A sheriff’s office in the Twin Cities is the first Minnesota local or state law enforcement agency to use a security device for its jail known better by air travelers as a tool against global terrorism.
Criminal suspects are now being put through a $145,000 full-body scanner before being locked up in the Anoka County jail, a procedure that reduces the need for the less reliable pat-downs and metal detectors in search of drugs, weapons and other contraband.
The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office has seen a meteoric rise in illicit drugs being smuggled into its jail. In 2009, there were 17 such instances when traditional searches failed to detect drugs and they were found on an inmate once locked up. That tally has climbed every year and reached 183 in 2018.
The scanner, a smaller version of what airports around the world use at passenger security entry points, can pick up suspicious items anywhere in the human body, according to Anoka County jail Cmdr. David Pacholl.
And he means anywhere.
“People are getting more and more clever on how to smuggle things in, and you could use the word desperate,” Pacholl said Thursday, one week after the phone booth-sized scanner started operating at the 238-person jail.
Every body cavity is a potential hiding place for packaged drugs, Pacholl said, and that includes the entire digestive system “from when you swallow it and all the way through.”
The goal in intercepting these dangerous drugs, such as cocaine, crystal meth and other narcotics, is not so much enforcing the law but preventing physical harm should the packaging start leaking before passing through, the commander said.
“Our primary goal is not always prosecution, but it’s the safety of people,” Pacholl said, emphasizing that an inmate violently overdosing after ingesting a drug is not only a threat to the suspect’s health but “is fairly dangerous to our staff and others. … We have nurses and volunteers.”
The commander, whose jail averages 10,000 bookings a year, said that “we’ve had to send people to the hospital, one or two this year, after smuggling [a drug] in and taking it while in custody.”
Weapons, while not as prevalent a contraband as drugs, are also more difficult to smuggle in because of the body scanner, Pacholl said.
Metal detectors and pat-downs reliably find guns and sharp metal instruments, but inmates are turning to nontraditional materials for weaponry.
Pacholl said knives made of “glass and plastic are easy to buy on the internet” and easily evade metal detectors but shouldn’t slip by the body scanner.
The commander said that while no local or state incarceration facilities have body scanners yet, he’s aware of “one or two” operating among the few lockups in Minnesota that are run by the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Two other state law enforcement agencies are close behind Anoka County in adding body scanner technology.
Hennepin County has a scanner at its jail now, “and our deputies have been trained on how to use the equipment,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Andy Skoogman. “We are waiting for the Minnesota Department of Health to give us the green light. We anticipate [that] very soon.”
The state Department of Corrections will soon “have the authorization and policy complete to begin using [scanners] in the next few months” at its prisons, said DOC spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald.
In the first week of operation in Anoka County, Pacholl said, the county-funded scanner has yet to unearth anything a pat-down or metal detector wouldn’t otherwise find.
Even so, the commander said he’s confident that “incarcerated people are talking, and the word will get out, and it will have a deterrent effect. Even if we don’t find any drugs ever, just through a deterrent factor, it’s going to be worth it.”
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482