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The Journal Gazette

  • Matthew LeBlanc | The Journal Gazette Bill Techtmann of ChemImage demonstrates a mail scanner Wednesday in Columbia City for sheriffs and jail officials to see how the equipment can detect drugs being sent through the mail to inmates.

Thursday, January 18, 2018 1:00 am

Scanner able to detect drugs hidden in mail sent to inmates

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

COLUMBIA CITY – Jail administrators say it's inevitable that contraband will make its way into the facilities.

But the ways inmates get illicit items including drugs have grown more complicated, and officials in Allen County and northeast Indiana are considering buying expensive scanners to look through inmates' mail and find the substances inside.

Representatives of a Pittsburgh company showed off one of the $100,000 machines Wednesday in Columbia City to about a dozen area sheriffs and jailers.

Drugs can be crushed up and hidden behind stamps or within crayon drawings sent to inmates. A drug used to treat addiction to opiates, Suboxone, comes in strips that dissolve under the tongue and can be hidden behind seams in envelopes or in the glue to seal them, jailers say.

Lt. Duane Christian of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office in Northern California said this week a greeting card sent recently to an inmate at his jail contained drugs.

“You can actually spread the layers of paper apart, put something inside and glue it back together,” said Christian, who uses a mail scanner installed at the jail about a year ago. “To the naked eye it looks like nothing's in there, but it could be anything – like heroin or Suboxone.”

It's a problem that is making sorting mail more difficult and dangerous for jail employees, they say.

More than 30 Allen County Jail employees were sickened in November after a substance believed to be fentanyl was found on a piece of paper. Sheriff David Gladieux said the powerful synthetic opioid likely was mailed to the jail.

Lt. Dave Butler, the assistant jail commander, and Rick Taylor, the facility's mail clerk, said Wednesday new guidelines for mail include throwing out questionable correspondence, including letters with discolorations. The jail also does not allow greeting cards, hand-drawn pictures or letters written in crayon, colored ink or pencil.

“They're trying to get stuff in every day,” Butler said.

Others who attended the demonstration of the mail scanner said they don't allow incoming mail with colored envelopes or pictures colored in crayon. One man said his jail stopped allowing photographs after drugs were found between two pictures.

“They're getting very, very creative,” said Bill Techtmann of ChemImage, the company that produces the scanners. “Our technology can see what the human eye can't see.”

Resembling a high-tech overhead projector, the scanner uses “near-infrared light” to look through letters, envelopes, postcards and other mailings. The machines can identify drugs including heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, ketamine, PCP and Suboxone.

It takes about eight seconds to scan an item, according to ChemImage.

Pete Safran, the company's director of sales, said ChemImage has placed 13 scanners in jails around the U.S. None are in Indiana, company spokeswoman Tifanie Tiberio said.

Tiberio would not discuss cost, though officials with sheriff's departments and jails estimated about $100,000. A sheriff's department in Stanislaus County, California, paid more than $157,000 for a scanner last year, according to online meeting records.

Whitley County Sheriff Marc Gatton sought the demonstration and reached out to ChemImage last year. He said he was moved to action to ensure the safety of jail workers after the incident in Allen County.

Gatton said he has pitched the scanner to county commissioners, but he is not sure the county can afford the machine.

Allen County officials also said they were not sure about the cost.

Christian, of the sheriff's office in Northern California, said the scanner has made mail safer for inmates and jail employees who have to handle it.

“It definitely has some benefits,” he said. “It's a useful machine.” 

mleblanc@jg.net