Rikers Body Scanners Risk Jailed New Yorkers’ Health

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Machines that were once prohibited from being used in New York jails were rolled out at the infamous Rikers Island in July 2019. In a quietly released new report, the jail’s oversight body is calling for “urgent” fixes for several failures in the implementation of body scanners to search people for contraband including drugs—failures that have risked the health of incarcerated New Yorkers.

Rikers corrections staff untrained in radiation safety have been operating body scanners that emit ionizing radiation—a technology that is banned for non-medical uses in the European Union and that has been linked to cancer, the Board of Corrections reported in January. The lapse in training is “creating a risk of radiation exposure to staff and people in custody,” the report stated.

Additionally, many staff members lacked operators training, increasing the risk of “false negatives”— which the report described as “undermin[ing] the Department’s ability to use scanners effectively as a tool to identify contraband”—as well as “false positives,” potentially leading “to unnecessary placement in the Department’s most restrictive housing area.”

In one Rikers facility in November, around a third of all scans were conducted by untrained staff; 40 percent of them were being supervised by a Captain who did not have the proper safety and operator training.

When a scan runs positive for contraband, the incarcerated person is placed in a Separation Status unit. In this segregated area, folks have faced “more restrictive than necessary” conditions. A few people who were separated in this way missed court dates as a result of their Separation Status. The unit restricted access to legal material and recreation until the Board of Corrections mandated corrective policies.

Many of the people (40 percent) being placed into the unit were receiving care for their mental health. Six people missed appointments due to their placement. Other impediments to medical care were seen in a case where an individual missed multiple insulin doses as a result of being under Separation Status.

Rikers already has a spotty record when it comes to ensuring incarcerated people’s access to care. The majority of missed mental health appointments (64 percent) were due to corrections officers failing to “produce,” or escort” an incarcerated patient, as Filter reported in August 2019.

Image of the results of a full body scanner by the Transportation Security Administration via Wikimedia Commons

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