Hamilton Co. jail body scanner helped reduce violence in midst of drug crisis, data shows

Grant Pepper
May 7, 2018 · 7 min read

Why other SW Ohio jails are now following their lead

Six years ago, the Hamilton County sheriff’s office purchased a $243,000 body scanner that would work like an X-ray machine to detect drugs and contraband on the jail’s inmates. They were the first to do so in Ohio. Now, nearly every jail in Southwest Ohio has one. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton County sheriff’s office.)

Back in 2012, when the skies darkened and the wind began to hurl before Ohio’s impending drug crisis, one county jail got out ahead of the storm.

Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati and is Ohio’s third-most populous county, was already seeing drug use rise during that time. Hamilton County led the state in unintentional drug overdoses in 2011 and 2012, according to Ohio Department of Health data. And according to sergeant Garry Keeton, who has worked for the county sheriff’s office for 29 years, drug use was starting to permeate the county’s three jails.

“I guess we got a bad rap on having overdoses and that we weren’t doing enough to keep the drugs out of the facilities,” Keeton said.

In response, Hamilton County became the first county jail in Ohio to buy a body scanner to help detect drugs, weapons and contraband on inmates before they entered the county’s jails. It was an investment to cut down not only on drug use, but also violence in the jails.

The scanner cost $243,000 and the county paid for it with money made at the inmate commissary, according to a Columbus Dispatch report from 2015. The scanner can detect anything from knives to needles, which inmates often try to hide in bodily crevices in order to sneak them into jail.

As the drug epidemic ramped up, more and more jails across the state followed Hamilton County’s lead. Now, nearly every jail in the Southwestern part of the state has invested in a scanner, with many counties using taxpayer money to fund the endeavor.

But is it worth it? After all, the scanners have their flaws, as Keeton will point out. And given the overwhelming rise in drug abuse over the past three years in both Hamilton County and the state, one might wonder whether the scanners even make a difference.

According to data from the Hamilton County sheriff’s office, theirs has made a big one.

The data, which details every drug confiscation or criminal occurrence that has happened in the county’s jails since 2015, shows that crime (and especially drug-related crime) has actually decreased during the height of the county’s drug crisis. As the scanner has detected an increasing amount of contraband, violence in the jail has decreased over the past year.

Jail officials say the scanner has directly correlated to this drop in crime.

“It has been a godsend to us,” jail operations commander David Turner said.

While drug overdoses in the jail have continued to rise as the epidemic shows no signs of slowing, jail officials still believe that the scanners have saved countless lives. Could Hamilton County’s purchase have pioneered a trend in Ohio county jail safety?

During the Hamilton County scanner’s first night of use, it found a screwdriver hidden in a man’s rectum.

“Had the scanner not found that, he could have used that as a weapon in our jail,” Turner said.

This was one of several scanner findings in its first year of operation, six years ago, according to jail officials. While scanned items were few and far in between during the scanner’s first few years of operation, according to jail documentation, that changed in 2015.

As the drug crisis climbed to new heights, more drugs came into the jail. The total number of reported drug findings in the jail surged to 203 in 2015, up from just 57 the year before. This number rose to 386 in 2016 and 433 in 2017, as drug abuse in Hamilton County permeated its jail’s walls.

Since 2015, however, jail documentation data also shows that the scanner has been busier each year. It detected one item in 2015, but then detected 16 in 2016 and 22 in 2017. This sharp rise in detections shows the scanner’s impact during the drug crisis, lessening the blow of drug abuse that could occur in the jail, officials say.

The scanner’s impact can also be felt when examining drug-related crime statistics in the county’s jails over that same time frame.

While jailhouse crime increased immensely from 2015 to 2016 (going from 21 drug-related crimes reported to 44), that number actually dropped in 2017 (when there were 37 crimes reported), despite the steady rise in drug use.

Jail officials reference the screwdriver incident as a testament to the scanner’s impact, as the decrease in crime has made the scanner “worth every penny.”

“I think it was worth it. The screwdriver was about a six-inch screwdriver. He had shoved it back up in his rectum. That inmate, without that machine, would have been able to kill someone once he got in here,” Keeton said. “That inmate could have killed an officer, another inmate or a service worker. And in my mind, that day, the scanner became worth every penny. You can’t put a dollar amount on someone’s life.”

