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Offenders who might manage to hide in a vehicle in an attempt to escape a TDCJ unit can be caught in a heartbeat. And at certain units, it would be their own heartbeats that give them away.

man inspecting under hood of truck
CO V GIlberto Fuentes attaches heartbeat monitor wires to a TDCJ 18 Wheeler at the back gate of the Wynne Unit.
Electronic heartbeat detection devices are now standing guard at seven Texas prisons. The first went online at Huntsville’s Ellis Unit in 1997 and six more – priced at more than $40,000 each - were installed during the past year at maximum-security units in Amarillo, Beeville, Palestine, Huntsville, Livingston, and Rosharon. Jay Lowe, director of Security Operations for the Institutional Division, said the computerized detectors work off sophisticated software and four brass-coated sensors that can be selectively placed at points inside or outside a vehicle. He likens the detection unit to a "supped up electric stethoscope."

"It’s a computer-based system that uses cable-connected remote sensors to detect the presence of heart beats that may be concealed in vehicles or anything else you want to search," Lowe said. "What these do is search for a particular frequency that’s associated with human heart beats, and within that frequency, for the requisite number of beats per minute."

The technology behind the ultra-sensitive detectors was developed in the early 1990s in response to the federal government’s fear that terrorists might use vehicles to sneak into nuclear power plants and defense installations. The resulting Advanced Vehicle Interrogation and Notification System, or AVIAN, was pioneered at Michigan State University and first used at the Oakridge National Laboratory, a nuclear facility in Tennessee.

"What they were trying to do was catch people trying to sneak into a facility," Lowe said. "We just turned the technology around to try to detect people trying to get out of a facility."

Several other states, including Arkansas and Oregon, have adopted the detectors for prison use. The devices are also utilized in such countries as England and Russia, Lowe said.

Man reading monitor readout
COV Willam Hill checks the readout of a heartbeat monitor connected to a TDCJ Eighteen wheeler at the back gate of the Wynne Unit.
All vehicles coming and going through the back gates of the seven designated TDCJ units are scanned by the heartbeat detector. Lowe said the electronic search takes mere seconds once the sensors are put in place and the cable-connected computer is touch activated.

"It takes more time to place the sensors and turn the machine on than it takes to check these things," he said. "Once you activate the computer, it will tell you if there’s a heartbeat present, and, if so, which sensor it’s closest to."

Perhaps attesting to the detector’s effectiveness as a deterrent, Lowe said he knows of no instance of the device having discovered someone attempting to escape one of the seven Texas units by vehicle. He stressed that the detectors supplement rather than replace officer hand searches.

"We continue to do all the physical searches of vehicles," he said. "This is just another tool that we can use in the performance of our duties."

Contingent on available funding and future spending priorities, Lowe would like to see more of the heartbeat detectors purchased.

"This is technology that we believe works and I feel comfortable that we will probably pursue more of them at some point in the future," he said.