J-Nae Kettoman doesn't care whether she looks strange, scrubbing in like a surgeon with Dial soap brought from home, then snapping on latex gloves before lining up to enter the visiting room at State Correctional Institution Phoenix.

It's just part of the regimen that Kettoman, a Dauphin County resident who works for the commonwealth as a clerk-typist, has devised to avoid setting off the prison's ion mobility spectrometer — a device that analyzes swabs of every visitor's hands and pockets to detect trace levels of narcotics.

Some scour their photo IDs and car keys with soap and water in the restroom off the prison lobby. Others keep a pristine set of clothing for prison visits in a Ziploc baggie. One woman skips her medication on days she goes to visit, because she's been told it could set off the ion scanner.

"We just were thinking: How can we get around touching anything else once we've washed our hands?" Kettoman, whose husband is serving 10 to 20 years, said of the ritual that she and a friend developed after her second alarm earlier this year. A third strike would lead to a six-month suspension of her visiting privileges. "It's just nerve-racking."

Visitors complain that the extremely sensitive machines are prone to false positives — either from incidental contamination (studies have found cocaine traces on up to 90 percent of U.S. currency) or from other substances that may trigger positive readings.

The Department of Corrections says the machines, in use at each of the state's 25 prisons, function as intended. Now, as part of a $15 million initiative to keep drugs out of prisons, the department is doubling down on this technology, purchasing two new ion scanners for each prison at a cost of $1.86 million. The new scanners allow the department to install updates to keep up with new variations on synthetic cannabinoids.

The department, which began the switch to its next-generation Rapiscan Itemiser 3E scanners in July 2017, says the matter is urgent. It has published intercepted letters that articulate the extreme measures visitors undertake to smuggle in drugs, including hiding them in body cavities.

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The scanners — which work by vaporizing a sample, positively charging it, and measuring its molecular weight and shape as it drifts through the machine — are scientifically sound, said Jennifer Verkouteren, a scientist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Surface and Trace Chemical Analysis Group, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Where they're imperfect, she said, is in distinguishing traces of illegal drugs from the thousands of other compounds that people could come in contact with in their soaps, hand creams, perfumes, and medications.

"It's hard to make that technology proof against the universe of compounds people can put on themselves, and that might then get introduced as an environmental contaminant into the instrument," Verkouteren said.

Amy Worden, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, agreed that ion scanners are known to test positive for certain prescription skin creams and for such medications as oxycodone, but denied that other household substances can trigger them. Worden did not immediately respond to requests for information on how many visitors scanned positive and how many were suspended as a result.

"The scanners do not alarm on a false positive, " she said. "They alarm to a programmed known substance. If that substance is detected, the machine will alarm. The department sets threshold levels of substances to rule out any incidental contact with substances that an individual may have had during normal daily routines."

Yet Stacey Hannem, a professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, who studies the use of ion scanners in prisons, said researchers have found that various detergents, or even poppy seeds, could trigger ion scans for opiates.

"I've heard stories of guys inside who will tell their family, 'It's too stressful, don't come,' because their mom's or wife's rings off the ion scanner, and it can be scary and traumatic," she said.

That's unfortunate, she added, because visits are a proven predictor of success, linked in one analysis with a 13 percent decline in recidivism.

"If we want people to do well on the outside," she said, "we need them to be able to maintain those relationships."

Introduced into prisons in the 1990s, ion scanners have ignited controversy around the country and internationally.

The federal Bureau of Prisons temporarily suspended use of the scanners after complaints of false positives a decade ago, but reinstated them. Visitors and prison staff in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland have sued prisons over what they said were inaccurate readings. California, which recently ran a three-year pilot of ion scanners, has for now abandoned the technology in its visiting rooms.

In Canada, Parliament has been reckoning with the scanners after the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported that "these machines can be oversensitive and unreliable, and often produce what are known as 'false-positive' reports."

Pennsylvania first deployed the scanners in the mid-1990s, and almost immediately drew criticism.

"The first day, I got a call from an 87-year-old grandmother from South Carolina who tested positive for ecstasy. She was like, 'I don't even know what ecstasy is,'" said Angus Love of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. He said the Corrections Department resolved concerns by recalibrating its machines to be less sensitive and reducing penalties for positive scans.

But those who repeatedly test positive feel differently.

Rebecca Mitchell, a 73-year-old official visitor for the Pennsylvania Prison Society at several state prisons in central Pennsylvania, said that after a couple of positive scans, she decided to stop taking her antidepressant medications on days she visits. She had a note from her doctor indicating that the drugs could set off the machines.

"But one of the prisons would not honor my doctor's letter," she said. "It was embarrassing and frustrating, because the prisoners don't get the visit, and the prisoners [may then be] monitored for drugs." Worden said a paper prescription, not just a doctor's note, is required.

In Pennsylvania, a visitor who sets off the scanner once may wash hands and try again. Those who fail twice are typically allowed to visit through a glass barrier. But any subsequent alarm can trigger a suspension, ranging from 180 days (on a third failure) to "indefinitely" (on the fifth).

Now, visitors are worried that the next generation of scanners could bring a fresh set of problems. Several regular visitors to Graterford Prison and its replacement, SCI Phoenix, said their positive tests started only after a new ion scanner was introduced last year.

A housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, one of the state prisons where visitors have said they are plagued by ion scanners’ false positives.
AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma
A housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, one of the state prisons where visitors have said they are plagued by ion scanners’ false positives.

Kettoman, who'd never had a positive scan in eight years, tested positive for ketamine, a prescription sedative that is also abused as a party drug. "I was offered the opportunity to speak to a lieutenant, but declined. I was already embarrassed and upset, trying to keep from crying in front of the packed lobby full of visitors," she said. On a subsequent visit, she said, she tested positive for benzodiazepine, a prescription tranquilizer. She went to wash her hands and then — to her disbelief — tested positive for an entirely different drug.

That's when she started with the gloves and a special laundry regimen, eliminating scented detergents and fabric softener that she fears could trigger the scanners.

She doesn't want to end up in the same position as Dana Cooper, an Emmaus store manager who hasn't been able to visit her husband at SCI Phoenix in two months because she had three positive scans in the last year.

"I don't drink. I don't do drugs. I don't smoke," said Cooper, who had never previously set off the machine. "People don't realize the effect the ion scanner has on visitors, inmate families, marriages."

Maurice Everett, a lifer at Phoenix, said his brother, who's been visiting without fail every other week for 23 years, was also turned away twice in the last year. He feels as if a cloud of suspicion has been cast over his family.

The same goes for Antoinette Haren, who had a series of positive scans at the same prison after seven years visiting her husband without any incidents. After the first reading, she scrubbed her hands, then slathered them with sanitizer.

"But the guards were saying the ion scanner will pick it up as a drug," she said. "So I'm like, 'Let me get this straight: You have a machine that will pick up hand sanitizer as a drug? And you know of this?'"

Now, she's cut out her perfume and makeup. She brings her own soap to wash her hands, ID, and the key to her locker. She tries to avoid touching anything, even a doorknob, after washing her hands.

Even so, just recently the scanner at Phoenix went off again. Her visits are now suspended for 180 days.