Arlington County Sheriff’s Office Initiates Biometric Monitoring of Inmates

Arlington County Sheriff’s Office Initiates Biometric Monitoring of Inmates

The Arlington County Sheriff’s Department has initiated the Custody Project, a pilot to electronically monitor the jail inmates “because no one wants a loss of life.” Sheriff Jose Quiroz says the project will begin with the most vulnerable inmates in the 12 cells of the medical unit. 

The hardware is expected to arrive around the end of August, and the project will cost $51,000. Quiroz explains each of the inmates in the program will be given a thick wrist strap, which is more rugged than an Apple watch, to withstand someone trying to rip it off. The sensors will capture oxygen, pulse and heart rate as well as movement. “A lot of what we do is to make sure a person is alive.”

Signals are sent to the I-pads of the deputy sheriff and nurse supervisor. If everything is ok, the signal is green; if it is yellow, it means they need to check. If it is red, it is an emergency.

Quiroz says what they do now is 15 minute rounds. “If you’ve seen the size of the medical unit, it’s a lot of walking. He adds, “It takes 2-3 minutes to walk between cells. We’re trying to capture that time. Minutes and seconds count.” Inmates have chronic heart disease, diabetes or may be in withdrawal. He says if an inmate is in withdrawal or has a preexisting condition, the nurse checks every 4 hours — unlocks the door, asks how they are doing and maybe takes vitals. He adds that “emergencies aren’t planned and we don’t want to be caught off guard.” Quiroz explains they wanted an innovative device.

The motivation for this pilot project came as a result of seven deaths in the Arlington County jail in the last seven years with the last one in February 2022. Quiroz says two of these were suicides with one inmate cutting his wrists with a tamperproof razor that the inmate took apart. “The Sheriff’s office employee was terminated who didn’t check properly.” The other suicide was a person who had gone on furlough and ingested drugs before he came back to jail. “Now we urine screen everyone coming into the jail and use a body scanner.” 

Quiroz says these deaths also really have an impact on the staff. Quiroz says the Arlington number compares to other jurisdictions with D.C. having seven deaths last year, Fairfax three, and there has been one already this year in Alexandria.

He explains the other five deaths in Arlington were in the medical unit where inmates were sick, with one on withdrawal and others with chronic health conditions. “They live in the jail. It is our job to take care of them while they are here. The new system makes me feel better.” 

Quiroz adds that the current system also causes PTSD on the staff who are all public servants working 12.5 hour shifts. “This is a 24/7 operation, and the new system could also help ease the burden on the staff.” Amy Meehan, PIO for the Department says, “It’s a stressful job; we don’t want anyone to burn out. 

Quiroz adds, “We want high quality staff taking care of the vulnerable but staffing shortages are an issue.” He says that pay parity is an issue with police making $10,000 more a year on average than a sheriff employee, and D.C. has a hiring bonus of $25,000. They could go there.”

This is a one-year pilot project and when it is finished, the results will be assessed and a decision made whether it is worth the dollars and whether to implement it in other areas of the jail. Quiroz explains, “We have a severe mental health issue in the jail with 253 of 343 inmates in the jail with mental health issues.” 

Suzanne Somerville, Clinical Bureau Services Chief for Jail Based Mental Health Team, says the number of mental health cases didn’t increase during Covid but the acuity of the symptoms increased dramatically. The number of individual inmates in the jail was 1,044 in 2019, 940 in 2020, 959 in 2021 and 976 in 2022. “The increase in behavioral health needs and the jail were definitely impacted by this.”

Quiroz says when they started looking at improvements in the current operation of the jail they brought in the company who toured the Arlington jail facility. “We are high rise so the makeup is different than many jails. We told them what we’re looking for, and they met with us and the medical team. Then they gave us a demonstration of a working system close to us in Charles County, Md. “My staff toured their facility.”

Quiroz is a 21-year-employee of the Sheriff’s Department, named acting sheriff succeeding Sheriff Beth Arthur at the end of 2022. Arthur announced her retirement after 22 years in the job as the first female Sheriff of Arlington County. 

Quiroz is running for Sheriff in the 2023 fall election and won the Democratic primary in June. 

The Custody Protect initiative is part of his focus on staff wellness and development and on running a progressive jail.