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Contraband Article

Joe Bouchard Contraband and communications
with Joe Bouchard

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Understanding the triple threat to contraband empires

Tips for gaining leverage over inmate contraband lords

As long as there are prisons, there will be contraband — as long as there is contraband, there will be those who use it to gain power and build deadly contraband empires. However, these contraband lords and their empires are not without their weaknesses. In fact, there are three major threats to contraband empires: competing prisoners, corrupt staff, and professional staff. As correctional professionals, understanding the structure and motives of these three groups can help us to gain leverage over contraband lords and foster safety for all in correctional facilities.

What Goes Up Must Come Down
No single prisoner can retain the title of “contraband king” perpetually, but that should not be an invitation to fall into complacency. There is a danger for staff and prisoners alike when the forces of illicit trade shift. Stakes are especially high when a newcomer — desperate to gain power associated with trade — forcefully makes a move on the existing contraband king. To some inmates, the prize of prison commerce id so compelling that misconduct reports and even additional charges on their sentences are not dissuading factors.

It would be useful if corrections professionals could predict the next hazard to institutional safety that will arise to fill the shoes of the dethroned current lord of illicit trade. But to do so we need some additional information. We need to study the motivations, methods, movements, and economic structures of illicit goods. This allows us to theorize about where power will shift. As previously stated, established contraband empires are challenged by three groups:

• Prisoners new to the business that aspire to obtain a slice of the illicit trade pie
• Corrupt staff looking to earn some illegal money
• Honest staff who locate contraband to derail trade for the sake of safety

Let’s briefly look at each group.

Prisoner Competition
Inmates are provided with few amenities and, in turn, many seek means to remain as comfortable as possible.

One way prisoners alleviate the daily pressures of incarceration is by hiring protection; often arranged on the back of contraband trade. Another way to gain comfort is to dethrone a legend. If an aspiring contrabandist can take business away from an established trader, their reputation rises.

When considering some of the motives, it is easy to understand why a new contrabandist would be eager to get into the trading game.

Corrupt Staff
Many in corrections don’t like to discuss corrupted staff members. They are an embarrassment and a source of public scorn. However, it is a niche that exists and is not likely to go away.

When staff members take a wrong turn in their vocation, they become the accomplices of a group of prisoners known as Inside Traders. In this scheme, corrupt staffers obtain goods from outside the walls and facilitate sales with prisoner liaisons inside while key inmates call the shots from behind the scene. Inside Traders may convince staff that they are in control. To complicate the ruse, more than one staff agent in an institution may be on the prisoner payroll, often oblivious to those acting in the same capacity.

Of course, if corrupted staffers choose (or can be convinced) to inform their superiors of their indiscretions, the empire of the Inside Trader will collapse. This is not inconceivable, for staffers that have strayed from professionalism have a very strong motive to topple the enterprise; mitigating the consequences of their misconduct.

Professional Staff
Corrections professionals of all classifications maintain a safe environment for all through even and fair enforcement of the rules. Contraband control is a basic building block of this.

This is potentially the most powerful of the three threats to contraband lords because, for good staff, the motive to derail trade is based on the desire for a better work place and the goal of overall safety. This is in contrast to the motives of competing prisoners and corrupt staffers whose motivation is centered on self preservation and avarice.

Despite the constant presence of illicit trade, alert staff members hold all of the cards in the search. As a collective, we have the tools to effectively cripple the trade caravans of bootleg in prison.

• We can search with virtual impunity (assuming we avoid the realm of harassment)
• We have a potentially strong system of intelligence gathering
• We have staff members that rotate among two or three shift and return refreshed — the search can potentially be conducted in some form for 24 hours a day
• Potentially, we have a supremely united communications network
• We have the ability to concentrate efforts in special areas
• We can tap the expertise of experience in the field

Contraband control is a never-ending proposition — with profit to be had, the lure will always be present. Prisoners new to the system will test it as though it has never been tested. Older prisoners will patiently wait until classic modes have been forgotten.

Knowing the three primary threats to contraband empires will, obviously, not guarantee total safety for any facility. However, placing this knowledge in the hands of perceptive staff can help foster a safer environment and offer intelligent predictions of the source of potential problems.

About the author

Joe Bouchard writes and presents on many corrections topics. He is a Librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for The Corrections Professional, Editor of The Correctional Trainer and MCA Today, and an instructor of Corrections for Gogebic Community College. Bouchard also has online writing clips at You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321. He is also the author of the book "Icebreakers III," the third in IACTP's series of training exercises books. Order now.

These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections. These are not necessarily the opinions of the Department. The MDOC is not responsible for the content or accuracy.

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