County jail gets new scanner to detect narcotics

Audrey Caro

The Linn County Sheriff’s Office has a new tool to prevent illegal narcotics from entering the jail.

A mail screening system was installed on Wednesday, April 11, and positively identified heroin on Saturday, said LCSO Undersheriff Jim Yon.

LCSO Captain Todd Vian told the Linn County Board of Commissioners about the equipment at their Jan. 16 meeting.

Deputies will use the machine, a VeroVision mail screening system, to screen mail that is sent to Linn County Jail inmates.

The county is entering into a $149,765 lease over seven years with ChemImage Sensor Systems for the equipment.

“It can scan up to seven pages thick but the mail still has to be scanned by a deputy to make sure there are no criminal activities being planned, escape attempts, that kind of stuff,” Vian told the commissioners. “It still has to be somewhat read by deputies but there’s a lot of things, like PCP hidden underneath a stamp – a deputy can’t see that.”

In a conversation after meeting, Vian said jail officials didn’t allow crayon drawings or colored pencil drawings because an illegal substance can be hidden in or underneath it.

Deputies also look for discolorations on the paper and check for tampering, such as on a birthday card that looks as if it’s been pulled apart, he added.

“We don’t have a dog assigned to the jail,” Vian said. “The problem with a dog is, if you get a dog, they’re trained, and I’m not a canine expert, so typically, my understanding with canines is you get them and the handler trains them on (specific) substances.”

Issues arise when new substances are discovered, or when a drug, such as marijuana, is legalized.

Vian said a benefit of the new equipment is that “if there’s a new substance that comes out that hits the market, these guys can go through and basically create a recipe and with our service agreement they just give us that recipe.”

Before the scanner was installed, Deputy Lorenzo Nash said he had never come across any narcotics in an inmate’s mail, but his coworkers had.

“Suboxone is the biggest one,” Nash said. “It’s a sublingual film.”

Vian said that substance is easy to disguise because it comes in little strips “almost like those Breathmint strips.”

When a deputy finds a substance in an inmate’s mail he writes a report.

“We’ll give it to our (narcotics) detectives and hopefully they can build a case off that,” Vian said. “It’s real difficult to charge the inmate because they were the recipient and they never did have possession.”

One recent situation involved a woman sending what was possibly Suboxone to her son.

“I talked to our narcotics detectives about that,” Vian said. “Proving the case that mom actually did that is near impossible because anybody can take a letter and hide their stuff in it and write whatever, Mom’s name, as the sender. It’s very difficult to prove that she is the one that actually sent it.”

From the jail’s perspective, the objective is to stop the substances from getting into the jail, he said.

“Obviously we don’t want inmates having illegal narcotics in the jail,” Vian said. “It creates all kinds of problems. It’s a safety issue for the inmates.”

Vian said the dangers of fentanyl caught his attention in 2014 when a fentanyl overdose resulted in a Multnomah County Jail inmate’s death.

Another inmate had smuggled the fentanyl into the jail; it did not come in the mail.

“The thing is that only a few granules get you high,” Nash said.

Vian said there is a process to check for substances when people are arrested.

“We have a pat-down search when they’re initially arrested and, before they go in to housing, we do a strip search,” Vian said.

Deputies do not perform cavity searches. That requires a probable cause and search warrant. If a warrant is granted, an inmate would be transported to Albany General Hospital to have that performed.

“Those (warrants) are actually pretty difficult to get,” Vian said. “I have only seen maybe two in my career, that I can remember, where a judge actually gave us the warrant.”

Deputies have other methods they can use to keep narcotics out of the jail.

“I can think of one inmate off the top of my head that is just chronically, every time that person comes in he brings narcotics in with him in one shape or form,” Vian said. “Typically, what we’ll do with that particular inmate is we’ll “dry cell” him for a number of days. We put him in a cell where we can control the water so they can’t take it out of their body and flush it.”

The mail piece is just part of the problem, Vian said.

When Vian first started working at the jail, a couple of decades ago, marijuana was big, he said.

“It’s a nonsmoking facility so you can smell either tobacco or marijuana really easily,” Vian said. “That’s easy, but heroin gets smuggled in and again that’s done through an orifice. They’ll swallow a baggie of heroin or whatever and as it passes through their system, once they’re in here then they have it in their possession down in housing.”

Prescription pills are more popular now, he said.

Sometimes another inmate will snitch and sometimes it is apparent by an inmate’s behavior that he or she has taken a drug.

“We’ll have an inmate that just acts really goofy and they’ve been here for a couple of weeks,” Vian said. “They should be down and off of whatever they were on on the street. Suddenly they start acting very odd.”

The Linn County Jail is one of the first facilities in Oregon to have this type of scanner, said LCSO Sheriff Bruce Riley.

It will be helpful not only for the health and safety of inmates but of the staff as well.

“Do I think there’s a lot of drugs coming in? No, but it does happen and we have to be vigilant,” Vian said. “We have to do whatever we can to stop it from happening. If it saves a life, then it absolutely is worth it.”