LAWRENCEVILLE - In the ongoing effort to keep inmates and staff members safe and maintain a contraband-free facility, deputies at the Gwinnett County Jail have a new weapon - at least temporarily.
Recently the jail was selected by the National Institute of Justice to test the ProVision body imager, a scanner that uses radio wave technology to detect items that may be concealed under clothing.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department is the only law enforcement agency in the country using the imaging portal inside jails, though scanners are deployed in several airports, at border crossings in the Middle East and in high-threat facilities such as courthouses and embassies.
Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais said the department approached the NIJ about a year ago, interested in testing the technology.
"We were selected as a testing site because of our high volume of traffic with inmates and the fact that we are equipped to handle the program," Bourbonnais said.
The portal arrived in Gwinnett about 30 days ago and the department immediately began training deputies on how to use the machine. They began scanning inmates last week, Bourbonnais said.
"We identified ... a test group and those are our inmates who are on work details both inside and outside of the facility and inmates who are leaving and returning for court," she said.
After the 90-day test period, around the end of June, the department will attempt to obtain grant money to purchase a portal. Christopher McAleavey, deputy director of Sensors, Surveillance and Biometric Technologies Center of Excellence in Manhattan, said each machine costs between $100,000 and $150,000.
"But right now there's just one developer, so there's no competition," he said.
The concept and procedure is simple.
Once a subject steps into the portal, hands raised, the scan takes about two seconds. Radio waves are reflected from concealed objects, sending a 3-D, holographic image to a computer monitor where a trained operator will look for any abnormalities. The operator will be able to see metallic and non-metallic items, including liquids and gels.
Essentially, anything between the subject's skin and the portal's scanners will be detected.
Bourbonnais said the scanner will not replace "pat-down" searches, but supplement them.
"Inmates are talking about it and it's already acting as a deterrent," she said. "It's just another layer of security for us."
The scanner does not use X-rays and poses no health risks, McAleavey said.
"They are as safe to use as a cell phone," he said.