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Body scanner aims to stem contraband flow into Cumberland County jail
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Body scanner aims to stem contraband flow into Cumberland County jail

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BRIDGETON — Visitors and staff members who walk into the Cumberland County jail have to empty their pockets, put their belongings in a black plastic bin for search, step through a metal detector and stand with arms and feet spread as an officer waves a metal-detecting wand around the outline of their body.

It’s a time-consuming but necessary process for the jail, which has a problem with contraband — most egregiously a 2015 incident in which a loaded .25-caliber automatic handgun was found in the anal cavity of a 21-year-old city man.

Newly arrived inmates or those returning from work duty or court will soon be searched using a $138,000 body scanner that will allow officers to see weapons, drugs and other banned material that inmates may attempt to smuggle into the facility on or in their body. The jail is the third in the state, joining Camden and Monmouth counties, with a body scanner.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Warden Richard Smith said. “The more we try to do to shut things down, the more people try to devise other ways to get things in.”

Since Smith became warden in February 2017, the jail has received two K-9 narcotics-finding police dogs and has put together a search team of five officers tasked with finding contraband smuggled into the jail, he said.

Kevin Milbourne, investigator with the county Department of Corrections, said the team has completed about 480 searches since October, about 53 per month.

It has recovered suboxone, marijuana, rolled cigarettes, lighters, razor blades, pills, nail clippers, needles, toothbrushes with razor blades attached, tobacco, balloons that contained different substances, tattoo materials, a cigar torch, currency, cocaine and strips of metal, Milbourne said.

“We’re finding less and less, but still it gets in,” Milbourne said.

“The average person doesn’t realize the difficulty in what we’re trying to do to prevent contraband from entering the facility,” Smith said. “If individuals know that they’re going to be arrested, they will hide things in body cavities. They will swallow balloons.”

The balloons hold drugs, Smith said, and inmates will either take the drugs themselves or share them with others in the jail, “which ultimately causes us a major problem, because then it could cause someone’s death.”

PBA Local 231 union President Victor Bermudez said a recent rash of overdoses has made the body scanner a priority, but it’s a tool the union, which represents officers at the jail, has requested since the gun was recovered in 2015.

Since March 2017, officers have revived 26 inmates with the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, Smith said.

“Slowly but surely, we’re starting to get the resources, but it’s time-consuming and we’re not sure where the priority is,” Bermudez said. “We’re just looking for the safety and well-being of the officers.”

Smith said county freeholders approved the purchase under the last warden, Robert Balicki, but Smith and Deputy Warden Charles Warren selected the body scanner after visiting a police expo in Atlantic City last June.

“I know they’re expensive, but they’re well worth the money,” Balicki said, adding the scanners save lives and provide an environment in which addicts are more likely to get clean.

Bermudez, who is currently suspended without pay pending termination, said that in his 21 years on the job, he’s never seen so many overdoses.

The body scanner was delivered to the jail in May, Smith said, and should be operational within the next two weeks. In addition to setup and training, the jail has to order special devices officers will wear to measure radiation exposure, he added, which is equal to that of dental X-rays.

During a demonstration, an officer stood sideways on a conveyor belt, his hands to his sides, and the belt began to move through the machine. Within seconds, an image of the officer popped up on the screen in an office next to the hulking floor-to-ceiling body scanner.

Sgt. Shane Zanes pointed out the handcuffs hanging from the officer’s belt belt, the pens in his breast pocket and even the zippers on his jacket. He said the body scanner is another tool that will help corrections officers.

“We got to keep it fresh, we got to keep it new,” Smith said. “Because, like I said, all the work that we’re doing to keep it out, they’re trying to think of ways to bring it in. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. It’s life in a jail.”

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