I visited my brother Peter in Canadian prisons around Ontario and Quebec for nearly 32 years, and in most of these prisons, I had to go through various security checks. These checks included the Metal Detector, Sniffer Dogs, and the Ion Scanner.
The Ion Scanner (Ion Mobility Spectrometer (IMS)) is a device used to “ring off” on people who are carrying in trace amounts of illegal drugs into the prison. I noticed them starting to use it in the mid-1990s. The guard asks you to give him an item from your person, like your glasses, belt, a piece of ID, or one of your shoes. He or she will wipe the item with a cloth and feed that cloth into a machine, the Scanner. If a threshold is exceeded (“ringing off”), the screen will give some indication. They don’t show you the screen so I don’t know what that indication looks like. In the case that you ring off, it is assumed that you are trying to carry into the prison some of whatever drug registered. You are given a closed visit (glass between you and the prisoner) or sent away, and an entry is made in the prisoner’s file.
Over the years, we slowly learned how to not ring off on the Ion Scanner. These are our best practices:
- Wash the clothes you will wear in the hot cycle. Wash them again without any soap. Soap and cosmetics can cause the Scanner to ring off.
- Make an alcohol/ water solution and dump into it your keys, paper money, change, ID, glasses, and anything else you are taking into the prison. Use the solution to wipe down your belt and shoes.
- It’s best if you don’t stop for gas or coffee on the way to the prison because door handles, changing money, etc. might be carrying these trace amounts of contraband. That being said, we usually stopped for coffee anyway, and then used alcohol wipes to clean our hands and any new money, and that seemed to work OK.
- Of course, don’t bring drugs to the prison.
Even though I took all of these precautions, I would feel a sense of dread when I approached the prison, and again when it was time to be tested by the Ion Scanner. I had reason to feel that way as I have rung off twice. Once for Cannabis at Collins Bay in the late 1990s and once, they didn’t tell me what for, at Bath Institution in May of this year (2015), both times when going into a trailer visit. Our father rang off once for Ecstasy, and my brother Rob has rung off three times, once for something called Procaine.
This is a link to the CSC’s page on the Ion Scanner, in which they talk about “false positives” and other drawbacks. From that page:
“Overall, this review indicates that IMS units are useful in detecting most drugs. However, these devices are often oversensitive and are limited in their ability to detect certain forms of drugs. Additional research is needed to address gaps in our knowledge such as determining the impact of IMS units on inmate drug use and institutional behaviour, drug smuggling by inmates, staff and visitors, etc. Furthermore, additional well-controlled research is needed to support the limited research currently available on the reliability of IMS devices within a correctional context.”
I don’t think the Ion Scanner is a fair or reasonable system because many people (probably you) are carrying these trace amounts of Cocaine, Heroin, and other illegal drugs. Paper money comes into contact with the drugs in the trade and then goes into general circulation, where you pick it up at a 7/11 or MacDonalds.
Another reason the system is not fair is that the guards, administrators, and other support staff, are never checked when moving through the prison lobby. I think that if the CSC was serious about the use of the Ion Scanner as a means to stop the entry of contraband into the prisons, everybody would be tested the same way. The fact that they are not, in my opinion, reduces the Ion Scanner to an intimidation or harassment tactic against visitors.