In a three-day period in September, 89 new prisoners were taken into the Kitsap County Jail, 69 men and 20 women.
The intake process includes giving name, address, date of birth, and the name of a contact person; giving a medical and psychological history; being fingerprinted and photographed; and relinquishing all personal property.
How does the jail staff know if a new inmate has relinquished all personal property? They don’t, unless they have reason to require a strip search. They don’t do cavity searches, which require a warrant and a medical professional.
So they don’t know what an inmate might be concealing in a body cavity. The lack of a full body scanner means that an interesting variety of items might be coming in with the prisoners.
Officials at the Salt Lake City Jail, for example, report that on average, one or two people a day come in concealing some kind of forbidden material. Since 2014, they have detected more than 500 contraband items. One new inmate was concealing 25 balloons of heroin in his body.
Using a full body scanner, the Hamilton County Jail in Ohio detected a small gun, a screwdriver, pocket knives, balloons filled with drugs, and numerous other hidden items, any one of which could undercut the jail’s responsibility to provide a safe environment for both inmates and employees.
A scanner in another facility detected firearms, knives, a handcuff key, counterfeit money, and a swallowed necklace that had been stolen in a burglary. (The necklace was removed surgically at a hospital and returned to its owner.)
In Washington state, prison protocol calls for inmates to be strip searched as part of the intake process and possibly subjected to a manual search of body cavities to keep contraband out of the facility.
The reason for confiscating anything that could be used as a weapon should be self-evident. Personal defense and survival are of paramount importance to prisoners. You wouldn’t want your cell mate to have a potential weapon unless you had one that could guarantee at least a comparable defense.
If a drug-dependent inmate knows on entry that he’s about to face a painful withdrawal, bringing his own supply might ease the transition. Another could see smuggled drugs as bargaining chips with other inmates or even with prison employees. Drugs might buy special favors from the staff, like a shortened term in segregation, or a pass on some other offense, or extra food from the cafeteria.
Restrictions on personal property in prisons are so severe that inmates become imaginative in finding various means of exchange for items or services they desire. And friends on the outside are equally imaginative in finding ways to get contraband in. It’s a never-ending battle. But with the use of scanners, the degrading process of cavity searches can be eliminated, and prohibited items can be discovered easily in just a few seconds, not just on intake but on any occasion when suspicion warrants it.
One obstacle to their wider use is the cost, which can reach $250,000 per scanner. Prison Legal News, however, reported that in 2014, 171 full body scanners that were removed from airports because they displayed nude images of passengers were offered to prisons and jails at a fraction of their original cost under a federal surplus property program.
Opponents also argue that scanners emit ionizing radiation and may not be overseen by medical people. In reply, Rapiscan, an American company that specializes in metal detectors and X-ray machines of the kind used at airports, says that the equipment can be tested for the amount of radiation they emit, to the same extent as medical X-ray machines in medical facilities.
There are still people who argue that prisons should be dangerous, unpleasant places, that inmates deserve whatever brutal treatment they get – whether from one another or from guards. There may be no remedy for this eighteenth century point of view except for those believers to somehow become inmates themselves.
To further that cause, Washington’s Department of Corrections has adopted protocols known as the Mandela Rules, a long-awaited update of the Standard of the treatment of Prisoners, an international standard that will guide countries around the world.
But it would be prudent and more humane to go beyond that standard and install body scanners in all Washington’s jails and prisons to promote greater safety and security for both inmates and staff.