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Sullivan jail turns to tech for double-check of inmate IDs

Rain Smith • Oct 18, 2018 at 3:49 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — A re-evaluation of existing tools at the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office will now ensure the correct inmates are released, according to jail officials, and not cost taxpayers any extra money.

Over the past few weeks, corrections officers have scanned more than 900 prisoners’ thumbprints via a computer kiosk. Along with primary checks — such as personal information and mugshots — staff will run prisoners through the biometric process again for release, double-checking that the right person is being freed from the facility.

“It’s just another check and balance to make sure we are releasing John Smith — the right John Smith,” said Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell.

The kiosks, provided through corrections industry contractor VendEngine, had already been used at the jail for commissary purposes. Inmates would deposit money into the system and could make withdrawals for purchases while incarcerated using a PIN.

Since Jeff Cassidy took the reins of the SCSO in September, an assessment of the entire department has been underway. One goal was improved technology at the jail, prompted by the mistaken release of a murder suspect a few weeks earlier.

Biometric technology was a logical step. According to SCSO Capt. Melissa Copas, a company already providing video visitation services could implement a fingerprint scan process, with the cost being about $12,000.

However, an examination of other options discovered biometric services available through the commissary funds vendor. SCSO personnel say they aren’t aware of anywhere else in the state using the fingerprint scan for booking through VendEngine, and the company agreed to do it in Sullivan County free of charge.

“It is actually not costing us anything through a tool we already use,” said Copas. “This is a product we had available for free that we could go ahead and implement, so that’s what we chose to do.”

On Aug. 14, Kingsport murder suspect Corey Moore, 28, reportedly obtained personal information about a cellmate who was about to be released. He then used that information to trick corrections officers into releasing him. Moore was captured several hours later.

A different suspect used a similar scheme last month at the Kingsport jail and was apprehended about 24 hours later.

“We can’t prove it, but we’re pretty sure that they conspired to do this. Everybody was in on it,” said Carswell of the incident in Blountville. “They’re always trying to work some angle. (This) gives us another step so they can’t be misidentified.”

Each week, about 160 people are booked in and out of the Sullivan County jail, which was built for a capacity of 629 inmates. On Thursday morning, 859 men and women were behind bars.

“They’ve got 24/7 to try and think of ways to get out and how to get drugs in,” said Cassidy. “And we’re understaffed and overpopulated. … We’re trying our best with the little bit we have and the amount of inmates we have.”

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