Why inmates should never be allowed to watch an officer search their area

With the officer’s focus on the search, an inmate can easily attack the officer when contraband is close to being found, or has been discovered

By Anthony Gangi

A recent episode of Tier Talk gave light to a concern that needs to be addressed immediately, “Inmates watching officers conduct searches.” Our number one priority in corrections is the safe and secured running of our respected facility. An inmate supervising an officer conducting a search violates our ability to maintain that priority. 

“An inmate’s presence during a search violates the safety of the officer and exposes the officer’s method of search.  I think policies allowing the presence of inmates, no matter how well intentioned, strike a blow at the ability to secure an institution.” said Russell Hamilton, Retired Sergeant, California Department of Corrections

Dave Wakefield, Retired Deputy Secretary for Corrections said, “Besides the obvious safety reasons, it gives the inmates “Intel” into the methods and tactics officers use to find contraband.” 

Hamilton added, “When an inmate watches a search he can identify deficiencies in the technique or routine. The presence of the inmate may also pressure the staff to feel they must rush the search.”

Trade Secrets
During a search, officers may follow a trained routine (based on experience and departmental training) that is now being exposed to the inmate. The inmate now has an advantage and by knowing the route the officer takes, the inmate can adjust their hiding spots for any form of contraband (shanks, drugs, etc.) the inmate has attained. In essence, the inmate will circumvent the defined route and find an alternate path. The officer’s effort to find contraband (shanks, drugs, etc.) is now fruitless and their ability to prevent becomes limited.

Let’s not forget “officer vulnerability.” In order to be effective, when an officer is conducting a search, all their effort and focus is dedicated to the search. With the officer’s attention devoted to the search, the inmate has free reign to do as they please.

Keith Hellwig, Captain for the Department of Corrections, believes that officers, when conducting a search, can easily get so involved in their performance they lose tract of the danger the inmate presents. “Officers often get ‘tunnel vision’ while searching an inmate’s cell. They’re concentrating on finding contraband or weapons, and if an inmate is present, they may lose focus of the threat.”

As for being a threat, an inmate has many reasons to protect that contraband (they may fear getting in trouble, it may hold personal value of them, they may be holding it for someone else, etc.) and they may do what they feel is necessary to protect the contraband from being seized. With the officer’s focus on the search, the inmate can easily attack the officer when contraband is close to being found, or has been discovered. 

“In my opinion having inmates present during a cell search is dangerous. The Dangers that lurk in these cells are weapons, sharps and sometimes bodily fluids that can be used against the officer during the search. A good and professional cell search can be conducted without the inmate present,” states Gary York, author of Corruption Behind Bars and Retired Prison Inspector.

I would like to end this article with a quote by Gary Cornelius, Retired Deputy Sheriff Lieutenant, Trainer and Author.
“Keep them (inmates) out of the area. It is JAIL — prison. The less they know, observe and hear, the safer staff will be. If they (inmates) are inconvenienced by having their “houses” searched, too bad.” 

I agree Gary. Safety of staff is paramount. If they are not safe, then the job can not be done. Protect staff so they can protect the inmates. When doing a search, staff should be able to focus their attention on the search and not have the extra worry that comes with leaving the inmate out in the open, unrestrained, watching the officer’s every move.  

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