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7 strategies for contraband detection during inmate visitation

Correctional facilities are extremely vulnerable to contraband during inmate visitation


Those determined to get contraband in will find inventive ways to make happen.

Contraband is an ongoing problem for the correctional system. While efforts are made to prevent contraband from entering facilities, those determined to get contraband in will find inventive ways to make happen.

Corrections professionals will easily admit that during visits, their facilities are extremely vulnerable to contraband. Even though preparations are made to help prevent contraband from coming through, inmates and visitors still manage to circumvent the system and sneak contraband through all security checkpoints. In 2017, corrections staff have stepped up their game in attempting to stop the flow of contraband during these visits. The following collection of answers provided by those in the field paints a picture of how they’re beefing up visitor screening.

1. “Visits are conducted to allow inmates the opportunity to maintain contact with their friends and family. Visitor screening needs to begin with an in-depth background of the requested visitor prior to entrance to the institution or contact with inmates. Such background checks should preclude anyone with a criminal record, on probation, on parole or community supervision. Anyone identified as a known gang member should also be precluded. Allowing such persons to visit does nothing to enhance the rehabilitation process of the inmate.” —Captain (Ret.) Keith Hellwig

2. “Any point in a facility where absolute control is not established, security risks are increased. With regard to visiting we have established some trade-offs in order to facilitate visits for inmates. Restrictions in visiting are, therefore, not as stringent as other areas but the regulations that are in effect are absolutely necessary for the public, the staff and the inmate population. The control over both contraband and behavior is the key to safety for all. Those who dislike any particular policy should know it was established in whole or in part on the prior bad acts of others.

Controlled substances are the fuel that allows gangs to wield power and influence within a correctional setting. That influence and power is the root cause of a majority of violence in jails and prison. Screening for drugs and other contraband must therefore utilize an aggressive and multi-layered approach with severe penalties attached for any visitor attempting to introduce illicit drugs within an institution.” —Sergeant R. Hamilton, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

3. "...some of the things I have ran into are Bluetooth devices, such as Apple watches and key fob phones. Also, cash hidden in small places (such as behind a watch band), diaper concealment on infants, pills sewn into weaves, false compartments in belts or clothing. There are many things to look for....don’t forget how crafty the inmates are at concealing items. With contraband phones, it’s easy for them to teach the visitors how to do the same.” —Officer Leek, Florida Department of Corrections

4. “I have worked visiting rooms at a state correctional facility and have experienced a lot. In nearly 29 years, chemistry and engineering are constantly changing how drugs, weapons and money are brought into a state correctional facility, county jail or detention centers. They are getting smarter or sneakier, so we have to always have more street smarts.” —CO Harry Laramie

5. “Visitation is a well-known source of narcotic and contraband introduction. Sometimes even grandmothers are victims of an inmate’s manipulation to get contraband into a facility. That being said, visitation should be limited to immediate family members only. Friends and other family members can write or send pictures and receive phone calls. Currently some individuals are on several inmates visiting lists. Any attempt to improve security at a facility should consist of tightening the visitation protocols to limit contraband introduction.” —Gabe Salazar, Emergency Manager, New Mexico Corrections Department, Adult Prisons Division

6. “Visitation is a privilege given to inmates in order for their loved ones to share time with them. Many inmates use this time for all the wrong reasons. Over a twelve-year period of investigating prison crimes, I have listened to inmates manipulate family members into drug smuggling for pleasure and profit. It is very important for the safety and security of the institution that inmate phone calls are monitored by using code words as an alert signal to help weed out visitors involved in contraband smuggling. This is one screening process I have used numerous times to remove visitors endangering the lives of prison staff and inmates.” —Gary York, Retired Senior Prison Inspector

7. “The screening process should begin with pre-approval screening to determine legitimacy. Visitors should be limited to family and clergy. Security screening for visitors at the time of the visit will vary due to the type and location of the visit. If the visit is a contact visit, the visitor must clear a metal detector search and whenever possible, an X-ray or ION scan for drugs. The inmate must be strip searched before and after every contact visit. If the facility utilizes virtual visitation or the standard non-contact format with glass and a phone, some procedures may be relaxed dependent upon where the visit takes place in the facility.” —David Wakefield, Retired, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Anthony Gangi has a BA in psychology and is a 20-year veteran in corrections. He currently works as an Associate Administrator for State Corrections and has worked his way up through the ranks, from officer to sergeant, and then into administration. Anthony currently sits on the executive board of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Correctional Association. To date, Anthony Gangi has been invited to speak on CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Lifetime, ABC, Fox and NewsNation. He is also the author of “Inmate Manipulation Decoded” and “How to Succeed in Corrections,” as well as the host of the Tier Talk podcast.