Every Correctional and Detention facility in the America deals with the problem of contraband and illegal items being brought into their facility. Contraband can be a nuisance and an embarrassment to staff and in some cases it can be deadly. It can also be a danger to the health and safety of the inmates themselves. You may have some smart and diligent people working on your staff, but there are a thousand idiots on the other end trying to find a crack in your security. As soon as you identify and eliminate one way they are getting stuff in they are working on finding the next. All too often when we have a security breach we diligently seek to place blame but take little or no action to prevent it from happening again. Simple solutions are sometimes overlooked and if action is taken it is often short lived and soon falls to the wayside. Everyone becomes super vigilant for a while but then eases back into complacency.
We recently had a discussion at roll call one morning about contraband. We had a cell phone smuggled in recently and I made the statement that if someone can get a cell phone in the facility they can get a gun. The cell had been brought in by a family member of an inmate worker during video visitation. It was dropped off along with some tobacco in the public restroom which the inmate was responsible for cleaning. We didn’t find out until a few days later when another inmate clued us in as to what was going on. After the fact I went back and reviewed some of the inmate’s phone calls and they pretty much had laid out the whole plan over the phone. Recognizing that the inmate assigned to clean that area was our biggest liability I started monitoring the new man assigned to that detail. In the one of his first phone calls after being assigned that position he made a statement that stuck in my head. He said “They must really trust me because it would be easy for me to bring something in here… heck I could get a gun back here if I wanted to.” It was almost as if he had heard what I said at roll call the previous morning. That was the day I started making sure that area was inspected every morning before that trustee was allowed to clean. This was an obvious solution so why had we not thought of this before. The reason was we were being reactive and not pro-active.
It is almost impossible to completely eliminate contraband from entering a correctional or detention facility. What we can do is identify our current vulnerable points of entry and attempt to control or eliminate them. To do this a contraband control plan and procedures should be established and effectively implemented. The plan needs to be capable of evolving as new threats are identified or circumstances change. Encourage staff to give input and make it easy for them to do so. As the plan is implemented the ones actually doing the grunt work are often be the best ones to tell you what is working and what needs to be changed or added. Staff input is an excellent resource but is often overlooked or even discouraged. You don’t want to end up with a policy that is blindly followed even though it is ineffective or counterproductive or one that is just not followed at all. Sadly this is the fate of many policies administrators attempt to establish. The ones sitting in a dusty binder on a shelf somewhere or in an all but forgotten memo or email don’t do anyone any good. Review, revisit and revise the plan as necessary.
The key to a truly effective contraband control plan is it has to include pro-active control methods. You must seek to identify and eliminate the vulnerable areas before the detainees do. They have all day and night to watch, learn and plan. They watch your daily routines and procedures, size up your Officers, and learn your facility layout. All these are things they can use to plan how to get what they want. Facility administrators and staff need to do the same thing watch, learn and plan. You have to do this not only with your inmates but also with anyone who visits your facility. As my favorite FBI agent always said “Trust No One”. No one is above temptation or cohesion given the right circumstances. Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers, Nurses and LEOs have all been involved in the smuggling of contraband. Money, romantic relationships or threats to individuals and their family can all be powerful motivators.
There are three primary sources of entry for contraband each should be examined and addressed individually. The sources are from the public to detainee either directly or indirectly, direct from the street by the detainee, and delivery by Officer or other staff.
Friends and family members of incarcerated persons are a major source of contraband. This is especially true if the facility allows contact visits or has work details. Anytime an inmate is allowed in an area where a member of the public is or has been there is a danger of them obtaining prohibited items. All these areas should be closely examined in consideration of contraband prevention. The first consideration is what if any changes can be made to make it more difficult for items to be left or given to inmates. This could be anything as simple as removing or relocating a public trash can or as complicated as implementing video or no contact visitation. Limit the areas the public has access to as much as possible. Look at the areas they do have access to as an inmate would. Is there somewhere you can hide something to be retrieved later? If there is either eliminate or remove that hiding spot (preferable) or make it part of the daily routine to have someone check that area before an inmate will have access to it. If contact visitation is allowed make sure it is closely monitored and search public before and inmates afterwards as thoroughly as possible. If a member of the public is caught providing contraband they should be prosecuted to serve as a deterrent… word spreads quickly.
Take advantage of any legal monitoring methods available such as reading inmate mail, email and listening to recorded phone conversations especially if you suspect someone. These are highly underused tools because they will almost always tell on themselves when they are up to something. Most of them know if we can monitor them in this way but either they don’t think we really do or believe they are smart enough to talk in code. Their “code” is usually not that well thought out or hard to decipher.
Outside contacts also use indirect methods to attempt to deliver contraband. Examples of this are sending drugs in through the mail or hiding something in personal items they drop off for inmates such as personal shoes or medical devices. All these are items you are probably already aware of and have common practices for dealing with. By including these procedures in a written plan or policy however you can help insure that everyone is using the utmost precautions.
The following may sound crazy but in order to stay one step ahead sometimes you have to think outside the box. Rest assured there is some inmate version of MacGyver somewhere thinking in a similar manner. The use of drones to fly over and drop off contraband on an inmate exercise yard or work area is probably going to become a problem at some point. I have not heard of this happening yet but consumer drones are becoming more readily available and advanced. I’m sure some inventive criminal is bound to try it.
