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Why a layered screening strategy is critical for stopping contraband

To keep drugs, weapons and other disruptive items out of your facility, first identify gaps in your screening process, then adopt a variety of policies and tools to plug the holes


Sponsored by Smiths Detection

By Corrections1 BrandFocus Staff

Contraband remains an ongoing problem for jails and prisons. Illicit drugs, weapons, cellphones and other prohibited items disrupt the safety and order of the correctional environment, as well as cause illness and injury. Drugs are a particular challenge, because they can be easily concealed and cause overdoses, leading to costly outcomes for the jail or prison.

Maintaining safety and order are top priorities for any correctional facility, and a layered strategy with multiple screening methods, such as a body scanner and trace detection tools, is needed to keep out contraband and avoid costly incidents. (Wayne County Sheriff’s Office)
Maintaining safety and order are top priorities for any correctional facility, and a layered strategy with multiple screening methods, such as a body scanner and trace detection tools, is needed to keep out contraband and avoid costly incidents. (Wayne County Sheriff’s Office) (Wayne Co. Sheriff's Office)

Expenses that can be traced directly from narcotics smuggled behind bars include medical costs for inmates who overdose and must be hospitalized, plus the personnel cost – usually overtime – for officers who must stay with the inmate at a medical facility. Officers also may be sickened by a dangerous drug like fentanyl or get hurt in a fight started by inmates under the influence, leading to lost time and medical expenses from worker’s compensation.

Maintaining safety and order are top priorities for any correctional facility, and a layered strategy with multiple screening methods is needed to keep out contraband and avoid such costly incidents.

“Layering is everything,” said Charlie Patterson, a retired law enforcement officer and founder of Access Control Systems, a vendor and consultancy specializing in X-ray and trace detection technology. “It’s a system of systems in a correctional facility.”

Charlie Patterson
Charlie Patterson (Access Control Systems)

START BY IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM

First, Patterson advises, identify the specific problems at your facility and the weaknesses inmates are exploiting to sneak in drugs and other contraband. Once you’ve identified a conduit, such as the mail, visitors or even staff, start looking at your screening procedures – how do they overlap or intersect? What can be changed to make your screening process more thorough?

Keep in mind that whatever changes you make will affect other elements of your screening process. Patterson likens it to a chain of dominoes – when one procedural element changes, look ahead to the changes that must be made elsewhere to help plug any holes. Think of your screening process like a stack of Swiss cheese – you want to develop multiple protocols so that the holes in one layer are blocked by the other layers.

But multiple layers doesn’t have to mean more staff time spent on screening. With the right tools, COs can perform these critical searches within minutes – and technology enables a more thorough screening than visual inspection alone.

SCREENING INDIVIDUALS: X-RAY BODY SCANNER

A key point to stop contraband before it even gets inside is inmate intake. An X-ray body scanner can help speed up the process while also providing a more thorough search than a manual inspection. County jails across the nation have seen great success with this approach.

For example, Sheriff Randy Retter in Wayne County, Indiana, recognized that drugs concealed in or on the body at intake was a significant problem. The Wayne County Jail adopted the Smiths Detection B-SCAN full-body X-ray scanner in late 2019.

The images, akin to those produced by medical X-ray machines, show all the body organs – as well as items hidden inside body cavities – and allow a much more thorough yet hands-off search than a manual inspection. COs inspect the images for obvious contraband, as well as anomalies to investigate further with a secondary screening.

Wayne County’s jail commander, Captain Andrew Abney-Brotz, says it takes less than five minutes to execute a careful scan of each incoming inmate with the B-SCAN once they’ve removed everything from their pockets.

“We really encourage our staff to pay attention to the scan so they don’t rush through it, and they know what to look for,” he said. “But less than five minutes total we’re in the scanner room, and we then come in and do the actual booking inside the jail.”

Sheriff Randy Retter
Sheriff Randy Retter (Wayne Co. Sheriff's Office)

BENEFITS OF A BODY SCANNER: PREVENTION AND MORE

Simply adding a body scanner or other detection equipment to your intake screening can go a long way toward stopping the smuggling of contraband. Sheriff Retter made a concerted effort to spread the word about the body scanner, inviting local media to tour the jail and check out the B-SCAN and sharing the news on the county’s social media outlets. It has definitely been a deterrent, he says.

“Prevention was a key strategy for this,” he said. “My main effort was that the deterrent factor was going to be as big a factor as just the machine itself. The publicity would discourage them from even trying it.”

As noted previously, a body scanner can also greatly reduce the need for hands-on searches – an unpleasant and often risky task, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a body scanner doesn’t necessarily eliminate the need for physical pat-downs or cavity searches, it does go a long way toward minimizing them.

SCREENING ITEMS: X-RAY AND TRACE DETECTION

But searching an individual’s person is not enough. All of their possessions – in fact, everything that comes into the facility – must also be screened very carefully, whether by X-ray or by hand. Visitors, staff, supply deliveries and especially the mail are all critical areas for inspection.

“Mail-in packages are the Pandora’s box, if you will,” said Patterson. “I don’t know that there exists a single solution or single process solution that works for all facilities in all cases.”

