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How to prevent inmate crime in correctional facilities

As criminals become more sophisticated, COs must stay one step ahead to ensure facilities remain safe and secure for inmates, correctional staff and the public


As increasing numbers of career criminals are incarcerated, correctional facilities – no matter how large or small – can become conduits for criminal activity.

The days of “book ’em and forget ’em” are over. Correctional facilities are no longer just institutions housing individuals until their court date or until they get sent to prison. Today’s inmates are not sitting idle in their cell waiting for trial. Correctional officers are evolving into law enforcement officers in their facilities and, as such, have to know both criminal and constitutional law, how to conduct investigations and how to testify in court.

When sophisticated criminals are incarcerated, their criminal activity often goes into overdrive. You can place the criminal activity into two categories:

This Wednesday, June 21, 2017 photo shows barbed wire surrounding the prison in Gatesville, Texas. (AP Photo/Jaime Dunaway)
This Wednesday, June 21, 2017 photo shows barbed wire surrounding the prison in Gatesville, Texas. (AP Photo/Jaime Dunaway)
  1. The individual in custody knows law enforcement has a good case against them and they will be going to prison. In this instance, the inmate focuses their criminal activity within the facility on gathering as much money as possible to take to prison.
  2. The individual in custody believes they have a chance to “beat” the case against them. In this instance, the inmate focuses their criminal activity from within the facility on witness tampering, and interfering with the investigation and the judicial proceedings.

Criminal activity taking place in correctional facilities today could be as simple as attempting to get drugs into the jail or as serious as setting up murders. Here are some examples of the criminal activities of inmates:

  • Drug smuggling in and out of the facility;
  • Hits on inmates in custody and individuals on the streets;
  • Gathering information on drug stash houses, then setting up home invasion robberies;
  • Collecting taxes on drug sales in the facility and on the streets;
  • Prison and street gang activity, such as recruitment and taxing other inmates for protection;
  • Fraudulent schemes;
  • Interfering with investigations and the courts; 
  • Witness tampering/intimidation;
  • Evidence tampering;
  • Working on false alibis/ getting individuals to give false statements hoping to confuse law enforcement and ultimately the jury;
  • Intimidating others into taking the fall for their crimes, mainly female companions.

How correctional officers can prevent criminal activity

For the most part correctional officers have not been utilized as a resource to solve crimes or prevent them. You often hear misconceptions like:

  • “It is not the job of corrections to solve crimes.”
  • “Corrections is only tasked with housing inmates until they are either sentenced or released from our custody by the courts.”
  • “Correctional facilities don’t have budgets that allow for dedicated investigative staff.”
  • “It is law enforcement’s job to handle these types of situations.” 

However, I have started to see these attitudes change in recent years.

Corrections certainly can do all of the above and should do much more than that. As correctional officials, we are tasked with ensuring public safety regardless of where the risk may exist, in or out of our facility. If we have the ability and knowledge to act, we have a duty to do so.

Security services unit works to prevent inmate crime

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department Corrections Bureau houses an average of 2,000 inmates daily. When criminal activity was identified in our facility in the mid-1990s, Pima County Sheriff gave the Corrections Bureau an edict stating, “The Pima County Jail will not be a Conduit for Criminal Activity placing our community at risk.” We then instituted the Security Services Section in our facility.

At its inception, this unit consisted of two corrections sergeants and a part-time commissioned jail detective. Today the unit consists of one corrections lieutenant, one corrections sergeant, a commissioned jail detective, two corrections officers and three civilian employees we refer to as public safety support specialists.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department Corrections Bureaus Security Services Section combats criminal activity in our facility by:

  • Monitoring and recording phone conversations;
  • Monitoring inmates’ non privileged mail;
  • Monitoring and recording inmates’ non privileged visitation;
  • Monitoring and documenting inmates’ criminal activities and their associates ;
  • Monitoring and documenting gang activities;
  • Conducting investigations regarding criminal activities in and around the facility;
  • Compiling Intelligence on gangs and criminal activities in and outside of the facility.

Get the information to the people who can use it

The courts have held that correctional officials may gather evidence against an inmate and are justified as reasonably related to legitimate penological goals, which include not only maintaining security, but also investigating and solving crimes.

Regardless of the size of your facility, crimes are being committed or attempted even as you read this article. Obviously, the resources you can or should dedicate to this problem will be based on the size of your facility or the size of your inmate population. Whether a unit is created or a single individual is dedicated to combat criminal activity in your facility, it is important to have policy and or post orders governing the position. This demonstrates that the unit or officer is operating within the normal course of their assigned duties at your facility.   

Defense attorneys will pay attention to your crime-fighting activities

Once tasked with fighting crime in your facility you will soon find, as I did, the more you charge these individuals and testify in court against them that the defense attorneys in your area will become unwitting allies for preventing crime and curbing gang activities in your facility.

When defense attorneys come to see their clients, they will start warning them not to engage in criminal activity or bring any attention to themselves while in your facility. Many defense attorneys have told me they give warnings to their clients, as stated by one attorney “Do not do anything to make Lt. Stewart or his staff pay attention to you. If you do, do not come crying to me later, asking me to fix it.”

By taking these proactive steps toward stopping criminal activity in your facility, you increase safety and security for the public, staff and inmates, which is the ultimate goal of any correctional professional.

This information is solely intended for training and educational purposes and shall not be considered as legal advice. If you decide to use any concepts from this material you should consult your department’s legal counsel to determine how the laws of your jurisdiction affect the application of this information to your individual department.

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