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Do visitors or corrupt staff bring in more prison contraband?

Columnist Gary York uses his experience as both a CO and a prison inspector to answer the age-old question

prison contraband

In this Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017 photo, a selection of confiscated contraband drugs, which were found after smuggling attempts, are displayed at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord, N.H.

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

My very first experiences with witnessing a corrupt officer and a drug-smuggling visitor occurred around 1991 when I was first working as a correctional officer in Hillsborough County, Florida. As I would come to find out over the next 15 years, however, these were anything but isolated incidents.

While this topic receives a lot of debate from all sides, I can tell you that in my experience, both as a correctional officer and ultimately a prison inspector within the Florida prison system, not all personnel involved in corrections want to be involved in this discussion; there are certainly members of prison management as well as line officers who refuse to confront this problem and the truth about it. I can also tell you that from speaking with other investigators and correctional officers across the country, my involvement and research closely align with many other correctional agencies.

That said, after twelve years of prison investigations, and charging many visitors and prison staff with the introduction of contraband, here is my final answer to the never-ending question of who brings in more.

Someone needs to address it, so here I go.

Officer Rodriguez

When I first started my career at Hillsborough Correctional Institution, I was often assigned to inmate dorms one, two and three, while a female officer was generally assigned to dorms four and five. Only a few steps across the prison compound separated my work area from hers, so we would always give each other a radio check or a thumbs up from across the way to make sure everything was going well. Even back then, as is so often done today, we worked alone 90 percent of the time.

I always thought to myself, “What a good officer, she seems really squared away.” I was brand new to the prison environment but had just completed eight years of active duty with the military police of the United States Army, so I thought I could spot a squared-away officer. I also noticed she never had any problems with the inmates.

One day when I arrived to work, however, this female officer was absent. It wasn’t long before I learned the reason: She had been arrested in a drug sting involving a prison inspector and local law enforcement. Not only had she gone to pick up cocaine, not realizing it was from an undercover agent, but she also had her two young children with her in car seats. (Luckily for the children, there was a grandmother who was able to go and pick them up.)

It was also revealed later that some inmates had been placed into confinement cells under investigation for conspiracy to introduce drugs into a correctional facility. You can guess which dorms these inmates lived in. It turns out, Officer Rodriguez had been bringing inmates drugs for a while until one of them did not get a fair shake and reported her. The inmate informant then worked with investigators to help set up the drug delivery that ended in her arrest.

Officer Rodriguez had her inmate dorms under control because she was working for the inmates, and the dorm bosses protected her so no other inmates would bother her. (Dorm bosses are usually the older, stronger and wiser inmates on the prison compound.) From that point forward, I always made it a point to not judge an officer’s work ethic too quickly; I realized that giving it some time to decide on who to learn from was my best bet.

Inmate Smith

My first experience with a drug-smuggling visitor came a few months later at the same prison when I was assigned to work inside the inmate “visitation park” for the weekend. I was alone inside the visitation room, which had folding tables and metal chairs, while two other officers were assigned up front by the control room and restrooms. There was always one male officer and one female officer so they could switch out to search the visitors for possible contraband and items not allowed into the prison visitation room. My job was to oversee the visiting room and ensure the visits remained peaceful and calm. I also had to ensure that the inmate visitors did not try to have oral sex under the tables or pass contraband they may have gotten in through body cavities or under their tongues. (Yes, these things actually occur in prison visitation, though I also have to say that the majority of visitors are not planning anything nefarious.)

On this particular day, I got a couple of radio calls from a dorm officer requesting to know if inmate Smith’s (not the original name) mother had arrived to visitation yet. Both times I replied back with the answer “10-54,” which means “negative.” It wasn’t until later that morning I learned that inmate Smith’s mother and her son were both subjects of an internal investigation with the prison inspector’s office.

Inmate Smith’s mom was ultimately arrested for smuggling prescription pills into the prison. She had sewn a secret compartment into her bra to hide the pills during visitation. A jealous inmate tipped off investigators about the illegal pill delivery and how it was conducted, after which Inmate Smith was placed into confinement pending investigation and criminal charges; his mother was also booked into the Hillsborough County Jail.

Contraband players

Before we can talk about who brings in more contraband, we must first look at the possible players on each side. While I really do not like the “us vs them” mentality, for the purpose of painting a clear picture, I must make a list of those people who both visit the prison and those who work there. It should also be noted that all of the individuals on my lists have at one time or another played a part in prison contraband introduction. Here are my lists on these two categories:


  • Family members, girlfriends, boyfriends and friends
  • Prison pen pal friends
  • Fake friends used for illegal activities (usually paid by an outside contact)
  • Contraband drop-off visitors on the outside perimeter of the prison
  • Newspaper delivery person paid to drop off contraband concealed in newspapers
  • Food delivery personnel
  • Warehouse delivery personnel
  • Volunteer counselors
  • Volunteer chaplains
  • Volunteer teachers
  • Visiting attorneys
  • Waste management personnel

Prison Staff:

  • Correctional officers
  • Medical staff
  • Dental staff
  • Librarians
  • Drug counselors
  • Mental health counselors
  • Teachers
  • Maintenance crew
  • Chaplain
  • Warden or assistant warden (Yes, there are documented cases.)
  • Clerical support staff
  • Private food service employees
  • Classification officers

How do inmate visitors introduce contraband?

