Scanner can spot contraband hidden on incoming inmates

March 1, 2012
photo - El Paso County Sheriff's Deputy Stephen Dudek examines a computer image of a scan made by a new body scanner at the Criminal Justice Center on Thursday, March 1, 2012.   Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette file
El Paso County Sheriff's Deputy Stephen Dudek examines a computer image of a scan made by a new body scanner at the Criminal Justice Center on Thursday, March 1, 2012. Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette file 

It didn’t take a doctor to see that the man being booked into the county jail Thursday had shoulder surgery at some point in his life.

All it took was a $210,000 digital scanner, a gee-whiz piece of technology that can reveal whether a person has fillings, surgical pins, keys, rivets on his jeans and — more importantly — weapons or drugs hidden in places in the body where no one really wants to search.

“I think it’s a useful tool,” said Deputy Stephen Dudek, one of the intake workers at the Criminal Justice Center. “It helps us identify things we might not find.”

The Criminal Justice Center is the first detention facility in Colorado to use the SecurPass digital security screening technology, said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. The Sheriff’s Office purchased it late last year, then trained the jail’s 40 or so intake workers how to use it and read the image that shows up on a computer monitor. They started using it Monday, and while it hasn’t yet detected drugs, it helped deputies spot a pair of scissors that were missed in a pat-down.

But it may be only a matter of time before the scanner detects a bag of meth or cocaine that a person has swallowed or inserted into a body cavity. The Sheriff’s Office said there have been many times through the years where inmates smuggled in drugs, including two cases in 2003 in which bags of drugs ruptured inside the inmates’ bodies and killed them.

A few weeks ago, before the scanner was in use, an inmate was booked into the jail after having swallowed several balls of meth. After ‘fessing up, the inmate was taken to the hospital and induced to vomit it up.

“It’s amazing what people will insert or swallow,” Maketa said.

The machine isn’t just about detecting overlooked contraband, though that’s a huge part of its appeal. It’s also a response to court decisions that have limited strip searches in the past, and could limit them more in the future, Maketa said.

The Sheriff’s Office started researching ways to reduce its reliance on strip searches about eight months ago, Maketa said, and settled on the SecurPass because it could better detect objects made of materials other than metal — such as a baggie filled with drugs. It won’t entirely do away with strip searches, Maketa said, but it’s expected to sharply reduce them.

The machine would look at home in an airport, though it’s “much different” from an airport security system, Maketa said. The inmate keeps his clothing on, but removes and holds his shoes by his side. Then he places his feet atop a set of footprints, and takes a five-second ride on a moving platform through the scanner. On the other side of a glass pane near the scanner, the deputies pore over the monitor, checking an image that clearly shows bones and foreign objects, such as surgical pins, but not genitalia.

“One thing we were most attracted to about the system: It doesn’t give details of gender,” Maketa said.

The machine had to be approved by the Colorado health department, and the Sheriff’s Office says it would take 400 passes through the scanner to receive the amount of radiation a person would get in one chest x-ray.

Funds to buy the machine came from money the Sheriff’s Office receives in an agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold someone on an immigration-related offense.

Maketa hopes word about the scanner will hit the streets and deter incoming inmates from trying to sneak in contraband.

“I think the deterrent effect alone is worth it,” Maketa said.

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