behind bars

Pregnant Pause: Jail Officials Seek Safe Path for Body Scanners

The Rose Singer Center on Rikers Island, where women are housed.
The Rose Singer Center on Rikers Island, where women are housed. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

For years, city jail officials have contended there’s a basic solution to the rise in violence behind bars: body scans of visitors and inmates.

But now the de Blasio administration is trying to come up with a safe way to use the devices, amid concerns that pregnant women could be harmed by the low levels of radiation emitted by the 20 new body scanners on tap for city jails.

The problem is: How will correction officers know if a woman is pregnant?

Dr. Patsy Yang, senior vice president for Correctional Health Services, urged her Correction Department counterparts to excuse all women in custody from the scans.

“There is no way to rule out pregnancy, nor should we mandate pregnancy tests,” she said during a state Public Health and Health Planning Council meeting last Thursday.

Jail officials initially said they planned to use the B-Scan 16HR-DV body scanners on all New York City inmates, except pregnant women.

“Women will not be exempt,” said Correction Department spokesperson Latima Johnnson last Thursday.

After being asked about Yang’s comments, Johnson appeared to backtrack the next day.

The department is “still in the process of developing the policy…to ensure the safety of people in custody and their health,” she said Friday.

Scanner Debate Reignites

The body scanner debate has been raging since 2012 when the Bloomberg administration bought six of the devices to be used in jails, at a cost of $1 million each.

The scanners were mothballed over safety concerns raised by some state lawmakers worried inmates could be subject to unsafe levels of radiation after repeated checks. State law only allows for the use of “ionizing radiation” by a licensed medical professional for a medical purpose.

A sign warns visitors to Rikers Island about bringing contraband, as seen on Jan. 22, 2019.
A sign warns visitors to Rikers Island about bringing contraband, as seen on Jan. 22, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Last October, Gov. Cuomo signed a bill allowing the body scanners to be used in detention facilities, following years of lobbying from city jail officials and correction unions.

City jail officials agreed to buy “safer” scanners and to issue strict guidelines to make sure the devices aren’t overused by officers to punish inmates.

Those guidelines are still being hashed out eight months later.

Under the current proposal, adult inmates would not be exposed to more than 125 µSv (micro Sieverts) each year, a Correction Department spokesperson said. That’s the safe level according to the American National Standards Institute. Inmate bracelets with barcodes will track exposure levels.

“Each scan exposes the inmate to 0.25 µSv,” according to a department explainer. That’s similar to the external radiation dose during three minutes of a flight, according to jail officials. Put another way, 400 scans would equal the amount of radiation emitted during one chest x-ray,

The Correction Department has bought 12 of the planned 20 body scanners for $105,000 each from Smith’s Detection, records show.

The city Health Department’s Office of Radiation Health is reviewing the Correction Department’s application.

Installations Already Underway

Several of the new scanners are currently being installed in anticipation of Health Department approval, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Still, the Correction Department has not yet distributed a new written directive to officers on how the scanners will be employed.

The body scanners are not expected to be used on jail staff, according to multiple department insiders.

In 2014, the union representing jail officers vehemently opposed a new policy requiring its members to have their lunch bags X-rayed for drugs or knives before they enter jails.

Yet, inmate advocates have long argued that officers are the primary source of contraband.

In the past five years, 45 correction officers and other jail staff have been arrested by the city’s Department of Investigation. Also, DOI has rereferred more than a dozen staff for disciplinary action over the same  period, records show.