New York Times: Jails Hope Eye Scanners Can Provide Foolproof Identification System for Inmates

DES MOINES (AP) — A Baltimore inmate who bluffed his way out of prison last week probably would not have been able to trick guards if they had eye scanners like the ones being installed at dozens of jails nationwide.

The federal government is paying for the scanners as part of an effort to build a nearly foolproof identification system to put a stop to such escapes.

“After this occurrence, we will be studying whatever we can do to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,” said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland corrections department, which oversees the facility that mistakenly released the Baltimore inmate, Raymond Taylor.

Mr. Taylor was serving three life sentences for shooting his former girlfriend and her two teenage daughters. He impersonated his cellmate on Thursday and was released. He was arrested the following day in West Virginia.

The eye-scanning program is intended to put an end to such deception. The Justice Department has given a $500,000 grant to the National Sheriff’s Association, which is doling out the money in $10,000 grants to about 45 agencies across the country. That will create a national database that better identifies, registers and tracks inmates, said Fred Wilson, who is leading the association’s effort.

Eye scanners have been used for years by a few jails, the military, some European airports and private companies, but they remain rare, primarily because of the cost.

“While this technology has been around generally for 10 to 15 years, it just hasn’t gotten into the mainstream yet,” Mr. Wilson said. “You have to remember that the average law enforcement agency is very small, and they can’t afford this stuff.”

Most of the $10,000 grants paid for the equipment, and a small part went toward training.

The sheriff’s association teamed with Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies, a scanner company based in Plymouth, Mass., and selected agencies nationwide from more than 400 that had expressed interest. In choosing jails, officials looked to spread machines across the country and put them in spots with the technological experience to use them.

The chosen agencies ranged from big operations like the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to small departments in Story County, Iowa, and Rutland County, Vt.

Officers at the Story County Jail will start using their scanner soon. “If we can get every state involved in this,” Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said, “that would be tremendous, just like the fingerprint databases.” For law enforcement, speed is the biggest advantage that eye scanning has over fingerprints.

The F.B.I. has the fingerprints and criminal history of about 65 million people in its database. Sheriffs complain that fingerprint search results can take hours or even days, but results with an iris scan are nearly instant.

“Within 15 seconds you can get an identification back on who this is,” Sheriff Fitzgerald said.

Scanning inmates is quick, too. A person simply looks into a camera, which uses infrared light to illuminate and map the iris. Each iris is unique and contains about six times more features than a fingerprint.

Despite its advantages, creating an iris database could raise privacy concerns, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group in Washington.

Mr. Rotenberg said prisons were often testing grounds for new technologies later used in the general public. What might make sense behind barbed wire could be seen as intrusive in the free world, and it is hard to foresee what those problems could be, he said.

Fingerprints, though, will remain an important tool for agencies because scans have limitations. One is that only the living can use the system because irises immediately break down when people die, and fingerprints will remain essential for investigators as evidence at crime scenes, said Patricia Lawton, senior development officer at Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies.

One person sold on the technology is Vincent Guarini, the warden at the Lancaster County Prison in Pennsylvania.

In 1996, the prison became the first in the nation to install an iris scanner after, like in Maryland, an inmate claimed to be his cellmate and was released. He, too, was later caught.

“From then on, I said we would never, ever do this again,” Mr. Guarini said. “And I want some kind of mechanism, technology, device, whatever and take the human element out of it.”

Published: February 27, 2010