Contraband in Our Prisons

Contraband in Our Prisons

AI many be the solution for finding concealed drugs

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States, the National Center for Health Statistics quote that more than 106,000 persons in the United States died from drug involved overdoses in 2021. Of those, deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (primarily fentanyl) continued to rise with 70,601 overdose deaths reported in 2021.

Fentanyl is the drug of choice for body cavity smugglers because it is a highly addictive opioid said to be up to 50 times stronger than heroin. Both characteristics make it highly valuable for dealers as they get more bang for their buck given that the supply is limited. It is however, also known to cause accidental overdoses and death.

In June 2023, in just one interception, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers seized 858,000 fentanyl pills that were concealed inside porcelain sinks. The detection was from screening using a port imaging system, and then a canine detection team.

But, concealing in inert object is one thing, concealing drugs in human body cavities is quite another. It is a practice that has been gathering pace around the world, despite the significant health risks to the smuggler. Contraband has been found in the mouth, ears, rectum, colon, vagina, abdomen and penis, as well as hidden in surgically created cavities. However, regardless of both the health risk, and that of the risk of a prison sentence, smugglers still see the risk outweighed by the benefit. With today’s prison currency rates, drugs can command up to 10 times higher than current street rates.

Within the global prison estates, however, this increase of fentanyl as the drug of preference is causing great concern – it can take just one person to bring fentanyl into a prison to create havoc.
In July this year, a female inmate smuggled fentanyl in a body cavity, into Adams County Jail in Ohio. The effect on the jail was unmitigated. Inmates and corrections officers were taken to a hospital and were treated for exposure to the drug.

Several inmates showed signs of fentanyl overdose, and officers and EMT’s who were searching cells for the drug also fell ill and were taken to a hospital. As a precaution the entire jail was vacated and temporarily rehoused while a hazmat crew decontaminated the jail.

Adams County Chief Deputy Bob Rebusch said, “Fentanyl is the big concern right now, and just a little can have such a devastating effect.” (As reported by Spectrum News)

Also, this month, in Putnam County Jail, Tennessee, eight female inmates were taken to a hospital after taking a mixture of fentanyl and heroin that two of the inmates had smuggled into the jail through their body cavities.

“I am glad that none of the corrections officers or inmates have died due to the use or exposure of the deadly drug fentanyl. As many as 90% of our inmates in Putnam County are incarcerated for illegal drug activity whether it be through direct or indirect activity,” Sheriff Eddie Farris said. (As reported by WSMV)

“Even though inmates are strip searched and scanned while being admitted into our facility, items inside a body cavity are not able to be seen at times,” said Jail Administrator Major Tim Nash. (As reported by WSMV)

Removing the risk of operators missing contraband at any location within the human body is now entirely possible, thanks to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning which has now found its way, inevitably into the field of safety and security in the global prison estate.

Body scanners are used for contraband detection. These body scanners are made up of an X-ray emitter and an x-ray detector. To perform a scan, an individual stands between the emitter and the detector, and a low dose of X-ray radiation is passed through that person, allowing an X-ray image of that person to be made, detecting both organic and non-organic items. Body scans can find materials such as metal, plastics, ceramics, paper, fluids, flora and even fauna. But as materials get less dense, detection of them becomes less obvious.

Netherlands based, ODSecurity has introduced THEIA, a full body automatic threat recognition solution that will detect any type of contraband in any location within the human body.

Joost Deutkom, of ODSecurity said, “Real-life operators are essential and irreplaceable; But a trained operator with the data, insight and accuracy of AI added into the body scanning mix, will increasingly become a formidable force in prison safety and security.”

Driven by machine learning algorithms, THEIA has been trained extensively on large collections of full-body scan images which are free of contraband. These scans have taught THEIA what a normal human body looks like and, what a negative scan should look like. The contraband free images form datasets, and each dataset teaches the AI technology to recognise anything that deviates from a contraband free full body scan.

These deviations, also referred to as anomalies, will be found by THEIA, and highlighted to the human operator. This is what makes THEIA the all-encompassing solution when it comes to automatic contraband detection.

THEIA makes no distinction between the detected contraband material, its size, or the location of where it may be hidden. Not only on the human body, but also within it. If it is there, then THEIA will discover it. It is the symbiotic relationship between the human operators and THEIA that have reduced operator error and improved overall safety by direct staff to potential contraband, thereby stopping it from entering our prison and custodial estates.
An enormous benefit to using the machine learning and AI algorithms that make up THEIA, is the software will continuously improve. The more data THEIA is exposed to, the more it learns, optimizes, and grows in accuracy – this in many ways, “future proofs” contraband detection, as unusual, or contraband that has not yet been attempted, discovered, or indeed created will be found by the simple exclusion of anomalies.

Narcotics come in many shapes, forms and substances. Some are relatively easy to detect, others harder to distinguish from the human body, as their organic nature disguises them, for example, large quantities of drug balloons in intestines, are relatively easy for operators to detect through normal scanning, due to the density of the package and the shape, although smaller quantities can be more difficult to find. Also, organic materials like cannabis, and pills in a body cavity can be a challenge for operators, as they too can blend in with the human body.

But, with the use of AI, these items are not perceived as being naturally part of the human body and are then highlighted for an operator to review.

As we all know, it is not just contraband drugs that cause massive problems in our prison estates. Everyday communication and electronic devices are getting smaller. This makes them easier to hide and harder to detect. Thumb drives can be stripped down to the bare minimum leaving a tiny device with minimal amounts of metal, and SIM cards are so small they are being hidden in body cavities to be brought into prisons. All these items can be easily overlooked when concealed in the right spot. But then THEIA is designed to find those items that are not naturally part of a human body – and will highlight them for review.

Weapons in a prison environment also become a valuable commodity. Bullets are easily detected by a body scanner but can be missed by a metal detector. Razor blades could be seen if they were perpendicular, but not if they were in line with the detector, as you would just see a very thin line.

Then again, a ceramic knife with a bone handle, could be picked up by a detector, but possibly not if it was placed close to the rib cage or spine. But with THEIA, all the above would be found. As they are not naturally part of the human body, and therefore be flagged for review.

Better safeguards to stop the influx of contraband into our prisons is not just a wish, but a necessity, and whilst the human body scanner operator will be successful at stopping some of the contraband, as he naturally visually searches for suspicious anomalies, in or on a human body, joined by the AI assistant, that is looking for what “shouldn’t be there” will prove a powerful weapon in the contraband detection arsenal.

This article originally appeared in the September / October 2023 issue of Security Today.

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