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In an effort to crack down on contraband and increase safety, Anoka County is looking to be the first in Minnesota to install at its jail a full-body X-ray scanner, the kind that can detect foreign objects in body cavities and that travelers walk through at airports.

Last year, the Legislature permitted the use of full-body scanners in correctional and detention facilities. Anoka County officials recently entered into a $5,000 contract with a consultant to help them apply for a scanner with the Minnesota Department of Health, which oversees the use of X-ray devices.

Other facilities like the Hennepin County jail, the state’s largest, and jails in Washington and Ramsey counties are interested in adding the security measure.

Jails across the state now rely on walk-through and hand-held metal detectors, along with a series of pat searches at the time of arrest and booking. But those methods fall short when inmates internally smuggle drugs and weapons.

Anoka County will have to secure at least $100,000 to purchase the machine. Jail Cmdr. Dave Pacholl said they hope to partner with other counties to get similar devices so they can easily exchange data, training and best practices.

“I think these things will really make jails safer,” he said.

For as long as jails have existed, Pacholl said, people have been trying to smuggle contraband inside. The amount seized continues to rise, he said, though he acknowledges they don’t catch it all, putting inmates and staffers at greater risk of physical harm and overdosing.

“We’ve seen everything come in,” he said. “We found evidence, cellphones, lots of drugs of varying types and shapes and sizes, counterfeit money and things like that. Handcuff keys are another big, popular item.”

Pacholl said that existing screening methods detect drugs or weapons hidden in pockets. Internalized contraband is harder to find.

‘A worthy tool’

Since 2009, Pacholl said, the number of contraband items confiscated has soared. Seventeen items were seized that year; by 2018, the most recent year with data, the number had grown to 183.

“And there’s probably more,” he said. “Our biggest concern is, number one, the safety of the staff, volunteers and inmates. If somebody smuggles in drugs, it’s not only a risk to them, but it’s a risk factor if they sell it or share it.

“If a person hides drugs within their body — let’s say it’s in a plastic bag — if it leaks, they could overdose and we really would not know what’s happening.”

Plastic knives, which go unnoticed with metal detectors, are showing up as well, he said.

Anoka County started working about four years ago with the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association to change the state law that barred jails from using body scanners, Pacholl said. It limited the operation of X-ray equipment to medical and some industrial purposes to prevent misuse, such as sizing customer feet at a shoe store.

“But unfortunately, the side effect of that was we couldn’t use them in jails,” he said.

In leading the charge through uncharted waters, Anoka County will do a site survey to figure out where the large scanner would fit best at the facility. Pacholl said they will go “above and beyond” to make sure it’s easier for other facilities to apply moving forward.

Washington County jail Cmdr. Roger Heinen said that while cost is a hurdle, an X-ray scanner may be part of the county’s 2021 budgeting process. “I haven’t pulled the trigger and haven’t found the funding yet,” he said.

Maj. Dawanna Witt, of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, oversees the county jail. She said she has a team looking into the full-body scanners and that they have been in touch with Anoka County.

She said seized contraband is on a steady rise, partly due to staffers conducting effective searches.

“We don’t catch everything,” she said, “and that’s why this body scanner would be a great thing. It will help us decrease contraband, which will ultimately make staff and inmates safer. It’s a worthy tool to have.”

While an X-ray scanner is costly, she said, “We have no doubt it will help us save lives and keep people safe. Whatever we can do to try and stop contraband from entering, it’s worth it.”

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751