Full body scanners using X-ray radiation could be introduced in Northern Ireland's prisons as a UK first, it has been revealed.
The measure has to be approved by the Department of Energy and Climate Change amid concern it could pose health issues if prisoners are scanned too often.
It may provide a way of checking inmates on entering or leaving jail without strip searching, which prompted a no-wash protest by dissident republicans at Maghaberry high-security prison in Co Antrim.
He could not set a timescale on the technology's introduction. It uses ionising radiation to take an image of the person's body to detect any contraband which he is carrying. In the past, prison managers in Northern Ireland have had problems controlling the supply of drugs and other illicit material brought in from outside.
Last month a prisoner at Maghaberry was discovered wearing a watch with an inbuilt camera and recording equipment. Mr Ford said efforts were being made to introduce the new scanning technology as quickly as possible while protecting the safety of inmates and staff.
"There has been a considerable speeding up of the process, both in terms of running the pilots in the other two institutions and in preparing the paperwork to look at transmission X-rays," he said. "That is an indication of good faith on the part of the Prison Service."
Mr Ford told the Northern Ireland Assembly some prisoners in separated wings of Maghaberry had ended their dirty protests and work was commencing to repair the part of the prison affected. The number still not co-operating is in single figures. Dissident republicans are held in a separate area at Maghaberry and have been protesting for months over strip searching - using a tactic which preceded the polarising IRA hunger strikes in the 1980s and which has prompted intervention from nationalist politicians including Sinn Fein.
The prison service has insisted it has not entered any deal with those who stopped their demonstration recently. The service has been trialling a different form of airport-style security at two other prisons in Northern Ireland, Magilligan in Co Londonderry and Hydebank Wood in Belfast. Prison officers were left reeling earlier this month when dissident republicans shot dead their colleague David Black as he drove to work at Maghaberry.
Mr Ford has led efforts to reform the service amid the ongoing threat after a string of critical reports about suicides in cells, poor mental health care and an over-reliance on physical security dating from the years of the conflict. He has proposed breaking Maghaberry into three mini-prisons, separating inmates on remand awaiting trial from low to medium risk prisoners and those needing the highest security.