In just a month of use, the body scanner at the Cowlitz County Jail has already prevented a host of arrestees from smuggling drugs into the lockup — even when they hide it in the most private of places.
The dual-view body scanner went into operation on Sept. 20 and was the first of its kind deployed in Washington county jails. It’s intended to reduce the amount of contraband smuggled into the lockup. Jail officials are as impressed with the new equipment as some inmates are in a huff over it.
“I think it’s definitely given us a sense of having some power back over something we couldn’t control at all,” Corrections Director Marin Fox Hight said of the scanner. “The amount of contraband (entering the jail) was unacceptable.”
The full body scanner cost the county about $237,000. It scans every entering arrestee.
When someone goes through the scanner, it generates two different images after a seven-second scan: One shows head-to-toe; the other only focuses on the torso, which Fox Hight said is where most contraband is smuggled through body orifices and the digestive system.
According to Fox Hight, if the scanner detects something suspicious, corrections officers ask the arrestee to give it up. Those who refuse are immediately sent to the hospital, where they are placed and monitored in a “contraband watch” area until they can clear a contraband-free body scan.
The scanner has already helped corrections officers discover multiple inmates who swallowed heroin, a female inmate who stuffed pills in a tampon, and one inmate who had a condom filled with contraband crammed into his rectum.
Sometimes, corrections officers find non-contraband items: One inmate had a metal clip near her hip that was picked up by the scanner. Even though officers thought it could’ve been a pill, it turned out the inmate had her appendix removed as a young child, and the clip was simply left over from surgery.
Fox Hight said members of the justice community have already deemed the scanner a success.
“A judge today was talking about how even from where he’s sitting, he can tell the chaos level is coming down,” Fox Hight said. “They feel comfortable that the jail isn’t a place where people can get drugs anymore. That’s the goal.”
She also said the corrections officers have told her the overall vibe of the jail has calmed down.
“There’s a lot of residual things that go along with drug use: gang issues, fighting, just generalized chaos,” Fox Hight said. “Things have calmed down, and I’m hearing that from DOC officers.”
Corrections Capt. Chris Moses agrees with Fox Hight and said the scanner has reduced smuggling.
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“It’s definitely a deterrent,” Moses said in an email. “Inmates know they are going to be scanned prior to entering our jail population. In just the short time of inception, we have had inmates voluntarily hand over contraband, we have had them attempt to drop the contraband and we have found and recovered contraband during the scanning process.”
However, if there’s one group that doesn’t seem to be thrilled with the new scanner, it’s some inmates.
“The inmates don’t love it, necessarily,” Fox Hight deadpanned. “It means they can’t get drugs.”
Fox Hight shared with The Daily News a letter from an inmate that at one point complains about the scanner.
“I’m mad about this (expletive) body scanner,” the letter reads. “Find out I just hit my rock bottom and it’s time to get clean ....”
Fox Hight said inmates are already scheming of ways to sneak contraband past the scanner.
“We’ve read some mail that looks like (inmates) are going to try, if they’re missing a tooth, put things in where their tooth is missing, which would possibly be hard to detect,” she said.
Still, word has spread to other Washington jails about Cowlitz County’s new scanner. Fox Hight said she’s received interest about it from Yakima, Whatcom and King counties as well as the State Department of Corrections and the Nisqually Tribe’s corrections department.
Wendy Jones, the chief corrections deputy for Whatcom County, said her department is getting a new body scanner, perhaps one like the dual scanner at Cowlitz Jail. Jones said her jail and those across the nation are dealing with overdosing inmates.
“Just like Marin’s problems and every jail in the United States, we’re having huge problems with people trying to smuggle opiates in,” she said.
Fox Hight said Cowlitz is one of only two counties on the West Coast with a dual body scanner (most counties just have a single body scanner), the other being San Diego County in California.
Fox Hight said although the corrections department is still figuring out exactly how to use the scanner to its full potential, she’s happy the county decided to buy it.
“We’re just excited to have the technology and we’re thankful that it was funded. We’re getting better and better, I think, at finding things on the scan. I think it’s making things safer for everybody.”