Visitors (though again, not all of them) bring in or attempt to bring in a lot of contraband. The quantity, however, is almost always a small amount at a time, mainly because they are checked so closely coming into prison visitation. This leaves the visitor only a few options to conceal the contraband that does not allow large quantities, including:

  • Inside body cavities (including anal, vaginal)
  • Under the tongue or back of checks
  • Hidden compartments of clothing
  • Sewn into the shoe heels or false shoe compartments
  • Hidden in the hair
  • Under long painted finger or toenails
  • Inside the inner ear (small pill for a quick high during visitation for the inmate)
  • Baby diapers
  • Using children as the carrier hoping prison staff do not check them as closely
  • Any areas of the body, clothing or allowed items as the visitor’s imagination can produce
  • Throwing a tennis ball filled with drugs over the prison perimeter fence and onto the inmate recreation field on the way into visitation
  • Dropping off drugs at a pre-determined location outside the prison perimeter fence so outside work-squad inmates can retrieve it at a later time.

The visitors who take the risk of going to jail or prison by smuggling contraband may have as many or more attempts as the corrupt prison staff, but in my experience the quantity of contraband is lower than the quantity of contraband brought in by staff members who have turned corrupt. It is also noteworthy to mention that there are documented cases of correctional officers being paid off and turning their heads at prison visitation and allowing visitors to pass through with known contraband.

[Read: 7 strategies for contraband detection during inmate visitation]

Other visitor types

Delivery-type visitors have the opportunity to introduce larger quantities of prison contraband. Hired by inmates and inmate friends or family members, delivery drivers on food trucks, warehouse delivery trucks, newspaper delivery trucks and others have been caught in the prison contraband smuggling game. Keep in mind that cases of this type have also included a prison civilian staff member working on the inside to complete the smuggling process. An example would be a civilian warehouse or food service employee being paid off to know which box to set aside from the delivery upon arrival to the prison warehouse. Here are some examples of this I have personally investigated:

  • Drugs hidden inside CVC plumbing pipes delivered to the prison warehouse
  • Drugs hidden inside a newspaper delivered outside of the administration building and picked up by the inmate orderly
  • Food delivery truck with drugs hidden inside one loaf of bread marked in a way only known to a food service inmate or corrupt food service employee
  • Sanitation pick-up or family dropping off drugs into trashcans outside of the prison; the contraband is later retrieved by inmates used to work outside grounds.

How are corrupt staff members introducing contraband?

Based upon my internal investigations experience, however, the unfortunate truth is that the few bad apples working at the prisons are bringing in the largest amounts of prison contraband. The greed and want for large sums of money is too much for some prison staff to ignore. Other prison staff fall in love with inmates and smuggle in contraband out of what they believe to be real love for the inmate.

A great example of that is Joyce Mitchell, who served as a vocational teacher at Clinton Correctional Institution in upstate New York. Joyce Mitchell had sex with two inmate murderers and smuggled in hacksaw blades, chisels and power tool supplies to help them escape. She also agreed to meet with the two inmates after their escape and run away with them but changed her mind the day of. That was a good thing for her because the inmates had allegedly planned to kill her when done using her. The escape and subsequent manhunt cost taxpayers $23 million, and Joyce Mitchell spent five years in prison; one inmate was shot and killed and the other was shot and re-captured.

Either way, for money or supposed love, prison staff can be the most damaging to the safety and security of the prison, and unfortunately, the few bad apples taint the image of all the honest hard-working officers and civilian staff. The easy access in and out of the prison, not to mention the possession of keys to all its areas, in some cases make the corrupt prison staff member a significant threat.

Here are some important points I have learned about corrupt prison staff:

  • They have the access and ability to bring in larger amounts of contraband.
  • They have less fear of being caught, aka the “no one will ever suspect me” syndrome.
  • They have the ability to pick the best times to bring in the contraband.
  • They have the ability to know the locations of other officers.
  • They can hide the contraband anywhere within the prison so the inmate can pick it up.
  • They can bring in tools, weapons and phones, which are hard for visitors to bring in.
  • They can meet inmate family members or friends on the street for drug pick-ups and cash payments, leaving no paper trails.
  • They have the ability to warn inmates about security inspections and shakedowns and help cover-up their dirty deeds.

[Read: Warning signs a corrections officer may be compromised]

But what about the inmates themselves?

We can’t, however, forget about the inmates, who are not only receiving the prison contraband and using prison staff and visitors for their dirty deeds, but in most cases also planning and setting up the introduction of contraband. In my experience, the inmates are always 100 percent involved. While some people I have spoken with do not agree with me, my answer is always a simple one: “Think about it, who ends up with all the illegal contraband that makes it into the prison?” Again, not every inmate deals or introduces contraband, but an inmate is always involved when contraband is introduced.

Here are ways inmates are generally involved in contraband introduction:

  • The inmates need, want and request the contraband.
  • The inmates use the contraband.
  • The inmates manipulate prison staff members into bringing in contraband by:
    • – Looking for a staff member with low self-esteem
    • – Looking for a staff member who is in debt by listening to their conversations
    • – Setting up a staff member with small contraband first like cigarettes or food and threatening to tell on them if they do not bring in drugs
    • – Pretending to be in love with a prison staff member and promising them the world when they get out of prison
    • – Having the ability to get the prison staff member a large amount of cash to bring in contraband, focusing on the staff members greed
    • – Having the ability to control a prison staff member once having them on the hook
    • – Having the ability to throw the officer to the authorities when done with them.

More from Gary York: The true cost of contraband

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.