Government & Politics

Bras no longer trip metal detector in Jackson County jail. Were the settings changed?

Sheriff Darryl Forté says the settings on the Jackson County jail metal detector haven’t been changed. But women defense attorneys and other professionals say they again are able to visit clients in the jail without their underwire bras triggering the machine.

Jail officials also won’t say what has changed, exactly one week after Forté and jail administrator Diana Turner insisted at a public meeting that they would make no special accommodations for women who couldn’t pass through the machine without setting off the alarm.

That left them with a choice of either removing their bras before going through the detector, wearing different underwear or speaking to their clients over the phone, separated by a window.

Some said the month-old policy was sexist, denied inmates proper legal representation and was grounds for a costly legal challenge.

But lawyer Molly Hastings told The Star this week that she and at least five other women she knows of have passed through security without setting off the machine, despite wearing the same bras that set off alarms before.

“It’s not that the women have gotten new bras,” said Hastings, who spoke out at last week’s courthouse protest over the corrections department’s application of a new security screening process. “After all the hubbub last week, I think they probably adjusted it (the metal detector) without saying they adjusted it.”

Likewise, the head of the local Missouri State Public Defender’s office, Ruth Petsch, said she has gotten no complaints since late last week about the metal detectors from attorneys and others who work for her and visit the jail often.

“I only get emails when they don’t get in,” Petsch said.

One of the last documented instances of a bra triggering the machine was on Friday, when a jail employee was put on administrative leave after her bra set off the machine, according to a union representative.

So could it be that last week’s seemingly intractable problem has been dialed down by resetting the metal detector? One local expert suspects that was the problem all along. The machine was picking up on the small amount of metal in women’s bras either because it was set too high on purpose, or because it was set incorrectly.

“It is user adjustable,” said Charles Gay, owner of Shawnee-based Dragnet Enterprises, which sells metal detectors and other security equipment. “Somebody messed with it.”

Metal detectors can tell whether someone carrying a knife has it hidden in their back pocket or a shoulder pad because the machines divide the human body into zones, and the settings on those zones can be individually calibrated to detect all metal or lesser amounts so they aren’t tripped by a foil gum wrapper or underwire bra.

Gay suspects that if the jail’s machine had been set as high in its measurement of metal in the groin area as it was in the torso, “zippers would be setting it off and men would have been taking their pants off to get in.”

The correction department’s metal detector at its main security checkpoint has 60 zones (20 vertical and three across) and is made by a company called CEIA. Public records show that on Oct. 16, 2017, the county legislature approved spending $7,500 to buy two HI-PE Plus enhanced walk-through multi-zone metal detectors.

One was put in service on May 16 when Forté and Turner implemented a new screening system for all employees and others entering the area where the jail’s nearly 800 inmates are kept. The aim was to keep weapons, cell phones and other contraband out of the facility.

According to CEIA’s marketing material, one big selling point of its machines is that they can tell the difference between a gun and a pair of eyeglasses, an ice pick and an underwire bra..

“The HI-PE Plus Multi-Zone Metal Detector provides accurate detection of all metals, high level of discrimination of non-threat items, full compliance with the latest Security Standards and exceptional immunity to external interferences,” the company’s website says.

CEIA spokeswoman Marilyn Thaxton declined to discuss the machine’s capabilities with a reporter, citing “security reasons.”

Voters put the sheriff in charge of the jail as of Jan. 1. Sheriff’s Office spokesman Raashid Brown did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Turner also did not comment on whether the settings on the metal detector had been changed in response to the lawyers’ concerns.

In a text, Forté simply wrote “no” when asked whether the attorneys’ suspicions were correct. He did not respond to a followup question.

He and Turner have been adamant since the controversy erupted two weeks ago that their screening policy was fair and would not change. Everyone who enters the secure area of the jail would have to get through the metal detector without setting it off.

Forté repeated his position at a meeting with county legislators last week shortly after the courthouse protest. Critics asked for compromise, such as wanding and pat-down searches for women who failed to clear the walk-through metal detector.

Turner has said she opposes wanding and pat downs, which could lead to other complaints. But at legislators’ insistence, Forté agreed to meet with critics next week.

So far no date has been set, defense lawyer Laurie Snell said.

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
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