Watch and learn because just as they can spot vulnerable officers and staff you will learn to spot the inmates and public who are up to no good. Look back at past incidents and determine ways to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Make changes to eliminate as many entry points as you can and plan procedures to cover any unavoidable vulnerability. Of the three methods public to inmate contraband transfers are probably both the most common and the easiest to control or eliminate. All it takes is some effort and persistence and this is where the plan will be most helpful. The other two are a little trickier, each for their own reasons.
Contraband brought in by a detainee when they are initially brought in for an arrest or from another facility can sometimes be the hardest to stop. No matter what efforts a facility takes the best you can hope for here is probably a slow but steady leak of small amounts of tobacco or drugs. Legal restraints against strip searches and the willingness of some people to shove stuff in the most unimaginable places make it difficult to prevent this type of delivery. Making sure all inmates are aware that criminal charges will be prosecuted in the event of them bringing anything into the facility can discourage some attempts. Initial pat downs are effective but will not always find everything. The human body can be one of the most effective vessels for sneaking in restricted items. The cargo capacity of body cavities is relatively small but you’d be surprised what they can fit in there. Handguns in the body cavity are rare not unheard of. Fortunately most individuals are not ambitious enough to attempt anything of that scale. Small containers or baggies of drugs or tobacco are far more common deliveries via this method. If they can fit a bottle of pills in there a pocket knife would be just as easy. I once saw a female bring in a derringer in her vagina and it wasn’t found until it fell out as she was being placed in the restraint chair. It was a metal toy but could have as easily been the real thing. She claimed she kept it there for self-defense.
When legally permitted, strip searches upon admission to population are the most effective prevention against inmate harbored items. Still some hiding places would require nothing short of a doctor’s exam to locate. Strip searches should be conducted in a legal and professional manner. Specific circumstances should be clearly laid out as to at what point a strip search is permitted and what the procedure consists of. This is a policy that needs to be closely scrutinized by an attorney familiar with the associated laws and court cases. Strip searches are the source of many lawsuits some of which have seen millions of dollars rewarded in judgments. If strip searches are not permissible it should at least be insured that all articles of personal clothing are retrieved before issuing a facility uniform. This can be done from behind a partial partition. Use of a metal detector is another good way to at least be sure they are not carrying hidden knives or other small weapons before sending them to population. Specific guidelines for initial and dress out searches need to be covered in the contraband plan or SOP. Any personal items they are allowed to keep must be checked thoroughly. Once dressed out they should never be placed in the same holding cell they were initially kept in because they can easily hide items in the cell and retrieve them after they are dressed out.
The last method is the one no one wants to think about. It is also a scenario most people in this profession either have experienced or will experience if they stay in it long enough. The thought that a fellow Officer would betray their coworkers and dishonor the profession for an inmate is not something we want to ever deal with. I try not to encourage the “us versus them” attitude but in this area that is how it must be. There is us and there is them and you don’t cross that line unless you want to join them. Many people have already and will at some point cross that line. The reasons for that betrayal can be something as small as a twenty dollar bill or a big as murder. Just like inmates are always looking for cracks in the security they are also looking at the staff for any weakness. It has been said everyone has a price; the inmates are just looking for someone with a price they can afford. Training on inmate con games can go a long way in preventing some of these incidents. Eventually though it all comes down to the integrity of each and every member of the facility staff. You can start treating the staff like inmates by searching them or placing harsh restrictions on them but that is probably just going to harbor the types of attitudes that cause people to cross over that line. Low morale and a lack of respect for leadership are breeding grounds for corruption. One of the first and most valuable lessons I learned in this profession is that people behave the way you treat them. Start treating staff like inmates and some will start behaving like them and the good ones will leave. Let there be no doubt among your staff that you appreciate them all but if they cross that line they are on their own and will receive no mercy. Beyond that watch and learn and if you look closely enough you can see the same things the inmates are looking for.
In addition to Officers there are also a lot of other people that we usually consider the good guys that have to be taken into consideration. Attorneys, Clergy members, Doctors and nurses all can have the opportunity to sneak in contraband. This can be purposefully or simply by accident. They may leave an item in an inmate’s reach and turn their back on them momentarily or just accidentally drop an item. They are also susceptible to the same motives and influences as the officers. No contact alternatives are ideal but not always feasible. Put together an FAQ or hand out with a set of guidelines as to what is expected of them while visiting the facility, what they can or cannot do and the dangers of inadvertently providing inmates with contraband. I put together a guideline for attorneys visiting our facility a few years ago after we had an issue with an out of town attorney who seemed to lack common sense. Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious and lay everything out as if you were talking to an idiot. You are usually familiar with attorneys and clergy who visit frequently but if someone new comes in check them out. Verify their identity and watch them a little more closely. Do a little cyber-vetting on them, Google them or check out their Facebook to make sure they are on the up and up.
Inmates have all day and night to sit around and work on their plan. Don’t be discouraged when they find a new way to get stuff in. They will help you figure out your next vulnerability and with close observation hopefully you will be able to stop them when they do. Encourage everyone on your team to share their ideas and observations. Use monitoring tools at your disposal to investigate before something happens and sometimes you can stop it before it does or catch them in the act. Remind everyone that contraband can be deadly. If they can get in a cell phone they can get in a gun or a knife. Scrutinize, analyze, watch and learn and listen to the grunts then use what you learn in making and maintaining your plan and procedures.