New drug-sniffing machine detects traces of illegal substances at Maryland prisons Device is used to screen visitors, staff members

October 02, 1997|By Ivan Penn SUN STAFF

The hand-held vacuum looks like a Dust Buster, but it collects more than just lint. Call it the drug buster.

With this new drug-detection system, called the Ionscan 400, the state is searching for the most minute traces of illegal narcotics on people who visit or work at Maryland's prisons. Officials say it's more accurate than a drug-sniffing dog -- and never gets tired or needs food or exercise.

"The message we're sending is if you're a bad person and trying to get drugs into our prisons, we're going to catch you," said William W. Sondervan, an assistant commissioner for the state Division of Correction, during a demonstration this week at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup.

"We think that most of our problems are with visitors, but once in a while we have a bad apple on staff," said Sondervan, adding that the drug system will be an investigative tool and not the only basis for arrests or discipline against employees.

On the job since April

The state began using one of the $55,000 scanners -- made by Barringer Instruments Inc. of New Providence, N.J. -- in April, and officials plan to ask the state for money to purchase three more. The units would rotate among the state's 25 institutions.

Use of the drug-detection system led to the arrest of a suspected drug dealer charged with carrying drug paraphernalia his car when he tried to visit an inmate at the Jessup prison complex. The man, Shawn Donta Oliver, goes on trial Jan. 9 in Anne Arundel County District Court.

And the prison system's internal affairs unit is investigating an officer who had a high reading for the presence of cocaine when the 300 officers at the Maryland House of Correction Annex were tested after a melee there in May. No charges or personnel actions have been taken in that case.

Union officials said they are reviewing the technology and discussing it with management.

"We don't know the specifics of this new drug-detection system yet," said Diane King, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents Maryland's correctional officers.

Lower-than-average rate

Corrections officials say the Ionscan will help Maryland remain one of the nation's leaders in the fight to keep drugs out of prisons. Only 3.9 percent of the inmates randomly tested in Maryland's prison system have tested positive for drug use, compared with the national average of 8.9 percent, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

But Maryland clearly has had problems in recent times that point to a need for drug interdiction in the state's prisons.

In May, Taikecha Wade, the girlfriend of convicted drug dealer Ronald Mitchell, testified in Baltimore Circuit Court how she, her boyfriend and others hid drugs in the soles of sneakers or in their mouths and passed them to inmates during visits.

In July, officials at the Patuxent Institution increased security there after two incidents in which drugs were found inside the prison. In one of the cases, inmate Leon Hardy, 37, was found unconscious and foaming at the mouth in his cell July 13. He died a short time later. An autopsy determined that he died of a drug overdose.

Officials insist that Maryland's effort to keep drugs out of prisons is among the best in the nation, and the scanner will simply improve their efforts.

Here's how it works:

Using the hand-held vacuum, an officer scans skin, clothing or even cash. Particles from what was scanned are captured on a filter about the size of the average index finger. That filter is placed inside a scanner that determines the presence of as many as 20 narcotics.

The scanner identifies the narcotics after it has been given a sample of the drugs from what is called a "calibrator stick" -- something like a tube of lipstick that has particles of the drugs to be searched for.

A matter of seconds

After the scanner produces results -- which takes just seconds -- it reports the presence of drugs. The computer says "pass" or "alarm" after the scanning is complete.

The machine doesn't report quantity; it simply signals that a person has had contact with a drug.

"This machine is similar to a dog's nose, only it is more accurate; it can tell exactly what drug," said Maj. Douglas E. Cloman, commander of the Division of Correction's Internal Investigative Unit. "But this machine isn't a replacement of K-9 detection dogs. It's an addition to the dogs."

If a person fails a scan, he or she would be searched for illegal drugs. Those who refuse to be scanned will be denied access to prisons.

"We feel that it could be a major deterrent," Sondervan said.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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