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Back to basics: 2 tactics still relevant in contraband search

Prison technology is advancing at a breakneck pace, but basic techniques for contraband search are as valuable as ever


The basic contraband searching techniques we used back in the day are still valuable today.

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Many components of corrections have advanced over the years. So fast in fact that many agencies have been left behind in the technological aspects of our job. But contraband itself is no more high-tech than it was more than 20 years ago, generally speaking.

The basic contraband searching techniques we used back in the day are still valuable today.

Pat-down searches for contraband

The most common of those searches is the pat-down search, which is simply defined as seeking or hunting for something. A pat-down search is using your hands to feel the various parts of the clothed body, seeking contraband. These searches are by far the most common searches used in corrections and have very few legal concerns as we can perform pat-down searches with very few legal restrictions involving expectation of privacy.

They are so common, in fact, that some officers get so set in the way they conduct them that they become complacent and miss steps. Even prisoners know what will be skipped and will hide their contraband in those areas. Remember, their purpose in life is to prey on our weaknesses.

A systematic and routine pat-down search helps keep us organized and less likely to miss a step. Keep in mind that if a prisoner is hiding something on his or her person, they are likely to do something to distract us when we are close to the area they are using for concealment.

This is where the systematic routine comes in. If you always start and finish in the same manner, even a distraction won’t keep you from missing any areas of the body during your search and allow you to easily pick back up where you were before the distraction.

Here are the parts of the body do we need to pay extra attention to during a pat-down search for contraband:

  • Hair
  • Behind the ears
  • Armpits
  • Waistband
  • Socks
  • Rolled pant cuffs
  • Pockets (don’t forget the little pocket inside/above the main pockets in jeans)
  • Groin
  • Breast area

Being thorough in contraband search

It’s critical to cover 100 percent of the body’s surface, not just the main areas.

Run your hands down the length of the arms, around the head and neck and separate the shirt collar from the body and feel it. Do the same with the waistband. Run your fingers inside the band and pull it away from the body. Shake to help dislodge items that may be loosely hidden inside the band.

On the back, run both hands in sequence from the top of the shoulders to the waist. Repeat the same on the chest and stomach. Check the back pockets, front pockets and then the groin and legs just like the arms, one hand on each side and slide down until you have felt the ankles.

The shoes should be removed before starting the search so have the person pick up their feet and feel the bottoms and in between the toes.

Did I forget to mention, wear gloves!

I know the lower leg and feet will have many different concerns tactically speaking, as you need to make sure you are not placing yourself in an unsafe position.

Regardless of technique you choose here, being vigilant of the prisoner’s movements is important. I personally prefer their hands high on the wall versus on a counter as it places their elbows higher and requires more movement if they decide to move suddenly. Also, keeping the feet slightly wider than their shoulders keeps the prisoner more controlled.

Strip searches for contraband

Another basic search we deal with is the strip search. Of course, strip searches carry many legal concerns depending on the situation. Departmental policy as well as federal and state laws must play into our decision to strip search. There have been some court rulings that may affect the legality of our decision. It is always advisable to keep up on current decisions to protect yourself.

So, then what is a strip search? Basically, it’s a search requiring a person to remove their clothing, thus allowing the searcher to observe or visualize the person’s unclothed body or as PREA states:

“…a search that requires a person to remove or arrange some or all clothing so as to permit a visual inspection of the person’s breasts, buttocks, or genitalia.”

When doing a strip search, I recommend starting with the least intrusive clothing first and proceeding to the most intrusive. I suggest asking the person to remove socks, shirts, pants and then undergarments.

Take time to carefully view the specific areas made bare by the removal of clothing at each step, such as armpits as shirts are removed and underside of breasts as undergarments are removed. As the lower undergarments are removed, asking the person to squat and cough is normal and generally permissible, but again, policy as well as federal and state laws play a factor.

My legal advisor recommends against the old “bend over and spread your cheeks,” as some court rulings have determined that to be overly intrusive and bordering a cavity search. You should also physically inspect each article of clothing as it’s removed.

As soon as all the steps are complete, allow the person to redress. That will help show you are only doing the search that is needed and not being punitive by requiring the person to remain unclothed longer than necessary. A strip search, just like a pat-down search, should be routine and consistent in steps taken to complete the search.

Unfortunately, sometimes we all forget the basics and need a reminder. Let’s stay safe and remember to do good searches and we will all have a better chance of going home safe.

Sergeant Todd Gilchrist started his career in Public Safety as a part time firefighter in 1989 and became an Emergency Medical Technician in 1991. After graduating from the police academy, he started his career in law enforcement as a Corrections Deputy for the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office in 1995. Todd was promoted to Sergeant in 2007 where he has supervised the correction, court services and transport divisions. He is also an instructor in Corrections and Emergency Medical Services and serves on the West Michigan Criminal Justice Corrections Training Consortium. Todd graduated from Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, School of Police Staff and Command in 2012 where he was awarded the Franklin M. Kreml leadership award.