DOBSON — Catching people attempting to smuggle contraband into and throughout the jail will be easier with a new piece of equipment approved by county officials this month.
Earlier this year, the Surry County Sheriff’s Office received funds from the state as part of the COVID-19 relief package. This money was to help ease any burden placed on officers in keeping up patrols when coworkers could be sidelined with quarantine.
Since the money helped pay for salaries already budgeted with regular tax money, sheriff’s office personnel appeared before the Surry County Board of Commissioners this month seeking to have some of the leftover salary allocation used to buy a full body scanner for the county detention center.
The Tek84 Intercept scanner would cost $159,000 for the device, two-year warranty, installation and training.
In urging the commissioners to consider the scanner, Sheriff Steve Hiatt wrote a letter to the board.
“As you know, the detention center is one of the highest liability areas that a sheriff has to contend with,” Hiatt wrote.
In addition to his own deputies, local police departments, probation and parole officers, and state law enforcement officials all bring arrestees to Dobson to be processed at the jail.
When people are brought in, “the arresting officer searches them,” wrote Hiatt. “Then, the on-shift detention officer searches them. Even with these searches, contraband and/or illegal narcotics could be hidden.
“It could be as simple as an arrestee having contraband inserted into human orifices and the item not being able to be detected by the human eye. It is called ‘suitcasing,’” the sheriff explained. “Unfortunately, this happens more often than you would probably think.”
Inside the four cinder-block walls of a detention facility, a jail is like its own micro city, Capt. Scott Hudson told the board. The detention officers and deputies have to deal with fights, attacks on officers, sexual assaults, gambling, illegal drugs and gambling.
If a person brings a weapon into the jail, that weapon can be used on fellow inmates or even a member of the staff.
And what if it’s drugs?
In this case, the high expense of the machinery can pay for itself in the long run, the sheriff reasoned.
For example, Hiatt noted, since his election as sheriff, the office has made numerous drug arrests. One male suspect arrested had “suitcased” meth in his rectum. A standard search did not detect the meth.
“During the arrest, the arrestee had a medical emergency, and he was transported to the hospital,” said Hiatt.
At the hospital a nurse discovered the busted baggie that held the meth, he said.
Lt. Randy Shelton, who supervises the jail, told the board that because the man overdosed inside the detention center, the county is responsible for his medical care.
Hiatt said the medical bills from this one patient had already come to $50,751, with some other bills still expected to come.
Now, had the jailers been able to check the suspect more thoroughly at the admittance stage, then the drugs could have been found sooner, possibly before the bag burst, said Shelton. And even if the drugs already had gotten loose, if a scanner could catch the problem before admittance, then the county isn’t legally responsible for what this person did to himself. This would have saved $50,000 in this example.
Imagine if the meth had made it inside and multiple people had used the drugs, noted Hiatt. Several inmates could have had high blood pressure, irregular vitals and degraded medical conditions. These inmates would have to be put on medical watch, causing additional expense and use of personnel. There is also the risk that more than one person could overdose and be in the situation as the example given.
Shelton told the board that this did happen recently. A suspect from Ashe County was taken into custody, and then after that, two other inmates in contact with the suspect suffered drug overdoses. He said if the officers hadn’t used Narcan to reverse the effects of the drug, the two men could have died. Even with the lives saved, the county is still on the hook for medical treatments for the two after the Narcan use.
And this doesn’t even take into consideration the benefit to the jailers.
Sometimes what the suspects are hiding upon arrest are syringes or razor blades. Hiatt said being able to scan someone rather than just blindly feeling around with one’s hands could prevent injury (and possible contamination from infected blood).
This device is like an x-ray machine, said Capt. Hudson. It is so sensitive that it can pick up a cotton ball hidden inside someone’s body.
Randolph County has this, and so does Wilkes, added Lt. Shelton. “There are about 200 that have been sold in the last year from this company.”
In the design for the new jail, the commissioners heard that there was a 10-foot-square space reserved in case the jail would be adding a body scanner.
Commissioner Van Tucker asked if that previous point was related to this scanner.
Shelton said that space allotted was for the older style of scanner. The newer model is much more compact. Rather than 10×10, this one is more like 3×6.
“The other good thing about this is it’s on wheels,” said Shelton. “We could actually put this on the elevator and go up to a dorm and scan them. That’s how we would utilize it.”
Checking a cell for contraband is time-consuming.
“A shakedown takes about four hours because we do strip searches. There will be no more strip searches in the jail. … We don’t have to tear mattresses up looking for dope or weapons. We can just scan them.”
Commissioner Mark Marion said he went with Lt. Shelton to see the scanner in use at another jail and came away impressed.
If someone is caught “suitcasing,” would there be additional charges filed, asked Commissioner Eddie Harris.
That would be up to the arresting officer and the district attorney, answered Shelton.
It would actually benefit the suspect to be caught by the scanner at admittance rather than inside the jail, according to Capt. Hudson. Carrying narcotics inside a jail facility is a felony charge, whereas getting caught at admittance could be a misdemeanor.
If the device costs $159,000, what kind of life expectancy will it have, asked Commissioner Bill Goins.
Shelton said he wasn’t sure on that. He said the company would be performing annual maintenance on the machine and replacing any worn parts. That cost is $9,000 a year.
“Mmm,” groaned Harris. Still, he said of the purchase, “I’d like to say, ‘Money well spent.’”
Shelton said that Randolph County told them that after just two and a half days they had already caught half a dozen people with the scanner.
“They had intercepted phone calls where inmates were calling out and saying, ‘Hey don’t bring no more dope in. They got a scanner.’ That alone is huge,” said Shelton.
After further discussion, the commissioner voted to approve the scanner purchase.