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Contraband control tips for Valentine’s Day

While contraband control is a year-round endeavor, facilities can see a spike in trading of illicit goods over the Valentine’s Day holiday


In this Feb. 5, 2016, photo, a mail clerk at the Wynne Unit of the Texas prison system makes her way through a box of letters for inmates in Huntsville, Texas.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

To the average person, Valentine’s Day means chocolate, cherubs, flowers and romance. To the corrections professional, this holiday can be the gateway to disorder and danger in correctional facilities requiring coordinated contraband control.

Visits and mail may increase in February because of the holiday. Certainly not all mail and visits are necessarily dangerous. Still, staff might still find an increase in the following contraband items around mid-February:

  • Photographs with backing to conceal notes or small doses of drugs;
  • Complicated envelopes that offer opportunities to hide small items;
  • Electronic messages with codes, anagrams and covert instructions designed to thwart security;
  • Candy, gifts, flowers and staffs’ personal notes accidentally introduced into the facility;
  • Drawings and artwork from family members who inadvertently use drug-laced crayons.

Since contraband equals power, anything with value to offenders deserves attention. How can staff maintain safety in the face of increases in contraband?

  • Continue vigilance;
  • Vary search patterns;
  • Communicate finds to other staff;
  • Document what was uncovered with misconduct reports, log entries and contraband removal slips;
  • Look for patterns and connections;
  • Look for offenders who suddenly seem more popular and prosperous;
  • Assist with screening process of electronic messages to offenders;
  • Partner with mail room staff;
  • Adhere to the prisoner mail policy.

A note on mail room policies: Not all policies are created equally. Some are more restrictive and may need deeper interpretation from the chain of command. Knowing what the facility can legitimately withhold from offenders is important in maintaining safety. For example, some agencies will give to the offender a photocopy of the envelope from the sender. This is done rather than providing the actual envelope. This practice can limit smaller items hidden in the folds of the envelope from reaching the insider perimeter.

While contraband control is a year-round endeavor, Valentine’s Day can mean a spike in trading of illicit goods. This warrants a focus on mitigating seasonally amplified hazards to protect staff, offenders and the public.

Joe Bouchard worked in a maximum correctional facility for 25 years and is now retired. He continues to write and present on many corrections topics. He is the former editor of The Correctional Trainer. Bouchard has been an instructor of corrections and criminal justice since 1999. He currently teaches at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Bouchard also has online writing clips at He is also the author of three corrections books for LRP publications and 10 books for IACTP’s series of training exercises books. Order now.