The 25 laws of contraband: The psychology of contraband

Some prisoners may hide a few forbidden items on their person in preparation for the standard pat search


By Joe Bouchard

Editor's note: This is the third part of a series of five excerpts from CorrectionsOne contributor Joe Bouchard’s book "Wake Up and Smell the Contraband: A Guide to Improving Prison Safety."

There are a wide range of principles that apply to all categories of contraband. This installment focuses around the psychology of contraband and also the "sacrifice" contraband move you may or may not have encountered yet.

Click here for fundamentals 6 through 10. Numbers 11 through 15 are below.

There is nothing new under the sun, but there are many ingenious variations on existing themes. For example, a book is a clever way to move bootleg. But there are many ways to use a book for that purpose. There is the binding, the pocket part, between pages adhered by soap or other sticky agents, and the hollowed part. There is also information inside the book that can instruct facilitators. There can be small, loose notes of instruction concealed in any of the above areas of a book. Prisoners may also use and underlined words or letters to transmit instructions.

Exchanges and trafficking, when traced fully, are good indicators of dynamics, an association chart, of sorts. Documentation of the contraband trail may yield excellent discoveries of intelligence which may later buttress security. For example, it seems that a prisoner with no apparent connections or affiliations is untouchable. He appears to have no resources. In short, he looks like he lives in a vacuum. However, much would be explained if he is linked to a contraband delivery system. He may have been selected to move illicit good because he seems to fly under staff radar. There are no vacuums in prison.

Feigns and sacrifice contraband moves are sophisticated ways that contrabandits ensure the health and vitality of their personal empire. Some prisoners may hide a few forbidden items on their person in preparation for the standard pat search. The primary contraband, or the most valuable item, is concealed in a more elusive spot. Perhaps this is money, a weapon, or narcotics. But, it is always something of great worth in the prison community. The secondary, or sacrifice, contraband is positioned in an obvious place. It could be a single cigarette, a few pieces of candy, or a betting slip. During the shakedown, the prisoner will make it easy for staff to discover the token good. Although the sacrifice contraband is always something of little relative worth, the inmate playing the sacrifice contraband game may act as though it is a great loss.

Some staff are placated by the ruses performed with feigns and sacrifice contraband moves. Prisoners who are adept at psychology often react to what they deem is staff person's expectations. But that is like looking at a person's expression and looking away quickly. Sometimes we don't catch the fleeting expression as a person digests our presence and turns away. Just like a handshake is a quick assessment of how someone is doing, gauging an expression can help in guessing expectations.

To prisoners, contraband equals comfort. Contraband is power. It allows those who possess it to engage in bartering exercises. It is useful to consider the obvious: offenders have less control over their environment than they had in society. Those who trade in illicit goods can arrange for a variety of services, including assaults on others.

For more information on this, please consult the following, chapter 2 in particular. Bouchard, Joseph. Wake up and smell the contraband: A Guide to Improving Prison Safety. (2nd edition) Horsham, PA: LRP Publications, 2005. Click here to buy the book.

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