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Stop contraband in its tracks: This device can detect the narcotics you can’t even see

Learn how this easy-to-use device can enhance your contraband detection strategy

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With the trace detection technology used in the IONSCAN 600, jail surfaces can be swabbed and tested efficiently, even long after narcotics may have come and gone.

Smiths Detection

For decades, correctional facilities have relied on tried and true methods of screening for contraband. Physical searches, coupled with advanced metal detectors and x-ray scanners, often do a sufficient job of keeping narcotics out of the hands of inmates. However, as narcotic smuggling techniques become more sophisticated, so too must the devices used to detect such illicit materials.

When narcotics are smuggled into correctional facilities, they are usually easy to see. A suspicious white powder doesn’t take long to raise alarms during a routine screening, but what about a piece of mail that, for the most part, appears normal? Is a slightly discolored envelope cause for concern? If so, and traditional screening methods turn up nothing, what happens next?

Such situations are occurring with greater frequency and are the ideal scenarios for using trace detection. Rather than aiming to identify narcotics that can be seen with the naked eye, trace detection involves testing for substances that are next to invisible. A somewhat underutilized method within correctional facilities, the implementation of trace detection is easy and cost-effective.


Smuggling narcotics into a correctional facility is rapidly becoming a more sophisticated process. Instead of concealing illicit substances within a package or attempting to hide them on one’s person, smaller amounts of contraband are entering jails in unusual ways.

One of the more popular methods of late is to liquefy a narcotic and soak a piece of paper in it. This paper can pass through typical screening methods without raising any alarms and later be rolled up and smoked by an inmate.

Even when inmates aren’t caught with narcotics in their possession, these enhanced smuggling methods always leave a detectable trace. That’s where a tool like the IONSCAN 600 from Smiths Detection can make a difference.

“It’s an evidence-gathering tool,” said Michael Burrows, senior marketing manager, urban security at Smiths Detection. “Let’s say you do random searches, and you swab the hands of an inmate and that swab tests positive for cocaine. Well, that inmate has to come up with some answers as to why they have cocaine on their hands inside a jail. It’s possible that he touched something else and he’s completely innocent, but corrections officers can gather this piece of information to try to find the source. It can be valuable information when putting together an investigation.”

In the past, such investigations have proven to be time-consuming, as officers would have to physically search each inmate’s belongings and every inmate themselves. With the trace detection technology used in the IONSCAN 600, jail surfaces can be swabbed and tested efficiently, even long after narcotics may have come and gone.

“We did an analysis in a conference room where someone brought an illicit narcotic folded up in a piece of wax paper,” said Michael Frunzi, Ph.D., senior manager, business development and technical sales at Smiths Detection. “They left it on a table and then removed it. We came back to that same conference room over a month later and I was able, with the IONSCAN 600, to detect a trace of that illicit substance.”


Testing for trace narcotics can fit into a correctional facility’s contraband detection strategy without much additional effort. The IONSCAN 600 is designed to be intuitive, with a testing process that takes little time to complete.

Weighing in at only 23 pounds, the IONSCAN 600 can be plugged in and used in a fixed location, hand-carried or placed on a cart and operate for up to two hours via battery power. The device uses specialized slips of coated paper called swabs, which can be used alone or with an optional sampling wand.

Officers rub the swab along any surface they want to test and insert it into the IONSCAN 600. The device quickly heats the paper and produces results in as little as 10 to 15 seconds. No liquids are involved and the potential for contact with an unknown substance is extremely limited.

The IONSCAN 600’s readout is easy to understand, displaying either a red or green light depending on the results. If narcotics are detected, the name of the substance will be displayed and an alert will sound.

Part of what makes the IONSCAN 600 so reliable is the ever-growing library of substances that the machine is designed to detect.

“We’re always adding materials to our library to continue to meet the threat that’s being seen in the field,” said Frunzi. “It’s not a static thing. It’s something we’ve continued to evolve and make the device more and more suited for the law enforcement and corrections spaces.”

To produce such accurate results so quickly, the IONSCAN 600 must maintain its sensitive calibration. Instead of requiring manual maintenance, the team at Smiths Detection designed the device to automatically complete those functions.

“Every night the unit will regenerate and clean itself,” said Frunzi. “It has a maintenance routine that it performs daily. You can select the timing so it doesn’t interfere with your operations. If it’s overloaded with an illicit material, the machine can implement a cleaning routine right then and there that will use the minimum amount of time possible to clear the machine down.”


Correctional facilities looking to further enhance their contraband screening and detection strategies don’t need to worry about dramatically changing their internal processes to integrate trace detection. Universal symbols on the IONSCAN 600’s screen make training easy, allowing anyone to be able to operate the device safely and efficiently.

Smiths Detection offers a try-before-you-buy program that allows interested facilities to receive training and use the device to see how it can streamline their processes before they make a purchase.

“Every facility is different and has a different concept of operation,” said Frunzi. “It’s a matter of exploring where this technology can make those protocols better, alleviate a burden and make things run more smoothly.”

Visit Smiths Detection for more information.

Read next: How to build a layered contraband detection strategy and why it matters (eBook)

Courtney Levin is a Branded Content Project Lead for Lexipol where she develops content for the public safety audience including law enforcement, fire, EMS and corrections. She holds a BA in Communications from Sonoma State University and has written professionally since 2016.