jails

Correction Board Seeks Probe Into ‘Misuse’ of Rikers Body Scanners

The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

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For years, city Department of Correction officials said they could reduce violence behind bars if only state lawmakers allowed them to use airport-like body scanners to search for hidden weapons on inmates and visitors.

Jail supervisors promised they’d train officers to make sure detainees would not be harmed by repeated radiation exposure from the body scanners, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation into law in 2018.

But on Tuesday, a jail oversight board recommended “an immediate investigation into misuse” of the six devices — which also screen for drugs and other contraband — citing “risk of radiation exposure” due to a lack of staff training.

The 56-page report from the Board of Correction called for a swift corrective action plan, noting possible health hazards “to staff and people in custody and the potential for misinterpretation in scans.”

Rules Bypassed

The full-body scanning devices went into use last July. All told, the Department of Correction conducted 11,212 body scans from July 15 through Nov. 30, according to the report. In 45 instances, someone either had a positive scan with nothing found or refused to be scanned.

Those people were then put into a solitary holding cell under “separation status” — for an average of 30 hours each — while jail officials waited to recover any contraband, which was rarely found, the report said.

But in doing so, correction officers bypassed rules that normally apply to solitary confinement in city jails, including rules that forbid the isolation of people with serious mental illness or medical conditions.

A body scanner used at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Photo: New York City Board of Correction

“Additional efforts are needed to protect” that population, who are not supposed to be placed into solitary, the report said.

In August, THE CITY highlighted concerns raised by the Legal Aid Society over separation status, which it described as an “end run around crucial protections” to limit the use of solitary.

Legal Aid has urged the board to deny the Correction Department the ability to put those who don’t pass a body scan into isolation while they’re monitored.

“Separation status is solitary confinement by another name,” the group said in a statement.

Under Board of Correction rules, people who are being put in solitary must first be examined by a medical staffer to determine whether they have serious medical or mental health issues. The board review found that 39% of those put into separation status after a body scan were “receiving ongoing mental health care.”

Jail officials say they have launched an investigation into the board’s findings, adding that the department “has taken immediate steps to ensure only trained staff are operating scanners,” the board review said.

Pregnant Pause

In June, THE CITY detailed fears of a top city health official that the B-Scan 16HR-DV body scanners also would be used on pregnant women. The official noted that it is impossible to quickly tell if any given woman is pregnant — and invasive to find out.

“There is no way to rule out pregnancy, nor should we mandate pregnancy tests,” said Dr. Patsy Yang, senior vice president for Correctional Health Services.

The Correction Department now says it does not plan to install any scanners at the female lockup, the Rose M. Singer Center, according to the board report.

But the department’s “directive does not exclude scanning women,” the board said.

Overall, contraband was only recovered in five of the 45 times people were placed in solitary after a positive or refused scan, according to the board report.

“The Department has not shared a plan for analyzing this data to assess and evaluate the impact of scanners as a contraband recovery and violence reduction tool,” the report said.

Concerns Over Radiation

The battle over the scanners dates back to March 2012, when then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration bought six of the devices, at a cost of $1 million each. The scanners were set aside after some state lawmakers and inmate advocates worried inmates could be subject to unsafe levels of radiation during repeated checks.

Jail officials insist the devices — which state law still forbids from using on department staff — are safe. Each scan is similar to an external radiation dose during three minutes of a flight.

Meanwhile, six city correction officers and 15 others were charged Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court with conspiring to accept bribes and smuggle contraband into Rikers.

Prosecutors said the ring had been under investigation since early 2019, and involved bringing smartphones, marijuana and other drugs into the jail.

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