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Deterring contraband: Frequent searches save lives

Check out these tips and tricks to keep you and your coworkers safe from dangerous contraband

Before we can discuss contraband and it sources within a correctional facility, we should start with deciding what corrections professionals consider contraband.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of contraband is: illegal or prohibited traffic in goods, smuggling. What our friends on the patrol side consider contraband does not match up to our definition. While patrol officers are looking for guns, knives, and drugs while preforming their pat down searches, corrections officers are looking for any item that can somehow be constructed into a weapon, any form of medication or drug and any other items that can be used to interfere with the safety and security of the facilities they protect.

So in other words: everything.

Some of the questions we will be covering now and in the future are:

  • What are some of the often overlooked forms of contraband?
  • What does your facility allow that others consider contraband?
  • What are some of the most common forms of contraband?
  • How is contraband introduced into correctional facilities?
  • What can we do as correctional professionals to help reduce the amount of contraband in our facilities?

The list of questions could be endless, just as the answers to those questions could go on forever. What it all comes down to is, what are we doing to detect and prevent the flow of contraband?

Unfortunately, the inmates we deal with have twenty four hours a day, seven days a week to think of new and improved ways to fool the corrections officers that are there to keep everyone safe. The burden of detection and prevention falls squarely on us, the correctional officers, to put an end to the latest inventions inmates have discovered.

In this article we will discuss some of the often overlooked forms of contraband. A facilities’ structure provides many options for inmates to make weapons. Metal outlet covers, for example, can be easily removed and fashioned into an edged weapon or shank. Though missing outlet covers should be easy to notice, if you find yourself working in outdated facilities or are facing staffing cutbacks like many facilities around the country, they can be something easily overlooked.

Most facilities have infirmaries or in-house medical facilities. The number of weapons that can be found in the exam rooms is overwhelming, to say the least. Items such as needles for blood draws and other basic procedures, medical scissors, forceps, suture supplies, speculums, stethoscopes, and blood pressure cuffs are just a few of the most common items. With a little time on their hands and very little effort, weapons can be easily crafted from all of these items.

Structural items that should be less likely to be used as weapons can include concrete walls, floors, and even parts of the cell bars. With modern day facilities, bars have become a thing of the past. But many of us still work in facilities that were but in the 1950s through the 1980s when linear style jails were the way of the day.

In the late 1990s, three colleagues of mine were seriously injured when an inmate somehow found one of the worst pieces of contraband that a jail can have: a small piece of a hacksaw blade. The blade was used to cut a 12-inch piece of a cell bar away that ended up serving two purposes. It allowed the slender inmate to squeeze through the bars, and provided a hand held blunt object to swing.

That single event ended with all three officer receiving injuries that required trips to the emergency room or surgery. As recently as 2013, an inmate took advantage of being in an outdated facility to chip away at concrete near his toilet to get softball size chuck free that he used to brutally beat an officer. That officer received serious injuries and was off work for three months.

In the end, there is one and only one thing that can help deter and prevent contraband from being discovered and used by inmates: vigilance by all the staff working in the facility, not just correctional officers. A popular phrase by bikers is ‘loud pipes save lives,’ but in our world frequent searches saves lives; searches of inmates, searches of cells and searches and inspection of facilities infrastructure.

Inmates should be searched without notice on a random basis. If inmates never know when an observant officer may pat them down, they will be less likely to possess contraband. Random cell searches in a raid-like fashion also keep inmates at bay. The worst thing a facility can do is always do cell searches on a preset scheduled basis. Inmates should never be given advanced warning of searches. Opening the cell door and entering in a raid fashion while putting all inmates against the wall, patting them down and securing them away from their property works best.

While behind the walls there is never time to rest. Everywhere staff goes they should be looking around for things out of place or missing. The missing outlet cover for example, should be noted immediately not when it ends up in you or your partners back. There is no such thing in a correctional setting as the “it’s not my job” attitude as everyone’s job is safety. Alert eyes and ears will always pay off in the end.

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.