The future is now at the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department. Iris scans, a technology once solely the domain of old science-fiction and spy movies, has put local law enforcement at the Monterey County jail on the cutting edge of identification.
Deputies began using the new technology last month. Sheriff Mike Kanalakis says the scans will significantly reduce mistakes, like the accidental release of Sebastian Sanchez in May 2005. Sanchez escaped the Monterey County jail by assuming the identity of another inmate who was scheduled to be released.
Yet Capt. Ray McLaughlin admits that the “fail-proof” iris scan technology will not correct mistakes like the clerical error which inadvertently deleted pending drug charges against 36-year-old Seaside resident Melvin Demetrius White and put him back on the streets on Jan. 31.
“That was an administrative error,” McLaughlin says. “[The iris scan] wouldn’t have been able to catch that. A clerk accidentally deleted the charges and he was released.”
The system, called “Offender ID,” works by cataloguing photographs of inmate’s eyeballs. In essence, the iris scan creates ocular “fingerprints” during an inmate’s booking and prior to his release, which can be digitally added to a database and instantly referenced. The Sheriff’s Office is the first agency in the nation to implement this new technology in its jail. No other law enforcement agency in Monterey County currently uses iris scans.
The Sheriff’s Office purchased two units with a $32,340 technology grant. The primary unit, housed at the Sheriff’s Office, is attached to a server and used for initial enrollment. A second mobile unit can be taken on the road to identify inmates. The hardware fits in the palm of the user’s hand and resembles a personal digital assistant with a lens on its backside and an LED screen and a keyboard on its front.
The process is as simple as taking a photograph. The administering officer holds the lens up to the inmate’s eye, trips the “shutter” and then uploads the image to the server.
“It’s quick and painless,” McLaughlin says. “We’re just taking a photograph of the eye and entering it into a database along with the inmate’s name, booking number, and other pertinent information.”
According to McLaughlin, all 1,100 current inmates of the jail have been scanned into the database. With 30 to 60 prisoners booked each day, human error was contributing to misidentification of the inmates. Sheriff’s deputies are finding other applications for the technology as well.
“Inmates can submit an order to the commissary and we deliver their order to the housing units,” McLaughlin says. “In the past, inmates would switch armbands and steal someone else’s commissary, which caused a lot of problems for us. With this mobile unit we can go out and instantly get a positive ID on the inmate.”
McLaughlin says he hopes the technology catches on with other agencies because it would facilitate communication among police departments, saving time and improving law enforcement.
“Now, because we don’t have access to a universal database, everything is funneled through Sacramento. It’s really time consuming,” McLaughlin says. “If, say, the Santa Cruz police department was also using this, they could do an iris scan at booking, cross-reference that with us to see if we ever housed the individual. If, for instance, they picked him up on petty theft but discovered we’d housed him on a robbery charge, they’d then have a better idea of how to deal with that individual.”
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