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An employee publication of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
March/April 2010

New scanning and monitoring equipment installed to combat contraband

In prison jargon, a correctional officer has always been called a "boss." Now, there's another boss working on the unit.

  Effie Vemson watching monitor as articles go through the scanner
 

Polunksy Unit CO IV Effie Vemson watches as articles, including shoes and handbags, pass through a parcel scanner.

Photos by David Nunnelee

The Body Orifice Security Scanner, or BOSS chair, uses non-invasive technology to detect metal objects concealed within human body cavities. TDCJ recently purchased 22 of the chair-like devices as well as 23 walk-through metal detectors and 10 X-ray parcel scanners as part of its aggressive interdiction campaign to halt the introduction and movement of contraband at units. Executive Director Brad Livingston thanked both the governor and the Legislature for making additional contraband detection measures possible.

"We are grateful to the Legislature and the governor for providing funding to enhance our anti-contraband efforts," said Livingston. "They made combating prison contraband a priority use for the state's limited resources, and we are moving as rapidly as possible to put the new equipment to good use."

Contraband screening and detection equipment recently purchased with
last summer's $10 million legislative appropriation had been installed by the end of December. Most of the BOSS chairs are located in administrative segregation buildings where they are primarily used to search offenders as they are escorted to and from the building. The semi-mobile chairs, however, can be used to search anyone, including general population offenders, employees and visitors if necessary.

With its intensive screening and detection equipment in place, the agency will use remaining funds to purchase sophisticated video surveillance systems for installation in targeted correctional facilities. Bids to install the first comprehensive system, with the ability to both monitor and digitally record offender movements, at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston were received in late December.

"As always, we're going to make the best use of the dollars we have, but we want to make sure that we have a good system," said TDCJ Chief Financial Officer Jerry McGinty.

Correctional Institutions Division Director Rick Thaler spoke to the impact on both staff and offender safety.

"Anytime you can add video surveillance to your secure facilities, it's going to enhance your ability to monitor activities of the offender population," Thaler said. "Video surveillance also allows us to monitor staff for safety purposes just like it allows us to watch the offender population for safety and security purposes. So I think it's a good investment when you can create a safer environment for both staff and offenders. That's what it's all about."

Correctional Officer scanning incoming employee with wand.  
After passing through a metal detector, employees and visitors are scanned for contraband and pat searched.  

Polunsky Senior Warden Tim Simmons said that along with screening bags and clothing articles, the unit uses its parcel scanner to screen all incoming mail. Its BOSS chair is used to search all offenders as they arrive at and are transported from the unit. He said he sees a comprehensive video surveillance system as another element in boosting security.

"I think it would be a tremendous help," Simmons said. "To me, all these things are elements that make it much more difficult to beat the security measures already in place. The more security measures you have in place, the harder it is to defeat them."

TDCJ currently has more than 5,400 mounted video cameras monitoring offender populations at units across the state, although not all have the recording capability of video systems installed today. Some cameras came with units built in the 1990s while others were added to high-security expansion facilities during the past decade. In addition, in 2009, existing operating funds were used to install video surveillance cameras to monitor entry points at eight different units. A mobile cell phone detection system which allows Office of Inspector General investigators to detect and locate cell phone signals within a correctional facility was also purchased during Fiscal Year 2009.

McGinty said the agency had already planned to request funding for additional correctional security equipment as early as the summer of 2008 as it prepared its appropriations request for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. But subsequent to a systemwide shakedown in the fall of that year, the agency increased its request
and asked state leadership for an immediate appropriation. In the end, $10 million
was approved.

Because nearly 80 percent of the contraband confiscated during the systemwideshakedown of 2008 was discovered on just seven units, the agency targeted those facilities as most in need of additional equipment. McGinty said that although the appropriation was less than requested, it allowed administrators to focus in on units where the money would do the most good.

Along with the units targeted for video surveillance systems, 22 have received BOSS chairs and 13 units were shipped walk-through metal detectors. X-ray parcel scanners were installed at 10 different units.

"We will be able to create a safer environment for the offenders, the staff and the public that enter units," McGinty said. "You're going to stop a lot of that contraband from coming in, possibly just by the presence of the machinery."

Warden Simmons said the scanning and screening equipment installed last year has already reduced contraband at Polunsky, but that the sophisticated systems won't instill a false sense of security.

"These elements assist correctional officers, they don't replace them," he said. "Do I think (the systems) are much needed elements to enhance security? Yes, I do. Can we relax with these systems in place? No, we cannot."

Thaler acknowledges that there's no assurance that any amount of equipment, regardless of its technical sophistication, will completely cleanse prison units of contraband.

"There's never a 100 percent guarantee, you just have to make sure that you're giving 100 percent," he said. "And if there's an opportunity to enhance your security process, you need to be taking advantage of it and you need to be moving aggressively forward with it. That's how you reduce contraband within your facility, that's how you prevent contraband from getting into your facility, that's how you discourage individuals from attempting to introduce it into your facility. Your goal is to get to the point where you have no contraband in your facility. That's how you have to approach it every day."

 

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