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Drug Testing System Screens Prison Workers in Maryland

By Ivan Penn
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE

The hand-held vacuum looks like a Dust Buster, but it collects more than just lint. Call it the drug buster.

With this new drug-detection system, called the Ionscan 400, Maryland is searching for the most minute traces of illegal narcotics on people who visit or work at the state's prisons. Officials say it's more accurate than a drug-sniffing dog - and never gets tired or needs food or exercise.

"The message we're sending is if you're a bad person and trying to get drugs into our prisons, we're going to catch you," said William W. Sondervan, an assistant commissioner for the state Division of Correction, during a recent demonstration at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup.

"We think that most of our problems are with visitors, but once in a while we have a bad apple on staff," said Sondervan, adding that the drug system will be an investigative tool and not the only basis for arrests or discipline against employees.

The state began using one of the $55,000 scanners - made by Barringer Instruments Inc. of New Providence, N.J. - in April, and officials plan to ask the state for money to purchase three more. The units would rotate among the state's 25 institutions.

Use of the drug-detection system led to the arrest of a suspected drug dealer charged with carrying drug paraphernalia in his car when he tried to visit an inmate at the Jessup prison complex.

And the prison system's internal affairs unit is investigating an officer who had a high reading for the presence of cocaine when the 300 officers at the Maryland House of Correction Annex were tested after a melee there in May. No charges or personnel actions have been taken in that case.

Union officials said they are reviewing the technology and discussing it with management.

"We don't know the specifics of this new drug-detection system yet," said Diane King, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents Maryland's correctional officers.

Corrections officials say the Ionscan will help Maryland remain one of the nation's leaders in the fight to keep drugs out of prisons. Only 3.9 percent of the inmates randomly tested in Maryland's prison system have tested positive for drug use, compared with the national average of 8.9 percent, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The scanner identifies the narcotics after it has been given a sample of the drugs from what is called a "calibrator stick" - something like a tube of lipstick that has particles of the drugs to be searched for.

The machine doesn't report quantity; it simply signals that a person has had contact with a drug.