Inmates smuggle drugs, weapons into Whatcom’s jail. This is how deputies catch them

Here’s how Whatcom County stops jail contraband

Sheriff's officials say use of a body scanner when people are booked into the Whatcom County Jail is helping curb the flow of drugs and increase safety.
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Sheriff's officials say use of a body scanner when people are booked into the Whatcom County Jail is helping curb the flow of drugs and increase safety.

Drugs, cigarettes, smoking pipes, lighters, knives — these are all things people have tried to smuggle into the Whatcom County Jail in their bodies.

Thanks to the help of a full-body scanner, Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies were able to catch them as they were coming through the door.

Since the installation of the scanner a year ago, Chief Corrections Deputy Wendy Jones said the amount of contraband, things like drugs or weapons, coming into the jail has decreased. Because of the success with the first scanner, the sheriff’s office will also be adding a full-body scanner at the Work Center on Division Street by late summer, she said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

Jones said the price for the second scanner has yet to be determined, but said the sheriff’s office will likely receive a discount because they’re purchasing it from the same company.

“The scanner was expensive and we knew that going into this, but we don’t want folks to die of drug overdoses in the jail. We don’t want anyone to get hurt in the jail,” Jones said. “If this helps us, if that avoids that even one time, I think it’s worth it.”

In addition to the second scanner, they will also get a mail scanner in 2020. When inmates don’t hide drugs or other items in their bodies, they will sometimes try to have them sent through the mail, Jones said. People will liquify drugs, soak pieces of paper in the drugs and then send the paper as a letter or birthday card to an inmate. The inmate can then re-soak the paper and drink the liquified drugs, or they can just eat the paper, Jones said. Other times, drugs will be hidden in the corners of envelopes, or where they’re sealed.

“There’s lots of different tricks of getting drugs into the mail, but the scanner will help us find those,” Jones said.

The Whatcom County Jail’s body scanner was first introduced to the jail in April 2018. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

As jail medical staff began treating an increasing number of people for opioid withdrawal in 2016, jail deputies also began seeing a rise in the amount of contraband being brought into the jail, Jones said. Traditional pat-down and strip searches are unable to detect contraband that has been swallowed or hidden elsewhere in the body, and probable cause is required for a body cavity search, Jones said.

So after requesting and receiving the funds from the Whatcom County Council, the sheriff’s office installed a SecurePass full-body scanner in early April 2018 at the downtown jail, Jones said.

“It was looking for a solution and finding in fact that there was one out there,” she said.

A small remodel had to be done, including moving a small office, heightening the ceiling and making sure the floor was strong enough, Jones said. The total project, which included training on how to use the machine, cost around $225,000, she said.

Jones said they want to ensure the safety of inmates and staff, and don’t want to miss things being smuggled in.

“Our biggest concern is people bringing in opioids, usually heroin, and then they can overdose and somebody won’t recognize what is going on. Or they’ll share with other offenders and if they don’t share enough, then they get assaulted,” she said.

In 2018, there were 7,281 people booked into the jail, some of whom were booked multiple times, according to Whatcom County Jail data. Of those, 204 went through heroin withdrawal, while another 209 reported heroin use, but no withdrawal. And more than 250 people went through meth withdrawal, jail health data shows.

How it works

Every person who gets booked into the Whatcom County Jail goes through the body scanner, except pregnant women, Jones said.

The scanner is a low-dose digital scanner and a person would have to be scanned 400 times in order to receive the amount of radiation contained in one traditional chest X-ray, according to data provided by Jones. While the sheriff’s office has been assured the scanner is safe for pregnant women, they don’t want to take any chances, Jones said.

When someone gets booked into the jail, they’ll go into the room with the scanner and stand on a platform, facing forward. The whole platform will move, pass through the scanner and come back to the starting position — taking about seven seconds in all.

Deputies who have been trained on the machine stand on the other side of a protective barrier in the scanning room and look at the monitor, which pulls up the X-ray-like scan of the inmate. The scan focuses on soft tissues and what’s in the digestive tract since that’s where most of the anomalies — or things that shouldn’t be there — are found, Jones and Whatcom County Sheriff’s Lt. Ernie Stach said.

Packets of drugs can be seen inside the colon on a training image that helps operators identify anomalies in body scanner images at the Whatcom County Jail. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

If an anomaly is found, deputies will usually ask the person if they are hiding something, Stach said. Most times, the person is taken to a secure room and voluntarily removes it. If they deny having something or argue, they will be run through again or placed into a dry cell until they have a bowel movement, Stach said. Deputies will also monitor that inmate’s fluids, he said.

In a case where an inmate can’t remove the item, they’ve swallowed it, or are having a medical emergency, they will be taken to the hospital, he said. But that’s a rare occurrence, Stach said.

In the first two weeks of April this year, 196 scans were done. On average, deputies find anomalies weekly, Stach said. Most of the time it is hidden within an inmate’s rectum or vagina, rather than swallowed, he said.

Each person also gets a unique number assigned to them, and the machine keeps track of how many scans are done on each person yearly. A person can only be scanned 300 times in a year’s span, but Stach said they haven’t had someone come close to that number yet. Personal property can also be scanned and gets registered to the inmate’s specific number, Stach said.

If an anomaly is found and it turns out to be drugs, charges will be referred to the prosecutor’s office, Jones said. Jones and Stach said deputies most frequently find drugs, but also find cell phones, lighters, pipes and knives.

“It’s mostly drugs, not as much weapons. The other thing we get in is tobacco and rolling papers, and occasionally a lighter. But hands down it’s opioids and meth,” Jones said.

Of the 39 counties in Washington, Whatcom County is one of five that has a body scanner in its jail, according to a story in the Tri-City Herald.

Grant, Yakima, Cowlitz and most recently, Benton County, all have scanners too, the Tri-City Herald reported.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.