Body scanners in Ohio jails come with limitations

Drugs in Jails - Part 1
Drugs in Jails - Part 2

COLUMBUS– The drugs have just kept coming into county jails. No part of Ohio is immune.

What’s changed in recent years is how Ohio sheriff’s departments have dealt with it.

A months-long review by 10 Investigates has found that 40 of Ohio’s 88 counties have purchased a body scanner within the past three years as part of an effort to abate the flow of drugs from pouring into local jails and correctional facilities.

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Thirteen other counties told 10 Investigates that they either have access to a body scanner or are planning on purchasing their own.

“The volume of drugs that was coming in, we were seeing an increase and the lethality of the drugs had also increased,” said Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth, who said his department purchased a body scanner after two of his inmates fatally overdosed in recent years.

A review of hundreds of jail incident reports by 10 Investigates found that drugs – from marijuana to heroin to synthetic opiates like fentanyl – are often brought into county jails across the state by inmates. In some cases, drugs like Suboxone are being sent to the jail by mail, while other drugs are brought in by corrections officers or staffers.

Many of the attempts to smuggle in drugs are caught by authorities, but others have slipped past detection and have resulted in fatal overdoses of inmates.

Every county surveyed by 10 Investigates told us the scanners have been an effective tool to stop drugs. But there are limitations.

The scanners, which can run between $100,000 to $200,000, use x-rays to examine an arrestee’s body to see where sheriff’s deputies normally can’t search. Under Ohio law, authorities must have probable cause to conduct a strip search for many criminal cases. But there are limits on how often these inmates can be exposed to the radiation. And the machines themselves have to be monitored and inspected by the Ohio Department of Health.

When asked if any of his inmates had hit that exposure limit, Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth told 10 Investigates: “Oh yes.” He said many of his worker inmates who were assigned to clean the nearby courthouse had been scanned too often and thus needed to be moved to a job inside the jail that wouldn’t require them to leave the building and be re-scanned.

And no one working in jails is being scanned.

Despite some counties telling 10 Investigates they’ve had incidents with their own employees charged with bringing in drugs – current Ohio law only allows inmates to be scanned.

Online court records show former Preble County corrections officer Jared Rivers was convicted of bribery in May. A news released from the sheriff’s department said Rivers was accused of bringing in contraband into the jail and receiving payment for doing so. Rivers could not be reached for comment.

In May, a Green County jail cook named Melissa Penn was charged with bringing drugs into a Greene County correctional facility – a county that purchased a body scanner.

Penn told 10 Investigates Wednesday that she could not comment while her case was still pending.

Ohio law restricts who can be scanned

Outside of a doctor’s or dentist’s office, x-rays are illegal in Ohio. The one exception to that law, according to the state’s health department, is security screening equipment "used for the sole purpose of screening an individual who is in the custody of a law enforcement agency.”

"It's just a huge waste of money that they are not using to their full potential,” said Brett Gibney, whose son Brent died of a fentanyl overdose in the Franklin County jail in October of 2017. “They've sworn an oath to maintain these men, and by allowing illegal substances in they've violated that oath. They've let us down tremendously. We don't want them to take 100 percent of the responsibility, but we think they need about 20 percent.”

Brett Gibney and his wife, Debbie, have been critical of the Franklin County sheriff’s department since Brent’s death in October.

Brent’s death did not involve a corrections officer.

Instead, jail investigative records show the drugs that led to Brent’s death are believed to have been brought in by another inmate who was never charged.

But that hasn’t stopped the Gibneys from saying that all agencies should be casting a wider net to help address the problem.

Penny Perry, a jail administrator with Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, told 10 Investigates by phone last week that the department’s scanner has been effective to curb the influx of drugs coming into the county’s two jails. While the county only has one scanner at the Jackson Pike facility, Perry said other inmates have learned that the county has this new technology which leads arrestees to hand over drugs before being put through the scanner.

Sheriff Dallas Baldwin told 10 Investigates in January, the same day the department’s scanner was revealed to the public, that:

“Anytime narcotics come in, it's a threat, no matter who brings it in. But there's a responsibility too. It's a felony once you are in here to possess it. There's a problem anytime it gets in. How widespread it is -- the numbers verify that it isn't an epidemic in that regard.”

A recent review of 2018 incidents in Franklin County shows there have been at least 20 incidents since March of this year where inmates have attempted to bring in drugs to one of the counties two jails. The scanner, which is located at the Jackson Pike facility, has aided in uncovering drugs in a few of those cases.

"The last four years have been miserable for county jails,” Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer told 10 Investigates.

Plummer said his department has experienced two or three fatal overdoses in recent years which is also what prompted his department to purchase a body scanner. His department has also been sued over the issue.

“We've even had employees who have brought contraband in the jail,” Plummer said. “When you are dealing with Mexican cartels who are bringing billions of dollars, they can float out money to employees and influence them as well.

Doctor questions approach

While many agencies interviewed by 10 Investigates have praised the new technology with helping stop the flow of drugs, some have questioned if the focus is too much on the supply side of the problem.

“My solution or my approach would be let's give them the care they need,” said Dr. Lipi Roy, a former health officer at the Ricker’s Island correctional facility in New York.

Dr. Roy spoke to 10 Investigates this summer.

“I support any means to minimize drugs from entering, however I also look at things from a public health standpoint. I would ask people why are people using?
Most people are using because they have an addiction,” she said.

Roy suggested that the demand side of the problem is not being properly addressed inside correctional facilities.

When we took that concern to Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth, he said: “Just because they get arrested does not mean we are addressing the drug addiction. This is just one of the things we are doing to try to prevent them from overdosing and introducing drugs into the jail facility.”