State officials show off new contraband detectors for prisons

Maryland corrections officials on Wednesday announced $1.8 million worth of advanced metal detectors that can locate the smallest pieces of contraband, after several high-profile incidents that included a large-scale federal investigation at the state’s largest prison last year.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services purchased 161 Cellsense metal detectors. Officials said they are being used in all 24 facilities across the state to curb smuggling of drugs, weapons and other items into and around prisons.

“This equipment is a game-changer,” said Stephen T. Moyer, the state’s public safety secretary, at a news conference Wednesday morning inside Baltimore’s Central Booking and Intake Facility. “Cellsense better detects cellphones and weapons that cause prison violence and violence in jails.”

The devices, which were put in use about a month ago, can be moved around facilties and can detect small pieces of metal inside a person’s body and even through a wall.

The state purchased them after federal authorities announced the largest federal indictment in Maryland history last year at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. Dozens of corrections officers and inmates were charged in an alleged conspiracy to smuggle heroin, cocaine, cellphones, pornography and other contraband into the facility.

That investigation was similar to the 2013 federal indictment in which investigators found the Black Guerrilla Family gang had effectively seized control of the Baltimore City Detention Center to run drug operations inside and outside the facility, and used smuggled cellphones to intimidate witnesses and move money.

“This action is a direct result of the corruption here in Baltimore and over on the Eastern Shore,” Moyer said Wednesday.

In addition to spurring use of the new technology, Moyer said, those investigations also prompted the closure of several outdated, unsafe facilities.

Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the closure of the Men's Detention Center in Baltimore, parts of which predate the Civil War, in 2015, and the closure of the women’s detention center last year. Officials closed the Jail Industries Building this month.

Moyer said the new technology will make conditions safer for corrections officers. He said officials began evaluating Cellsense after the death of a veteran corrections officer at a Delaware prison in February.

Sgt. Steven Floyd, 47, was found dead after a nearly 20-hour hostage standoff at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del.

In April, James Vinci, a 17-year veteran correctional officer at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, was stabbed by an inmate.

Damean Stewart, security chief at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup, said corrections officers have found “a lot more” contraband items using the new detectors. He said the items have included makeshift weapons, cellphones, needles, and tattoo guns, which he said can pose risks for officers doing searches.

Often, he said, inmates will see the detection devices and voluntarily hand over items.

Because the devices can be moved, Stewart said, officers can initiate a search anywhere at a facility, at any time.

“It’s definitely an asset,” he said. “They are not going to beat that machine.”

In the first month the detectors were used at the Eastern Correction Institute, officials said, officers collected 70 weapons. At one facility, the new detectors were able to locate a small sewing machine needle.

J. Michael Zeigler, deputy secretary of operations for the corrections department, said the devices are being added to existing security measures, which include standard stationary metal detectors and drug- and cellphone-sniffing dogs.

“It’s going to be a force multiplier,” he said.

At Wednesday’s news conference, corrections spokesman Gerard Shields donned a bright yellow jumpsuit with the letters “DPDS” on the back and demonstrated the accuracy of the Cellsense device. He walked through the detectors carrying a prison mattress, triggering the device. A correctional officer searched the mattress and found a small needle.

Officials said the resourcefulness of inmates still poses a challenge.

“There’s always a cat-and-mouse game. We try to stay ahead of it,” Zeigler said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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