The scanner works like an X-ray machine, as all inmates in any of the county’s three jails (except for pregnant women) are required to undergo examination before being admitted into the jail.

Inmates stand, clothed and holding their shoes, and are put on a conveyor through the X-ray. The machine can detect everything from large quantities of hard drugs to the tiniest needles, which inmates might stuff in bodily crevices in an attempt to sneak them into jail. By being able to locate a needle lodged in a rectum or vagina, the scanner can find items that cannot be found in a simple strip-search.

“We find tons and tons and tons of drugs with that thing,” Turner said.

Despite the rise in drugs brought into Hamilton County’s jail during the past three years, at the peak of the state’s opioid crisis, sergeant Jeff McAuliffe of the Hamilton County sheriff’s office believes that the scanner has deterred even more drugs and weapons than it has detected.

Now that inmates know the county has a scanner that can find well-hidden contraband, he believes that they are less likely to try to bring it into jail in the first place.

“They get rid of it and they don’t try to hide it on them. Because if you bring something like that into a correctional facility, you run that risk,” McAuliffe said. “It has deterred a lot of it.”

When Miami County sheriff Dave Duchak was having his jail’s new body scanner installed last August, he asked the movers from OD Security North America (who has sold the majority of Ohio’s body scanners in recent years) which state they were doing the most business with.

“He laughed and he said, ‘It’s not even close. It’s off the charts in Ohio,’” Duchak recalled.

Ohio has been hit hard by the recent opioid epidemic, as they ranked second in the nation in drug overdose death rate and fourth in total overdose deaths in 2016, according to CDC data. As a response, many jails have followed Hamilton County’s lead to make their jails safer.

Miami County’s jail is one of four in Southwest Ohio to have purchased scanners in the last two years. Montgomery County installed theirs this winter, Butler County got one last March and Greene County installed theirs last May. Warren County is holding off on a scanner until construction of a new jail planned for 2020, according to the Dayton Daily News.

While Hamilton County may have started the trend, Duchak believes that every county jail in Ohio may soon have a body scanner.

“With these people overdosing and stuff, I think it’s going to soon be expected that jails have that,” Duchak, whose jail has had no overdoses since the scanner was installed, said last month. “And if you don’t, and you incur an overdose because you don’t have that type of machinery, then you’re looking at liability, which is always an area of concern in a jail.”

Duchak believes that purchasing the scanner was a worthwhile investment (Miami County got theirs for $119,000), although it is also one that he believes shouldn’t have needed to be made.

“It’s sad commentary on society that we had to spend that to keep inmates safe from harming themselves,” Duchak said.

In speaking to jail officials from each of the Southwest Ohio counties which have purchased scanners, most will note that the scanners aren’t fail-proof. Items are sometimes missed, especially if they are small and hidden deep enough.

However, all officials also echoed the same sentiment: while the scanners can’t catch everything, they also deter an undocumented amount of drugs and weapons from entering the jail simply because inmates know that they will not pass through the scanner.

“It’s not 100 percent, but it does have an effect on the inmates. We know it has an impact,” Anthony Dwyer, chief at the Butler County sheriff’s office, said. “They all know it. We’ve seen it on the outside when people try to dump contraband before they come in.”

And more than anything, as Hamilton County’s numbers showed, the scanners have helped save lives. That alone makes the six-figure price tag seem quite reasonable.

“I 100 percent believe it’s worth the investment. On our end it slows down time, which means that it slows down intake. But it’s worth it,” major Matt Haines, Montgomery County jail administrator, said. “And it’s actually going to save lives.”

Through the first three months of 2018, Hamilton County’s scanner has already detected 10 items. It is on pace to find a record amount of contraband for the third straight year. And as Keeton looks back on the jail’s investment six years ago, which has been followed by county jails across the state doing the same, he can’t help but wonder if Hamilton County pioneered a trend in jail safety.

“I wasn’t one of the forerunners with this, but I knew we were going to be one of the first ones and we knew that people were going to be looking at us to see our success,” Keeton said. “And as you can already see, it’s been successful. I truly believe we’ve saved many deaths in here because of it.”

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