Jefferson County Sheriff's deputy Rudy Aguilar holds the key to freedom for county jail inmates.
After almost seven years on the job, the day shift releasing deputy at the downtown Birmingham facility is comfortable with that role. But that wasn't always the case.
''It was nerve-racking at first,'' Aguilar said. ''You let the wrong person go, you get time off.''
Jail workers are now using biometric technology to measure and record dozens of facial ''landmarks.'' Much like fingerprint and genetic material, no two faces are alike. It means officials can take a booking photograph and quickly compare it against a database and be near certain of identification.
Authorities started using the system to help prevent mistaken releases, but say it's grown beyond expectations.
A database of nearly 500,000 photographs of those who have been in and out of the county jail has helped police identify suspects where investigators have had a picture but no name, and helped nab criminals with outstanding warrants.
''It's the greatest thing for jails since ice cream,'' said Deputy Chief Paul Costa, jail commander. ''I don't know of any large facility that could do without it.''
Sheriff Mike Hale got $500,000 in funding for the project from a U.S. Bureau of Justice assistance grant with the help of Alabama's congressional and senate delegation, particularly U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills.
The system has now been running at the county jails in Bessemer and Birmingham for more than a year.
''My challenge is to handle and protect neighborhoods to make sure there's no escapes, and no mistaken releases,'' Hale said. ''That's what this facial recognition technology does for us. It's a safety net.''
The process begins when an inmate is brought into the jail's pre-booking area and photographed with a digital camera. The photo is stored and the image is matched against the thousands of photos already in the county database. Authorities immediately know whether an inmate has been in the system before, even if under an alias.
Once the inmate is formally booked into the jail and dressed in the jail jumpsuit, another photograph is taken. That set of photographs includes front and side views of the face, as well as identifying marks such as scars and tattoos. A third photo is taken upon release.
''Does it match up with the other two photographs?'' Hale said. ''Since we've had it, it's worked flawlessly.''
Hale said there are about 30,000 inmates processed into the two county jails annually, and 17 other cities also send their booking photographs to the county and have access to the database for comparison.
''They're able to do things like make lineups or see if he has another identity anywhere in the system,'' Hale said.
The sheriff said detectives can also freeze frames of surveillance video, from a bank robbery for example, and compare that photograph to try to identify a suspect.
Inmates aren't the only people photographed. Every visitor to the jail is also photographed and the pictures are run through the database and compared against about 5,000 criminals with outstanding warrants. Officers have arrested five visitors who had outstanding warrants, authorities said.
''If it discourages somebody that has a warrant on them from coming down here, fine,'' Hale said. ''If they want to take a chance to come down here, we've got the equipment that we'll find out who they are and we'll catch them and put them in jail.''
If a visitor's photograph draws a match with information in the data base, it is noted and stored
in the computer. Those not already in the database don't go into the database. ''There's not an electronic footprint on innocent folks,'' Hale said.
Hale said he would like to eventually put the technology in patrol cars and at entry checkpoints at the county courthouse.
''I hope it brings some level of comfort to folks that we're running a pretty decent ship here,'' he said.