Again, a layered, multi-step process plays a critical role. Segregating mail and deliveries for screening in an off-site warehouse before they enter the facility is one strategy. In Wayne County, jail staff screen the mail and scan incoming correspondence into an electronic kiosk system so the inmates can receive messages without receiving the physical pieces of mail, but not all jurisdictions allow this, and multiple lawsuits argue that access to mail is a basic civil right.

On-site screening approaches may include K-9s, X-rays and trace detection. These tools can help officers screen incoming mail, deliveries and belongings and then isolate suspicious items without creating a backlog. X-rays can help COs spot suspicious objects, and trace detection tools make it easy to screen for trace amounts of narcotics, as well as identify what substances are present for evidentiary purposes.

But none of these tools or strategies is a silver bullet, cautions Patterson.

“Just because you swab someone’s hands and it comes up with a hit does not necessarily indicate that the individual handled narcotics. They could have pushed or grabbed the door handle and the person before them had it on their hands, so there’s cross contamination,” he said. “But they’re all tools, and that’s where your procedures and staff training are most important.”

TRAIN TO MAXIMIZE YOUR INVESTMENT

Technology provides a helping hand, but it only does so much. It takes careful planning to create effective screening procedures and thorough training to ensure that corrections officers can make the most of the tools available.

“There’s no single technology that will do everything for a facility, and that goes for all types of facilities,” said Patterson. “It truly is a system of systems. You have to have everything from policies and procedures to the technology, and most importantly – and often what’s lacking more than anything – is the officer’s skillset and training that goes along with that technology.”

Look for a vendor that provides training, he says.

“Smiths Detection has an awesome training platform for all of their equipment. When we place equipment at the facilities, we work very closely with Smiths to provide officer training,” said Patterson. “Unfortunately, training is the thing that is least funded, and that goes across the board in law enforcement. Technology or training oftentimes – if it’s done at all – it’s one and done. There’s no refreshers or retraining.”

On-the-job learning is not uncommon, he adds, but it’s critical to start with proper training to get the most out of the investment in screening tools. Sheriff Retter agrees.

“In order for any piece of equipment to be effective, the operators have to be proficient on it,” he said, “and just like any device, this machine is only as good as the operator.”

Wayne County jail supervisors and command staff completed two eight-hour days of training after adopting the B-SCAN so then could in turn train their staff. The training covered what to look for and where to look – especially the most common hiding areas – as well as the level of radiation used and other information needed to pass a certification exam. They also covered how to differentiate between various shapes that an officer might see on an X-ray image and how to tell contraband from ordinary waste or gas.

“One of the most interesting things I took away from the training is the way the body puts a mucous membrane around a solid object to help move it through the intestinal tract,” said Abney-Brotz. “You can manipulate the lighting of the X-ray and the function, and there are different filters where you can invert the image and more. There are definitely different ways to look at the image, and knowing what to look for is key.”

Captain Andrew Abney-Brotz
Captain Andrew Abney-Brotz (Wayne Co. Sheriff's Office)

CORRECTIONS STAFF MUST BE SCREENED, TOO

All of the above screening methods must also be applied to facility staff. Temptation can be a real threat, and inmates are always on the hunt for a weak link.

“You must perform the screening thoroughly, properly, and you must screen everything,” said Patterson. “Nothing should be exempt from screening because you just don’t know. There is huge motivation, especially with narcotics, for correctional staff to do bad things.”

According to a report by the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project, contraband has actually increased in the state’s correctional facilities since the pandemic lockdown – meaning that staff, not visitors, are bringing in the drugs.

“My advice as you start to plug those holes is to train your staff to be aware of inmate manipulation,” said Abney-Brotz. “I’ve seen it happen, and you need to train your staff to be on the lookout because those inmates are going to try to use staff as a last avenue to try and get contraband into the jail. A, they feel it’s easy to do, and B, they know that staff member is not going to say anything because they’re in fear of getting arrested or losing their job.”

Retter agrees that a layered approach that doesn’t include staff screening is incomplete.

“The inmates realize that the only thing that comes and goes out of this facility on a regular basis are the employees, so that’s why they target the employees,” he said. “Manipulation of the staff by the inmates is a real issue and something that we need to make them aware of and train them on routinely.”

It’s important to continuously reconsider your facility’s policies and procedures and make adjustments to stay on top of changing inmate strategies, adds Patterson. Inmates are endlessly inventive and have nothing better to do than think up ways to thwart your screening efforts.

“People continue to get more intelligent on how they could get their contraband into the facility, so we continue our search to find ways that we could tighten up those areas that they’ve found to get past our security measures,” said Retter.

AN ONGOING BATTLE

Contraband is never going to completely go away, warns Patterson, but anything you can do to minimize it will help – and every layer of screening makes it less likely that something will slip through.

“It’s no longer good enough to do one or two things when it comes to screening in your facility,” he said.

He strongly advises corrections administrators to build a layered screening strategy and adopt tools to support it.

“I sing the praises of the body scanning device. It’s been one of the biggest positives that I’ve done in my jail since I took office a couple of years ago,” he said. “By building this layered approach, it protects your staff to a greater degree, and it protects our community.”

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