New body scanner improves safety at Merced County jails

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Images from the scanner show just some of the drugs and other illegal items inmates have tried to smuggle into the Merced County jail by hiding them in their bodies. (KFSN)

Authorities say a new body scanner is improving security at both Merced County jails.

Images from the scanner show just some of the drugs and other illegal items inmates have tried to smuggle into the Merced County jail by hiding them in their bodies. "The little dark spots that are in circles are balloons in his stomach," Officer Saldana with the Merced County Sheriff's office explained. "We also can find knives, weapons, keys -- one time we had an individual that had a cell phone."

The sheriff's office has been using this scanner since the fall after years of relying on a less effective chair.

"It's like a metal detector," Sgt. Moore with the department explained. "You would have them stand on this side, and that would get their feet if they had anything in their shoes and socks and then have them sit down."

The chair was only used in cases with probable cause for a search, but now every inmate is scanned during the booking process. Capt. Greg Sullivan says the technology has not only caught dangerous contraband, it's also keeping inmates who are released on temporary passes from being forced to try to sneak items in when they return. "We've had gang members that basically have threatened individuals that have been let out on passes that you will bring it back or you're going to be assaulted," Sullivan explained. "This has reduced that problem tremendously."

The department purchased the $220,000 scanner using state funding provided by the Community Corrections Partnership. The company that makes the machine says it reduces privacy concerns by showing only inside the body, not soft tissue and it's a very low dose of radiation. "You can go through this machine up to 10 times a day 365 days a year without violating the limit for radiation exposure," Sullivan said.

One thing the scanner cannot do is stop inmates from making weapons and tools inside the jail.

Just last month, a murder suspect used a piece of metal to saw through the ceiling in a failed escape attempt, but Sullivan says this is a valuable step toward better security. "It's an expensive tool," he said. "But it's a tool well worth it if we're able to prevent violence and assaults against a fellow inmate or against a correctional officer. If we can prevent that, it's well worth the cost."

Officers say the whole scan only takes about three minutes. If anything is found, the inmate can voluntarily remove it or be sent to the hospital, depending on the item.
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newsmerced countyjailprisoninmatesMerced
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