U.S. buys iris scanners for prisons to prevent mistaken release of inmates

Published 1 March 2010

The U.S. government has allocated funds for prisons to purchase iris recognition scanning machines; the purpose is create fool-proof system which would prevent inmates from impersonating other inmates to gain early release

A Baltimore inmate bluffed his way out of prison, and the U.S. federal government believes he probably would not have tricked guards if they had eye-scanners such as those being installed at dozens of jails nationwide. AP reports that the federal government, therefore, is paying for the scanners as part of an effort to build a fool-proof 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,” including iris scanners, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Corrections, which oversees the facility that mistakenly released Raymond Taylor.

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

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

AP notes that eye-scanners have been used for years by a few jails, the U.S. 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,” 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 portion went toward training.


The sheriff’s association teamed with Plymouth, Massachusetts-based scanner company Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies and picked the agencies from more than 400 that were interested in installing scanners. In picking jails, officials looked to spread machines across the country and place them in spots with the technological know-how to use them.

The selected agencies ranged from big operations like the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department and Las Vegas metro police to small departments such as in Story County, Iowa, and Rutland County, Vermont.

The FBI has the fingerprints and criminal history of about sixty-five million people in its database. Sheriffs complain that a fingerprint search results can take hours or even days, but results are nearly instant with an iris scan. “Within 15 seconds you can get an identification back on who this is,” 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 scanning database could raise privacy concerns, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group in Washington. Rotenberg said prisons often are 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’s hard to foresee what those problems could be, he said.

AP notes that fingerprints 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.