Testing Airport Scanners in Prisons

One NIJ-sponsored pilot program that enjoyed success used a millimeter wave imaging system to scan visitors at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. The imaging system can look through clothing to detect weapons, cell phones, and nonmetallic objects. Currently used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to scan passengers at an increasing number of airports, the system was tested and evaluated at Graterford, a maximum-security facility that houses about 3,100 inmates outside Philadelphia.

A person steps into a “portal,” which looks like a booth. The system beams radio energy in the millimeter wave spectrum from antennas that rotate around the person. The energy is reflected, and scanners produce an image of the body and any objects hidden beneath the clothing. The system, called the SafeView, is manufactured by L-3 Communications. According to the manufacturer, the system produces less radiation than a cell phone transmission. Millimeter wave systems have been controversial because they present images of bodies so well—similar to nude photographs—that some people consider the systems intrusive. The TSA has taken various measures, such as immediately deleting the images, to win acceptance. This technology has much the same capabilities and limitations as an alternative approach—backscatter X-ray systems—used for the same purpose.

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