In 2010, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department investigated how inmates were smuggling contraband into the jail and found their answer literally inside the inmates.
X-ray scans turned up drugs, cellphones and weapons in the inmates’ body cavities.
It’s a smuggling method long known to law enforcement.
Inmates find creative ways to break rules, and law enforcement must try to stay one step ahead.
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That was the goal of the Sheriff’s Department when, in August, a full-body digital scanner was installed in the Merced County Jail. By October, any inmate being processed into the jail went through the scanner, which reveals any contraband hidden inside body cavities.
The new scanner increases security for both inmates and jail staff members, said Capt. Greg Sullivan, commander of jail operations.
“It’s paid huge dividends in reducing the amount of contraband coming in,” Sullivan said.
Before the new body scanner, if officers suspected an inmate was attempting to smuggle in contraband, the inmate would be put on “potty watch” until the object was naturally passed (yes, that means what you think it does) or law enforcement officers had to serve a search warrant for an X-ray to be taken at a hospital.
Q: Law enforcement must have a search warrant before conducting searches of someone, so what makes the body scanner legal?
A: The new body scanner – which isn’t exactly like ones in airports, though the legalities are similar – requires no touching by law enforcement officers. Inmates simply stand on a platform while the machine scans their body.
While most airport scanners look for material above the skin, the jail’s body scanner shows internal body cavities and eliminates any privacy issues with soft tissues.
The body scanner at the Merced County Jail will show items such as drugs, money, explosives, weapons, chemical materials or objects such as needles, nails and scissors. The image looks like an X-ray. Contraband typically shows up in a darker color.
Inmates can refuse to be scanned; in those cases they’ll be put in an isolation cell, where they’ll likely pass any objects in their body cavities.
Oftentimes, inmates will voluntarily remove items, Sullivan said.
Whatever the case, if an inmate has contraband in a body cavity, that person can’t be medically cleared and accepted into the jail.
The Merced County Sheriff’s Department received the body scanner through state funding to the tune of about $220,000, said Sgt. Delray Shelton, a sheriff’s spokesman.
Sheriff Vern Warnke said such technology has been a long time coming.
Before Merced, Madera was one of the only other facilities in the area to have a similar scanner. Now, more and more jails have them installed, Sullivan said.
The Sheriff’s Department had to remodel a room for the scanner before it was installed. Then, jail staff members had to be trained in how to operate the scanner.
All this may seem like a big fuss just to find things inmates try to hide, but it might be surprising how often inmates try to smuggle in contraband.
“Unfortunately, inmates are almost expected to bring in contraband,” Sullivan said.
If an inmate is issued a pass by a judge to leave custody for a funeral or doctor’s appointment, it’s common for fellow inmates to make threats upon their return if they don’t bring back contraband. With the body scanner, those types of threats are reduced because inmates know it’s nearly impossible to get contraband into the jail with the scanner.
The scanner also reduces medical risks of smuggling in contraband, said Officer Saldana, who frequently operates the scanner. (For safety reasons, first names of some jail officers are not given.)
In the past, inmates were rushed to the hospital because balloons with drugs burst while in body cavities and inmates risked an overdose, Warnke said.
“Before, when we didn’t have the scanner, we’d find contraband in the facility,” said Officer Moore. “Now, we find contraband on people. Stuff isn’t getting into cellblocks and the facilities.”