Trending Topics

Garden variety of contraband

Corrections staff should be aware of the potential dangers in the seemingly innocent garden setting

There are benefits to be had from prisoners growing a vegetable garden. Through this activity, prisoners learn horticulture, patients, structure, and teamwork. Offenders are given a chance to spend time in a productive manner on a project with tangible results. In addition, the well tended garden provides nutrition and variety to the institutional diet.

Still, vegetation can be harmful to your well being. This has nothing to do with naturally occurring maladies like irritation from poison ivy. It is all about basic contraband control. Corrections staff should be aware of the potential dangers in the seemingly innocent garden setting.

Gardens tended by prisoners have at least three possible dangers in them. They are: the garden as a hiding place, a place for subtle signals, and an area to produce stock for spud juice.

Hiding place – Squirrels bury nuts. Dog bury bones. Some prisoners bury contraband. And contraband does not just mean a durable, weather proof contraband. A buried cell phone thoroughly wrapped in plastic could survive the elements and remain useful to any contrabandist.


Sometimes, foliage serves as a clever cover. A colleague informed me of a shank that was found in a prison garden. It was camouflaged by leaves along the handle and thrust point first into the ground among the actual living plants.

The tall part of the plant in the upper right-hand corner of the photograph is directly in front of the camouflaged knife.


A photograph taken from the back shows a separate stalk. In a prison setting, this would more than likely have been concealed in the center of a plant cluster or closer to the main plant.


The leaves were secured by two zip ties that were positioned close to where the faux iris would have met the ground. Even if prisoners have no direct access to zip ties through hobby craft, many other durable fasteners could be employed.

Subtle signals – A now retired colleague of mine once told me that he once toured a facility and was struck by a surprising sight. Flowers in the front garden were arranged to form an unmistakable signal. It was the symbol of a common security threat group. Like any riddle, the answer was not obvious until one spotted it. Of course, my colleague reported it and the display was rearranged. The gardeners, naturally, were placed under investigation about the flower placement.

Stock for spud – If it decays, it usually can be used to ferment. Not all plants will necessarily make a tasty drink. But many materials can work as well as any other fermented stock. More importantly, the alcohol produced from garden stock will be able to net a profit, taste notwithstanding. Therefore there is a power attached to the forbidden commodity.

Despite these problems, corrections professionals are not without remedies. There are several strategies that can be employed.

  • Corrections staff must supervise as prisoners tend the garden. Afterwards, corrections staff can do their own weeding.
  • Look at the garden from different angles. Don’t forget to squat and stoop. Do not be content with looking at the garden just from the front.
  • Watch interest in traffic prior to harvest time. Try to distinguish between board offenders interest and those with actual interest in how things are placed.
  • Monitor the positional power of the chief gardener. Does the prisoner /gardener have a different level of contact with others during harvest time?
  • Remember to check with other shifts on activities in the garden.
  • Do not forget the utility of a metal detector.

Prisoners and the institution benefit gardening projects. As with almost anything in corrections, there is the other side of the coin to consider. Vegetable gardens can serve as hiding places for weapons, provide subtle signals for security threat group, and supply stock for prison made alcohol. No garden will ever be without its weeds. However, the garden in your institution can be safer with staff attention.

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.