Post #195

900 words; 4 minutes to read

Audio summary by volunteer Averi Brailey

Maintaining links with family is vitally important in any effort to rehabilitate prisoners.  Yet visiting someone in prison is a daunting experience.  Visitors to a federal prison in Canada must first apply and be approved by the Correctional Service, a process that can take many weeks.  But that is the easy part.  Scheduling visits can be difficult to do, visiting hours are limited, and most prisons are not accessible by any public transit.

Once visitors arrives at a prison, they are subject to searches, including by dogs.  Just entering the physical space of a prison is a highly unpleasant experience – walls, barbed wire, bars, locks, clanging doors, guards – all combine to make visits challenging.

Ion scanners

One of the most troubling aspects of visits to Canadian prisons is the use of ions scanners, as detailed in a recent article by Brianna Garneau of York University and Sandra LeHalle of the University of Ottawa, part of a larger study on visits to prisons.  They have also set up a new bilingual website for and about loved ones of people in prison.

‘The testimonies of the family members we met reveal how prison policies and practices, and the use of the ion scanner in particular, are insensitive, unresponsive, and even toxic to their physical, emotional, and social needs.‘

Canadian prisons attempt to prevent any use of alcohol, cannabis, or illegal drugs.  Ion scanners were introduced nearly 20 years ago as a way to prevent entry of drugs or other forbidden substances.  They work much like the similar devices at airport security – guards may swab some article such as a watch or glasses or keys.  The swab is then placed in a machine that is supposed to detect illegal substances.

Many problems with scanners

The problem is that the ion scanners in prisons are notoriously inaccurate.  ‘Despite its nationwide endorsement by the Canadian government, current research on the uses of ion scanners demonstrates that there is a lack of evidence to support their efficiency as a drug prevention security measure. The literature highlights the misuse and unreliability of the ion scanner, as CSC staff are poorly trained, procedures are incorrectly followed, and false positives are frequently generated. Moreover, it is extremely common for scanners to be triggered and produce positive hits for prescription medications and other licit substances.

Despite these flaws, a negative result on an ion scan can lead to a visit being subject to restrictions, such as having a closed visit or to the visit being denied entirely.

The researchers found that the extent to which and ways in which ion scanners were used varied not only from one prison to another, but from one guard to another within the same prison. For example, guards would not be consistent in the measures they took to prevent themselves from contaminating a sample.  This leaves visitors vulnerable to false positives and unsure of what to expect or how to prepare.

Treating visitors badly

Beyond the immediate consequences, being subject to scanning is part of the larger process through which visitors are made to feel as if they are guilty of some kind of wrongdoing.  Instead of being welcomed they are treated as people who are suspicious.  This effect is worse because prisons do not necessarily scan staff when they enter the institution, focusing on family visitors instead.

The scanning is a psychologically disturbing experience, and leads many visitors to make extraordinary efforts to avoid a positive ion test. For example, some families told the researchers that they would take a clean set of clothes in a sealed plastic bag to be put on just before entering the prison.  They would wash things like eye glasses or keys over and over to try to remove anything that might set off the scanner.

As one put it  ‘I used to take a bath the night before, take a shower the day of, take the clothes that I’m going to be wearing straight out of the dryer and put them on, leave the house, and drive until you get there. You don’t stop. You don’t stop for a coffee, you don’t stop to go to the bathroom, you don’t stop for anything until you get there.’ 

As the researchers write, ‘The breadth and severity of the impacts on their ways of being are captured by the adaptations made in efforts to mitigate the risks of false positives. They modify their choice of clothes, hygiene routines, basic needs, and the organization of their days and interactions. These adaptations take place despite family members knowing that they cannot fully control the results of the machine, nor how the guards will interpret and sanction these results. Although not physically inside the confines of the prison, the prohibitions and control enforced in carceral spaces exude past the physical walls and seep into the daily lives of family members.’

Other problems in visiting

Scanning also complicates other challenges in visiting.  Most prisons are in out of the way places, so ‘…family members were acutely aware of the benefits that come with having their own car as opposed to public transportation, as it is an essential tool to avoid cross-contamination.’  Yet the families of prisoners often cannot afford private transportation.

Most importantly, ion scanning works against the goals of family support and rehabilitation.  ‘By creating obstacles for family visits, the current use and expansion of the ion scanner is a blunt contradiction to the penal system’s objective of reintegration.’

For more information

More on the project and other resources related to families and loved ones of the incarcerated is available in French and English at




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