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High-Tech Vendors Penetrate Prison Market

by W. Wisely

Ascanner that detects a heartbeat fifteen feet underground, a razor blade that crumbles when tampered with, clear plastic televisions and radios. Sound like some high-tech future? Guess again. These are just a few of the new technologies being used and considered by the California Department of Corrections Technology Transfer Committee for the state's prison system.

The TTC was founded in 1982 and evaluates new technology for use in California prisons. The committee is composed of prison wardens, administrators, representatives from the California Board of Corrections, Prison Industry Authority, California Youth Authority, Department of General Services, Federal Bureau of Prisons, California Highway Patrol, Department of Justice, and Sandia National Laboratories.

In September, 1997, the TTC shared information with all 50 states at the National Institute of Justice conference. They provide evaluations and test results to the American Correctional Association, the National Institute of Corrections, and the National Institute of Justice, to name but a few. And the TTC does much more than merely evaluate existing new technology. They dictate the design to manufacturers.

At a two-day meeting in July, 1997, TTC members watched presentations by several companies on ground penetration radar, stab-proof cloth vests, cell phone detection equipment, see-through televisions and radios, water restraint canons, body scanners, and molecular drug detection technology. The committee was impressed by Israel-based Beit Alta Trailers Company's "water restraint system." The golfcart like vehicle carries a pressurized cannon on top which may spray a stream of water or pepper spray on a prisoner 131 feet away.

The TTC also was impressed by the see-through televisions and radios. A CDC spokesperson announced that such appliances would eliminate hiding places for contraband and save thousands of man-hours that it now takes guards to disassemble and search conventional TVs and radios. The committee recommended the use of the 13" clear plastic television with some modifications.

The body armor manufacturer, Second Chance, demonstrated its new vest which protects a guard's neck, chest, and back from injury. Protective Apparel of America showed off a cell-extraction suit that's impact resistant and covers a guard's entire body. The cell-extraction suits were chosen for a pilot study program to be used at California's notorious Pelican Bay SHU.

Ion Track Instruments demonstrated its new dustbuster sized drug detection technology. The ITMS VaporTracer Portable Contraband Detector detects drugs in parts per trillion from people entering or leaving CDC facilities. Developed specifically for California's prison system, Rapid Scan X-ray is the first conveyorized X-ray machine that can be programmed to detect specific substances such as drugs. The machine reads for individual molecules and can tell the difference between drugs and clothing.

The CDC is currently testing a monitoring device at Centinela State Prison that searches automobiles and trucks for human heartbeats. Operators attach probes to the vehicle's bumpers in the sallyport, and are then able to detect sounds with a frequency between one and ten hertz. An average human heartbeat is about seven hertz. Staff report the device has been 100% effective so far.

Secure 1000 full body scanners are now employed in several California prisons. Visitors are ordered to submit to a body scan or forfeit their visit. According to information provided by the manufacturer, the device uses X-rays and computer enhanced graphics to see-through clothing. Visitors are ordered to stand facing the scanner, turn around, and present each side. The images are stored in memory. Female visitors have complained about male prison guards viewing what amounts to an unclothed body search. Others have reported offensive comments made by male guards who have viewed the scanned images.

Some other new technology the prison system is looking at includes a plastic toothbrush with a short, beaver tail that cannot be made into a weapon, Spit Net, a hood that is used to prevent prisoners from spitting on guards, Metor200, a new class of walk-through metal detectors, Pole Cam, a camera system that sees in absolute darkness and can look around corners, TestCup, a urinalysis kit that eliminates staff handling of urine and will test for five drugs simultaneously, and new state of the art CDC identification cards for staff.

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