BANGOR, Maine — While an inmate at Penobscot County Jail once walked out the door without doing his time due to an error at booking, a newly installed iris scan recognition system will eliminate that possibility from happening in the future.
The man was arrested for drunk driving but released because a jail employee thought he was someone else, Sheriff Glenn Ross said Thursday.
“It has happened right here in our jail,” Ross said of the premature release.
“That would not happen with the iris scan,” he said of the new biometric iris recognition system that takes a high-resolution picture of a person’s iris, the colored part of the eye that is unique to each individual.
An iris scan captures more than 250 characteristics and is far more effective than fingerprints that are based on 70 to 75 characteristics, he said. Also, fingerprints can change over time and require an expert to verify, whereas the iris doesn’t change, and the computer does the analysis, Ross said.
Improper jail releases happen because two people have the same or similar names, two people look alike, an employee makes an error or inmates create a “ruse” to escape, such as the October escape of two murderers in Florida, the sheriff said.
The new iris scan technology and software was installed at four county jails in Maine this year, and state Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who is from Massachusetts where iris scans are common, has “worked with us to bring it into the Maine State Prison system,” Ross said.
“They are just getting started with it,” the sheriff said, adding the program is not used in the juvenile justice system.
The iris scanning unit, which is a thick digital camera with blinking lights, is mounted in the booking room inside Penobscot County Jail. Inmates coming into the jail or leaving are seated at the counter about a foot away from the device, which instantly uploads an image of the eyes into the computer for jail officials.
Unlike retina scans, which use infrared light to examine blood vessels within an eye, an iris scan only takes an external picture.
Ross brought the first iris scanning equipment to the region in 2006, when he applied to the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation for a $25,000 grant to purchase one unit as part of an identification and location database program aimed at missing children and adults with memory problems.
Shortly afterward, the Galen Cole Family Foundation provided another $125,000 to purchase 13 other units that were sent to police departments all over the state.
Thousands of Maine children and adults with dementia or diseases like Alzheimer’s have been scanned by the machines and their eye photographs automatically uploaded to a national database sponsored by the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the Center for Missing Adults. The site is secure and only another picture of the person’s eye can open the record, which contains the child’s or adult’s name and emergency contact information, the sheriff said.
BI2 Technologies of Plymouth, Mass., the same company that supplied the first iris scan machines for Maine, has developed the software used at the Penobscot County Jail.
“It not only identifies the individual, but it’s also used in over 500 facilities across the nation,” Ross said. “If one person is brought into Arizona under one name and is brought to us under another, it knows.
“That component is very, very attractive,” the sheriff said.
The state saved a lot of money on the most recent iris scanners because the license for the program was issued to the Maine Department of Corrections, eliminating the need for each jail or prison to purchase its own license, and the information is stored in an online cloud. The unit costs have dropped to about $10,000, and maintenance is only a couple thousand annually, making them “very, very affordable,” Ross said.
The other county jails in the state without the iris scanners have shown interest in installing them, but the “pending fiscal crisis” have postponed their implementation, he said. The costs, which fall under computer equipment for Penobscot County, are offset by the reduced liability, Ross said.
Another major benefit for Maine is that law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities in the state have “different record management systems that do not communicate with each other,” Ross said. “[The iris scan program] puts the information in a cloud so everybody can access it.”
The next phase of the iris scan system will add safety alerts to an individual’s file, which will help educate others in law enforcement who are dealing with the same inmate, the sheriff said.
The iris scan is now just one part of the booking process, which still includes a photograph and fingerprints, which are sent to the State Bureau of Identification and the FBI.
The best part of the new technology is the accuracy, the sheriff said.
“I’ve seen improper releases across the country and seen it here,” Ross said. “Another option is facial recognition, but it doesn’t give you a positive identification. We needed something perfect — something that was 100 percent accurate.”
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this story.