In split vote, Senate okays X-ray scanners for N.H. prisons, jails

  • A worker secures part of the scaffolding that is going up around the State House dome Friday as the repair project began this week. The scaffolding is scheduled to be up in the next three weeks and the 2.1 million project to fix the dome and add lighting is due to be completed in November. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 5/20/2016 12:51:40 AM

Citing a statewide drug problem, the Republican-led Senate agreed to spend almost $2 million equipping prisons and jails with full-body X-ray scanners despite concerns from Democrats and the corrections commissioner that the proposal hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.

The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who hasn’t said whether she will sign or veto it.

As New Hampshire battles an opioid crisis, lawmakers and prison officials are looking for new ways to clamp down on the presence of drugs behind bars.

Two state representatives brought forward legislation last month to put scanners in state prisons and jails that would screen staff, inmates and visitors in hopes of catching drugs and other contraband hidden in people’s clothing or within their bodies. The late proposal only had one public hearing.

Under the bill, six scanners would be installed in the three state prisons at a cost of $1.1 million. A new $740,000 grant program would help put scanners in the county jails. The legislation stipulates that the machines would only create images that “enable the detection of contraband,” but don’t display or record private body parts, similar to images produced by airport scanners.

The House has signed off on the bill, and the Senate did so Thursday in a 14-10 vote along party lines.

Republicans said the scanners are a step in the right direction to get drugs out of prisons. Roughly 85 percent of inmates who enter the state system have abused drugs or alcohol.

“We need to attack the heroin epidemic. This is one part of a comprehensive strategy to try and reduce drug use and abuse in the state of New Hampshire,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican. “It’s something we have to go forward with.”

But Democrats disagreed, and argued for House and Senate members to meet in a committee of conference to review the proposal before sending it to Hassan. Several Senate Democrats questioned the effectiveness of the technology, whether training would be needed to launch the program and why the Department of Justice would administer the county jail grant program instead of the Department of Corrections.

“This is sophisticated technology,” said Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat.

The body scanners could help curb drug smuggling, Department of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn said, but many issues need to be resolved before they can be installed. The department hasn’t fully researched how the machines would comply with medical privacy requirements and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, he said.

“We’re not really knowledgeable about this technology and all the legal issues that go along with it,” said Wrenn, who asked for the proposal be studied instead of immediately passed. “This is a lot of money. I just want to make sure . . . that we’re getting the best product that we can and that we’re not placing restrictions on the technology that is going to be problematic for us moving forward.”

The Strafford County jail in Dover began leasing a full-body scanner last year, and uses it to screen all inmates except pregnant women, according to Chris Brackett, captain of security and operations. It’s the only jail or prison in the state that currently uses a scanner to catch contraband.

The Department of Corrections doesn’t track how many drugs are confiscated in the three state prisons: the men’s facilities in Berlin and Concord, and the women’s prison in Goffstown. But within the last year, prison officials wrote 18 citations to Concord inmates, 13 to Berlin inmates and six to Goffstown inmates for being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, records show. Most drugs and contraband are brought in by visitors, department officials say. The department has considered applying for a grant to get dogs that can locate contraband.

The body scanner bill will likely come to Hassan’s desk in the coming days.

“Preventing illicit substances from entering state prisons is important to combating the heroin and opioid crisis,” said Hassan spokesman William Hinkle in a statement. “She will review the measure closely as it makes its way to her desk.”

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