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.
|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.
|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
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
"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.