Miami-Dade’s jail system will soon begin using airport-style body scanners to search inmates for contraband — a measure precipitated by the recent deaths of three inmates who overdosed on smuggled-in drugs.
Corrections officers at the county’s three jails this month began receiving training on how to scan incoming inmates for cellphones, drugs and weapons hidden on their bodies.
Soon, every inmate will be logged in by using his or her thumbprint. Then, they’ll stand on a mechanical platform that slides through the space-age looking scanner. A few feet away at a kiosk, corrections officers will instantly get a digital image of the inmate’s body, which can be instantly scrutinized for contraband.
The machines are already in use in many other jails across the country and are a much-needed upgrade for the eighth largest jail system in the nation, one with aging facilities and a long history of scandals and dysfunction. The three SOTER RS machines cost $423,750 combined. The corrections department will also pay more than $10,000 annually in warranty and software licensing fees.
“We’re somewhat behind the times with regards to safety equipment and equipment for staff,” said Miami-Dade Corrections Director Daniel Junior, who was named to the job full time in February, adding: “We’re still searching people by hand.”
The purchase of the three machines is part of Junior’s broader push to modernize the Miami-Dade corrections department, which operates much as it did decades ago.
Incoming inmates are still processed through an obsolete computer system. Each inmate’s biographical and jail history is still put on a handwritten card.
The county is working on a long-overdue switch to an “automated offender management” system — which counterparts in Broward implemented way back in 1999. Miami-Dade hopes to make the switch in about a year.
Miami-Dade is also purchasing nearly 300 Taser stun guns for supervisors, to help quell inevitable fights between inmates, plus body cameras to document the uses of force. The Broward Sheriff’s Office has used both for several years.
The Miami-Dade jail system has long been plagued by shoddy conditions, low levels of staffing and the limitations of its facilities.
In the mid-1970s, inmates filed suit over conditions at the county’s main jail, which eventually led a federal judge to declare that inhumane conditions violated the constitutional rights of inmates. The lawsuit was settled, only after 25 years and some improvements.
Problems have persisted. Twice, in 2004 and 2008, Miami-Dade grand juries blasted deplorable conditions at county jails.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice finished a three-year probe, saying the department engaged in a “pattern and practice of constitutional violation” of the rights of inmates.
There have been some improvements.
The main jail’s ninth-floor psychiatric ward, long criticized as an inhumane warehouse for mentally ill defendants, has been shut down and better facilities opened at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. Because of improved pretrial release programs and fewer arrests overall, the jail population has dropped drastically in recent years — today, it hovers around 4,200 per day, down from over 7,600 one decade ago.
Six years later, however, the department remains under federal supervision.
The urgency for the body scanners increased in December when inmates Juan Salgado, 24, and Jesus Perdomo, 25, died after collapsing inside the Pretrial Detention Center, commonly known as the Dade County Jail. Two others inmates were hospitalized and survived.
Autopsies revealed that Salgado and Perdomo died of overdoses from fentanyl, the synthetic heroin-like drug that has ravaged South Florida and the country. Although no one has been arrested in their deaths, investigators believe they got the drugs from a fellow inmate who brought the drugs with him from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, according to police records.
In a separate incident, Angel Rodriguez, 52, died on Feb. 20 after he was found collapsed in his cell at TGK. An autopsy revealed he too died of a fentanyl overdose.
Smuggled-in drugs, cellphones and weapons are a problem in every jail and prison in the United States — and Miami-Dade’s inmates have been adept at getting contraband.
Most notoriously, members of the reputed Terrorist Boyz gang, who have been housed in single-person cells for the past decade, have been caught repeatedly with cellphones over the years. (Oddly enough, state law doesn’t count cellphones found in jails as contraband, so they haven’t faced criminal charges for them.)
Another inmate charged with murder, Quirri Gantt, was caught several years ago uploading selfies from jail to a Facebook page, evidence that was later used against him at trial. He is now serving a 20-year state prison sentence for murder.
“It’s a department store. You can get anything you want,” one recent former inmate told the Miami Herald. He asked that his name not be used because he remains a police informant. “Marijuana, cocaine, iPads.”
The former inmate said it is common knowledge that cellphones and other goods can be purchased through corrections officers.
“The products come in from the employee parking lot. You need to start scanning the officers,” he said.
The jail system considered doing just that, but it turns out, there is a Florida Department of Health administrative rule barring scanners for use on anyone other than detainees at jail facilities. A jail in Jacksonville got in trouble after a news station revealed it was using scanners on visitors.
“It defeats the purpose if you can’t use body scanners on staff and visitors — those are two major sources of contraband in jails,” said former longtime corrections internal-affairs investigator Rene Vila, who is now retired.
Miami-Dade corrections internal-affairs investigators have made efforts to go after crooked corrections officers. In 2012, authorities began looking at a group of corrections officers after a high number of cellphones were found inside the main jail. They wound up arresting Lavar Lewis, an officer known as the “Love Doctor,” on allegations that he was a main source of contraband cellphones — code-named “pop tarts” in the jail.
But jail smuggling cases are notoriously difficult to make — and the key eyewitness, Lewis’ former girlfriend who served as an intermediary for the inmates, stopped cooperating with prosecutors. The charges of unlawful compensation and introduction of contraband into a jail facility were dropped.
Lewis was ultimately fired over the misconduct.
For now, the corrections department is hoping internal investigations and the body scanners will help curb contraband.
“MDCR is committed to maintaining the integrity of the department and is dedicated to upholding the trust of the community, and we will continue to conduct thorough, fair and objective investigations,” said Juan Diasgranados, the department spokesman. “We truly believe that integrating these scanners into our operation will provide us with the best available tools in order to find and eliminate contraband in our facilities.”