1 BrandFocus

Jails today are bombarded with contraband such as pills, cellphones and weapons. These illicit items make their way into secure facilities though inmate intake, visitors and even mail.

Detection technologies, including body scanners, mobile X-ray machines and handheld devices, offer an opportunity to capture contraband as it enters a secure facility.

X-ray basics and benefits

Using an X-ray body scanner during inmate movement in and out of a secured facility can reduce personnel costs and boost the effectiveness of screening for contraband. These tools also reduce or eliminate the need for strip searches and can alleviate the burden of lawsuits filed against correctional agencies over inmate privacy rights violations.

Body scanners use backscatter or transmission X-ray technology to provide inspection images that help mitigate the threat of contraband to keep correctional institutions safe. Knowing the capabilities of each technology is imperative to choose which scanning device is best suited to your facility.

When X-rays interact with matter, they pass through the object, bounce off and scatter away from the object or are absorbed by the object. Because full-body screening systems for corrections use very low doses of radiation to inspect the human body, there is generally no limit to the number of screenings an individual can undergo in a year.

It’s important to understand the capabilities of backscatter versus transmission technology and compare them to the needs of your facility when considering a purchase.

Backscatter: A surface view

Backscatter X-ray devices require two large detectors to deliver and collect the scattered rays in order to create an image.

Backscatter X-rays are not intense and do not have enough power to penetrate through a body. Exposure to a backscatter X-ray scan is roughly equivalent to the amount of radiation a person would be exposed to while flying inside an aircraft for two minutes at 30,000 feet or to1/1,000th as much radiation as a single chest X-ray.

The majority of backscatter X-rays bounce off of the subject being scanned and reflect back in the direction they originated from. This technology can detect objects on the surface of the inspected person, such as in pants pockets, but the X-rays will not discover any threats that are ingested, embedded in body cavities or shielded by other materials.

Transmission: See inside

Transmission X-ray technology, which does penetrate the body, is traditionally used in the medical setting. X-rays from the source are passed through the body and collected on the opposite side to create an image.

Unlike pat-downs and strip searches, transmission X-ray scanning is non-intrusive. This technology uses a small dose of ionizing radiation and is considered a quick and efficient mode of security screening.

Transmission X-ray technology can detect objects far below the surface, such as inside the mouth or other body cavities (including swallowed objects). This ability to spot contraband items inside an inmate’s body – including those not identifiable by strip search – can greatly increase the level of security for correctional facilities and increase operational efficiency.

For example, the Smiths Detection B-SCAN screening system uses transmission X-rays and can detect ceramic and metal objects, plastics or even powder in or on the body. The scanning process takes less than seven seconds and scans an individual from head to toe, with or without shoes on. The images generated are akin to those providing a view inside the body for medical use.

Mail and parcel scanning: A layered approach

In addition to full-size body scanners, handheld devices and mail screening systems are also options for capturing contraband and enhancing correctional facility security.

X-ray scanning can be used to inspect mail or to screen visitors’ belongings at the secured entrance. Tools such as mobile parcel X-ray scanners and handheld portable narcotics identification systems can help COs do the job in a fraction of the time.

As part of correctional mail scanning, discovery of unknown substances on envelopes, inside handmade cards or even in the form of children’s artwork is a frequent and dangerous occurrence.

In addition to the familiar narcotics field test kit, agencies are moving toward use of portable, handheld narcotic substance identification systems. When a questionable glaze is discovered on the surface of an incoming birthday card, only a small sample is required for testing and identification. The result will be a lab-quality, court-admissible identification report in the event of a criminal violation.

Several options are available for scanning people, mail and parcels for contraband. Detection technology offers a broad range of capabilities for a layered approach to securing points of entry into correctional facilities, with more thorough screening and increased productivity.

About the Author

Melissa Mann is recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years, which included assignments in corrections, community policing, dispatch communications and search and rescue. Melissa holds a BS in criminal justice and an MA in psychology with emphasis in studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world. For comments or inquiries, please contact her at

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