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5 key areas to inspect for contraband

Inmates and their associates can be quite crafty when concealing illicit items


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By Melissa Mann for CorrectionsOne BrandFocus

Contraband, especially drugs and weapons, poses a major safety and security concern for correctional officers and administrators.

Detection technology can help you catch contraband before it enters your facility. For example, X-ray or trace detection tools can identify Suboxone strips hidden under stamps, stickers or tape on incoming mail. (photo/Morguefile)
Detection technology can help you catch contraband before it enters your facility. For example, X-ray or trace detection tools can identify Suboxone strips hidden under stamps, stickers or tape on incoming mail. (photo/Morguefile)

The term contraband refers to any prohibited and illegal item kept within a monitored area of any secure facility. Cellphones, homemade weapons, pornography, drugs, alcohol and tobacco are all considered contraband items, and possession is typically a violation of state or local laws.

Effective contraband detection is an ongoing challenge for correctional institutions. Any of the items listed above are likely to be found inside any of the jails and prisons across the United States despite the best efforts of correctional staff to keep them out. Below are five key focus areas for thorough contraband searches.

1.       Mail Inspection

One of the most common avenues for incoming contraband, especially drugs, is the mail. During my career as a correctional officer I spent countless hours sifting through and scanning incoming mail pieces and parcels on the night shift.

As inmates, their families, friends and associates became more sophisticated over the years, what was once a simple manual inspection of perfume-drenched mail turned into an extensive, time-consuming ordeal that required tools such as a magnifying glass, gloves, a facemask and tweezers.

Incoming greeting cards, photos or children’s crayon drawings soaked in liquid Suboxone, methamphetamine and other drugs are easily missed without careful examination. Suboxone strips can be hidden under stickers or tape. Other reported smuggling efforts include pages of a Bible stained with heroin, greeting cards smeared with paste made from crushed opioids and letters dipped in the synthetic marijuana known as K2 or “spice.”

Officers may miss these illicit substances during a manual inspection, but screening can be more effective with drug dogs or technology such as an X-ray machine or trace detection system. These methods can help corrections officers screen for drugs and other contraband quickly and successfully.

2.       Cell Searches

COs find tobacco and homemade alcohol created with fermented fruit, bread and other leftover foods during cell searches on a daily basis. But individuals can become quite crafty when manufacturing and hiding contraband items.

For example, an inmate may hollow out a bar of soap to hold a baggie of narcotics that has been smuggled into the facility. Hiding razorblades within a roll of toilet paper is another frequent technique.

Inmates may hang posters using toothpaste as adhesive material to conceal damage made to cell walls where they have hidden a stash of tobacco in a wall crevice. Toothpaste mixed with coffee grounds also makes for a clever drywall material to conceal illicit items inside doorframes or windowsills.  

Slicing a mattress seam and stuffing it with narcotics, shanks or bags of tobacco is another frequent practice. Many facilities have taken to running inmate mattresses through x-ray systems to search for contraband when clothing exchange is conducted or before mattresses are issued to incoming inmates.

3.       Body Searches

Inmates will ingest items, hide them in their mouths (known as “cheeking”) or insert them into other body cavities. They also tuck small items like pills or blades into pockets, socks, clothing seams, waistbands and shoes. Strip searches, a difficult and often unpleasant process, used to be the best tool to prevent smuggling contraband by concealment on or inside the body.

Many facilities have adopted body scanners for regular scanning of inmates as they enter the facility. These scanners provide a faster and safer alternative to strip searches and are a far more effective, thorough and efficient means for contraband detection.

4.       Staff Screening

Unfortunately, there have been a significant number of reports of correctional employees who chose to smuggle contraband such as cellphones, tobacco and drugs for financial gain. Typically, employees are not searched when arriving for their shifts, which makes for easy transport of illegal items into a secure facility.

Some reports indicate that prison employees have made up to $3,000-$5,000 a week bringing in illegal contraband and selling it to inmates. These incidents call for improved security measures such as body scanners and x-ray systems to check belongings for employee facility entrances in order to prevent contraband and promote the safety of facility staff and inmates.

5.       Drone Awareness

As drone technology has become more advanced and accessible, the frequency of remote-controlled drone contraband drops has increased. Reports of drone drops into prison yards and even through low-security facility windows show this mechanism of smuggling has been used more than a dozen times to fly items into federal facilities over the past five years.

Be on the lookout for drones near fences or outside walls, and immediately confiscate any suspicious items or packages found in outside areas.

Stay Vigilant

The inmate population has 24 hours each day to brainstorm ways to get prohibited items into the facility and where to hide them. Smuggling items into custody and concealing their location makes for a great mental game for an inmate. Officers can never be too vigilant with their searches. In addition, administrators must stay informed and make the best use of all technologies available to keep their facility safe and secure.

About the Author

Melissa Mann is recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years, which included assignments in corrections, community policing, dispatch communications and search and rescue. Melissa holds a BS in criminal justice and an MA in psychology with emphasis in studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world. For comments or inquiries, please contact her at melissa.mann@correctionsone.com.

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