After a string of deaths and overdoses at the Spokane County Jail, officials will soon scan almost all inmates and their mail for drugs and other contraband.
Spokane County commissioners unanimously voted last week to allow staff to purchase two body scanners, estimated to cost about $450,000, and a mail scanner, estimated to cost about $160,000. One body scanner will be installed in the downtown jail and the other will be installed at Geiger Corrections Center.
County Commissioner Mary Kuney said the scanners are one of several new practices and technologies the jail has implemented to reduce jail deaths and overdoses.
“It saves lives, and you can’t put a price on lives,” Kuney said.
Since 2015, 13 people have died in Spokane County’s custody.
Most recently, Sharona Carroll died in July with a combination of fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl and morphine in her system. She was the second person whose death in the county jail was linked to contraband drug use.
Lt. Don Hooper of the Spokane County Jail said many of those who overdose or are found with contraband were searched when they arrived at the jail, as is common practice. Hooper said the county also recently added drug dogs, but he noted that many items still slip through.
“It concerns us more what we’re not finding right now,” Hooper said. “It got in some way, this person was searched with our current methods and we didn’t find it. That means it came in some other way.”
Not all drug use in jail leads to overdoses, and not all overdoses are fatal.
In February, officials found inmates with a cellphone and Suboxone, an opioid used to treat opioid addiction that comes in strips. Suboxone is also one of the more common drugs found in inmate mail.
In May, four women who had been searched overdosed in a 24-hour period and survived.
Hooper said the new body scanners will look similar to what passengers see at airport security. He said it will probably be several months before the scanners are up and running, because they still need to be purchased and improvements will have to be made to the jail to install them.
Body and mail scanners have already been added at jails and prisons across the state, including in Grant and Yakima counties.
Scott Himes, chief of administration at the Yakima County Jail, said Suboxone and heroin are the most common drugs jail staff find when scanning mail and inmates for contraband. Since installing the scanners about a year and a half ago, staff has detected substances in inmate mail about 3,800 times out of 78,000 items.
Himes didn’t have data on how many drugs were found through body scanners, but he said scanning people has dramatically reduced the amount of contraband that ends up in the jail.
The Department of Corrections added a body scanner to its Washington Corrections Center for Women in March. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said the body scanner quickly became the prison’s most effective way to find contraband.
In the last 18 months, staff found contraband 84 times using 12 methods. Though body scanners were only used for five of the 18 months DOC was tracking data, scanners were responsible for finding 58% of total contraband discovered.
Under current policies in Spokane and in Yakima, if a person voluntarily gives up drugs or if they are found on their body, the evidence is forwarded to law enforcement and new charges are added.
Some airports with body scanners have tried amnesty boxes, allowing people to give up drugs without charging them for possessing them. Alaska has also previously had an amnesty box in its prison.
Officials say such a policy may not happen in Spokane’s jails.
Hooper said the decision to charge people with drugs found is up to elected officials, law enforcement and prosecutors, but noted jail staff has researched amnesty boxes. He said he’s not aware of any other jails in the state with an amnesty policy for contraband.
Commissioner Josh Kerns said he likely wouldn’t support an amnesty policy, because people who are hiding drugs did break the law. And he said it’s up to prosecutors to decidewhether to bring charges.
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said he would consider offering treatment or drugs instead of adding charges to a person booked on drug charges who was found to have drugs at the jail or who voluntarily gave up their drugs before going through the scanner.
“We don’t help them if we just take the drugs and there is no treatment aspect,” he said.
Haskell said he probably wouldn’t consider that option for people booked into jail for other charges.
He said he had not discussed specific policy proposals or charging decisions with jail staff and that they likely would meet once the scanners are purchased.
Kuney said she anticipated the longer the jail has a body scanner, the less drugs they’ll find. Once word gets out that the jail has more effective ways to find contraband, people will stop mailing and bringing it into the jail, she predicted.
“Once people know and realize it’s not getting through, they won’t do it,” she said. “That’s my hope.”
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said he was interested in anamnesty box program. People can already drop off prescription drugs at police precincts in Spokane, and Meidl said people have been using the prescription drop boxes to safely dispose of illicit drugs as well.
While Spokane police don’t have a say in charging decisions on county property, the number of people in the jail for possession charges, attorneys overwhelmed with cases and crowding at the jail all affect the department.
Meidl said prosecuting attorneys don’t have a lot of time and resources to address existing possession charges and that giving people a chance to voluntarily give up drugs they have hidden in body cavities could make everyone safer.
“I like the idea of giving people the opportunity to give it up,” he said. “It’s absolutely going to make the jail safer.”
He said any amnesty or drug policy would need to be implemented cautiously and should only apply during the booking process, not when people are arrested on the street. Jail staff probably would also need to consider the amount of contraband someone was hiding.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich did not respond to requests for comment.
Scanners are just one of several changes the jail has made to reduce deaths over the last year. Kerns said inmates have thick wool blankets instead of sheets to try and prevent inmates from taking their lives, and corrections officers and staff all have access to medication that can quickly reverse an overdose.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.