Inmates try to sneak in drugs, razors and knives. This is how the Benton County jail finds them

See how this machine can detect Tri-Cities inmates smuggling drugs or weapons

A new x-ray body scanner will be used to see if inmates are smuggling in drugs or other foreign objects into the Benton County jail in Kennewick.
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A new x-ray body scanner will be used to see if inmates are smuggling in drugs or other foreign objects into the Benton County jail in Kennewick.

People will go to extreme lengths to sneak stuff into a jail.

Corrections officers say people swallow baggies of drugs, knives and razors to beat pat downs and strip searches. Those officials couldn’t hope to find those items — until now.

The Benton County Sheriff’s Office recently installed a $250,000 full-body scanner to check the 1,000 to 1,200 people booked into the jail each month.

Sheriff Jerry Hatcher wanted the scanner to combat drug overdoses and protect jail staff from weapons smuggled inside, said Capt. Josh Shelton.

Hatcher worked with county commissioners in 2018 to budget the money for the scanner.

Drugs are the main item inmates try to sneak into the jail, Shelton said. Swallowed baggies burst or dissolve, their contents going straight into a person’s system.

Benton County’s Sheriff’s Capt. Josh Shelton stands by the new X-ray scanner inside the Benton County jail. The new machine will check incoming inmates to make sure they are not smuggling in weapons or drugs. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

While there aren’t numbers for how often this happens, Shelton said jail staff respond medical emergencies regularly.

“Unfortunately that does happen. ... They’re not forthright with our medical staff, and we have to deal with a medical emergency because of it,” Shelton said. “Over all the goal is to increase the safety of our residents and our staff. Saving lives is the name of this game.”

How it works

The lead-lined Adani Conpass scanner looks like a pair of gray phone booths. It takes an X-ray image of a person while they stand on a metal plate.

A computer searches the X-ray image for spots that appear to be out of place.

Shelton showed a demonstration image of a person. It showed a set of eight baggies inside several red squares on the person’s midsection.

Once the machine notifies a corrections officer, the person can be taken to a hospital to remove the baggies.

A view of what an officer can see while using the X-ray scanner inside the Benton County jail. About 30-40 employees will be trained to use the machine. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Radiation levels from a single scan don’t get higher than eating two bananas, Shelton said. A person can be safely scanned at the highest level at least 70 times a year.

“This whole system keeps track of how many times I scan you,” Shelton said. “When I input your name and your information, it makes sure that I don’t go over the number of doses of the radiation that you can have each year, and it tracks the anomalies within your digestive track.”

None of the radiation escapes the booth.

The scanner isn’t like those used at airports. Those that use millimeter wave scanners have harmless radio waves to create an image of the person standing inside.

It scans for metallic and nonmetallic objects, including liquids, gels, plastics, powders and ceramics. The ones that use X-ray systems also don’t go past the skin

Jail staff won’t force anyone to go through the device, Shelton said. People who decline have their water and waste closely monitored.

A close up view of a scan. The red indicates potential contraband. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Shelton said they plan to train about 30 to 40 corrections officers to run the machine. Staff want to get it working in the next couple of weeks.

Joining jails across the state

Benton County is the fifth jail in the state to have one of the machines, including Yakima, Cowlitz, Grant and Whatcom counties.

Within a month of setting up the first scanner in Cowlitz County, officials said they found several people who swallowed heroin and one woman who stuffed pills in her body, according to a report from The Daily News.

Other counties have seen success, Shelton said.

It is something Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond said he would like to bring to his county, but he doesn’t have the money at the moment to make that happen.

Raymond said he plans to look into finding grants before turning to the county commission for the money.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.