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PLN comments on use of body scanners at PA jail

The Morning Call, June 3, 2018.

Body scanners halt inmate overdoses at Berks County facility

By Pamela LehmanContact Reporter

Of The Morning Call

June 3, 2018


The man climbs several steps into a large X-ray chamber and onto a conveyor belt that moves him along with a slight hum for 8 seconds, a journey that will reveal even the most creative hiding spots for contraband.

The body scanner, about 8 feet high, looks similar to those at security gates in airports. As the man passes through it, a nearby computer screen displays images of his organs with such clarity that prison guards can plainly see hidden weapons or drugs, as well as the blurry contents of his breakfast.

The man just went through a $100,000 scanner at the Wernersville Community Corrections Center in Berks County, where inmates have been adept at hiding contraband, authorities say.

Some took their shoes apart to hide drugs in the soles, or hid drugs in their nose or ears. One inmate filled a condom with drugs, fastened a string around it, tied the string to his tooth and swallowed it.

State officials tout the high-tech scanner as a way to stop the flow of opioids into Pennsylvania’s prisons, work-release facilities and halfway houses.

Wernersville authorities say smuggled drugs caused 32 overdoses there over the last two years, including one fatal overdose. Since the scanner was installed in January, there have been no overdoses at the halfway house.

“This is something that has completely eliminated drug overdoses and reduced assaults on staff who aren’t conducting strip searches as often,” Wernersville Director Daniel D. McIntyre said. “It’s a great tool that has really made a difference.”

The body scanner, which offers much more detailed images than a metal wand detector and does away with the need for a strip search, is a new part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s opioid initiative plan, which calls for a body scanner to soon be installed at the state prison in Northumberland County. Authorities say they hope additional body scanners will be added to the state’s prison facilities.

But Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the monthly Prison Legal News magazine, questions whether the scanner will stop determined inmates who may be struggling with addiction from smuggling drugs.

“While the drop in overdoses at the Berks County facility is a good outcome, if people want to bring drugs into a facility, they will find a way to do so,” Friedmann said.

Despite the efforts to rehabilitate inmates at Wernersville and reach out to the community with events such as repairing ball fields and cleaning up cemeteries, McIntyre said the overdoses made the headlines.

Ambulances were called so often to the facility that nearby residents took to Facebook to complain about the wailing sirens, said Lt. Jason Somers, one of several staff members trained to operate the body scanner.

One of the Wernersville overdoses was fatal. Lucas T. Olmedo Jr., 30, was an inmate when he was found unresponsive Oct. 5, 2016. Olmedo’s cause of death was due to an accidental overdose, according to the Berks County coroner’s office.

According to 2017 figures provided by the Department of Corrections, there were 160 nonfatal overdoses at prisons and other facilities throughout the state and 11 fatal overdoses.

The body scanners are costly. They also take up a lot of space and need to be installed in a place where the radiation they produce can’t escape the area, officials say.

That, said Friedmann of the magazine Prison Legal News, has raised health concerns among some about inmates being exposed to excessive levels of radiation.

“Unlike travelers who may encounter such scanners at an airport infrequently, residents at a halfway house may be scanned multiple times a day,” Friedmann said.

But McIntyre said the scanner is programmed for safe radiation exposure, and if an inmate passes through several times, it won’t allow an additional body scan to be completed if it poses a risk.

During a recent visit, a male staff member volunteered to give a first-hand demonstration of how the scanner works. A guard asked the volunteer to show the inside of his mouth, lifting up his tongue to show there were no drugs hidden there. Those being scanned also must turn their hands and feet outward in order for the scan to reveal objects hidden between fingers and toes.

As the conveyor belt moved the man through the scanner, his organs and bones were easily visible, as well as the rivets and zipper on his jeans.

Somers, the lieutenant who works at Wernersville, pointed to several objects hidden among the man’s clothes and body — a pair of scissors shoved into his sock, a screwdriver tucked into a side pocket. And hidden against the dark spot of the man’s sternum bone was a handcuff key taped to his chest.

Although there are many places to effectively hide a small bag of drugs from human eyes, Somers said the machine is remarkably thorough.

He said inmates soon realized the body scanner measures density and would try to hide drugs along the thickest parts of their body, like the pelvic area and large bones of their thighs. But Somers showed a scan with just a slight variation in coloring along the man’s thigh, indicating that something was likely hidden there. Authorities said a physical search uncovered a bag of drugs.

Somers said the scanner is effective in stopping drugs from coming into the facility.

He pulled a bottle of narcan, an opiate antidote, from his pocket.

“Really, I can’t remember the last time I had to use this,” he said. “I have narcan that’s about to expire and that’s never happened before.”