MECHANICSBURG — The Tri-County Regional Jail is taking action to combat drugs entering the jail with the acquisition of a body scanner.
Acquiring a body scanner has been a target of Jail Executive Director Scott Springhetti since coming into the jail’s front office in late 2012.
“I learned about body scanners from Hamilton County,” he said. “They already had a body scanner back in 2012. We started initially talking about it way back then, but at that time there was basically one vendor on the market and it was roughly $250,000 and we weren’t ready to move forward with that big of a project based on what we were seeing within the jail.”
Springhetti said it is difficult to get an accurate number of inmates in the jail on drug-related offenses.
“The charges that may not look like drug offense charges — theft, petty theft, even felony theft and things like that — a lot of those are drug-related but they don’t show on paper as being a specific drug charge. Our guess are somewhere in the range of 60 to 80 percent but we think those are probably a little bit high.”
Being a smaller facility, Springhetti said, the jail has not seen drugs being brought into the general population to the level of larger facilities but still has seen its share of drugs being brought into the jail.
“We’ve caught marijuana, we’ve caught heroin, we’ve caught prescription medications, black tar heroin, pretty much the entire gambit,” Springhetti said. “Without being able to search body cavities and things like that without having the ability to see what the inmates have inside of them made it real difficult to know for certain if we’ve got everything.”
Springhetti noted jail staff perform a pat down procedure on inmates when they are brought into the jail and they still catch illegal items using this method.
Working in the jail for almost 16 years, Springhetti said drugs have become a bigger problem for the jail as the addiction and desire for the addiction is greater than when he started working at the jail.
“As more and more individuals are coming in that are addicted to drugs or something else they’re trying different approaches to get it in,” Springhetti said. “It became to the point where we were regularly under the assumption that if something is brought in they’re willing to go to those measures of inserting things into body cavities or ingesting and then vomiting back up or passing through their bowels to get that stuff into the facility while they’re here.”
According to information provided by the Champaign County Prosecutor’s Office, the number of people charged with illegal conveyance of drugs onto grounds of a specified governmental facility has increased over the past three years.
Champaign County Prosecutor Kevin Talebi said in 2014 three people were charged with illegal conveyance of drugs, in 2015 eight people were charged with illegal conveyance of drugs, and in 2016 10 people were charged with illegal conveyance of drugs.
Talebi noted the felony conveyance of drugs charge into the jail does not address contraband such as weapons or tobacco.
“Those sorts of things would not be covered by the offense of illegal conveyance of drugs,” Talebi said. “A lot of times for example tobacco, which is not something that we would end up charging on the criminal side of things but it is a violation of jail rules and it is a concern for the jail folks if tobaccos coming into the jail.”
As the field of body scanner vendors grew and the potential cost going down, Springhetti said acquiring a scanner started to move to the forefront for the jail.
“The goal is to keep as much out of the facility as we can,” Springhetti said. “Nothing is 100 percent. There is no 100 percent guarantee that we’re going to catch everything that comes through the door. Our security staff is and always has done the best job they can with the tools that we provide them — the body scanner is just another tool it’s a tool that lets us see what we couldn’t see before which hopefully through time and through the process either reduces, eliminates or at least minimizes the potential impact.
“The greatest concern with drugs entering into the facility getting into population is overdose and overdose death. A lot of our inmates spend longer periods of time in jail especially the heavier offenses.”
Springhetti noted the average length of stay in the jail is about 11 days.
After the project was green lighted, Springhetti consulted with jail personnel in Hamilton County and Wood County.
Factors taken into consideration when searching for a scanner included cost, how the system would work, how safe it is to operate, how safe is it for the people who are scanned and how the scanner would fit into the jail.
The jail received bids from three vendors and went with the Soter RS scanner from OD Security. Springhetti said the scanner cost $118,750 which included five-years of service, maintenance, and software upgrades. Funding for the scanner came from the jail’s work release fund which Springhetti said is not general fund money.
“It comes from if an inmate is sentenced to jail for say 30 days and the judge grants them work release they have to pay us $25 a day as a processing fee to go out to their job,” Springhetti said explaining the fund. “That fund has been in place since the jail began operations and had never been used for anything.”
The jail also consulted with felony level prosecutors from its member counties of Champaign, Madison and Union.
“Director Springhetti approached both myself and the county prosecutors in Union County and Madison County and wanted our input, wanted some discussions from us about whether or not we thought it would be a prudent thing for them to do to obtain the body scanner,” Talebi said. “We were unanimous in our support of the jail obtaining the body scanner. We thought it would be an extremely useful tool not only to catch folks who are in the act of trying to convey drugs into the jail but also to act as a deterrent so folks will not attempt to bring drugs into the jail.
“When drugs get smuggled into the jail it causes a number of problems: it’s a security risk for the correction officers, it’s a safety risk for the inmates within the jail and it also undermines any rehabilitative programs that the court is trying to implement in conjunction with the jail,” he said.
The scanner was installed in August 2016, but Springhetti said the scanner started working before it was even in use.
“We were installed but we were still awaiting the Ohio Department of Health to come out and do radiation checks and to make sure all the safety protocols and procedures were in place, make sure we had done our training,” Springhetti said. “While we were waiting on that, the sight of it and the fact that we had it led to an inmate saying ‘I have balloons inside of me.’”
The jail initially did a phased implementation of the scanner and started scanning work release inmates and self reporting inmates.
Starting in January, Springhetti said all new inmates began to be scanned. If an inmate has a pacemaker, is pregnant, has undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatment within the last six months, or is an a wheelchair or cannot walk Springhetti said they would not be scanned and the jail would resort to traditional search procedures.
The process of bringing inmates into the jail has been slowed down due to the addition of the body scanner.
“In security mindedness that’s always a good thing if you slow down you’re usually more efficient and more thorough,” Springhetti said. “It’s still an ongoing transition process. The agencies we deal with are adjusting to how we’re processing the inmates in how we’re taking custody from the various sheriff’s office and police departments and we’re continuing to try to look at ways to refine how we manage that transition.”
Because the body scanner was just recently implemented, Talebi said it will be interesting to see what information the scanners provide.
“Is the fact that the scanners are there going to show an increase in the number of cases where we’ll have conveyance or as the general population becomes more aware of the fact that the scanner is there and they can’t engage in traditional ways of trying to smuggle stuff in is that going to be an issue,” Talebi questioned. “The hope is that it deters folks and people don’t try to bring contraband into the jail because they know there’s a body scanner there and they know that if they get caught that my office will prosecute them for a very serious felony offense. The risk just isn’t worth the penalty and the fact that they have the body scanner there I think we’ll have a much better chance of catching these folks before any contraband actually gets introduced into the general population.”
Nick Walton can be reached at 937-652-1331, ext. 1777 or on Twitter @UDCWalton.