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How to develop your contraband detection skills

Inmates unknowingly give off many clues as to where and why correctional officers should search for contraband

By Russ Hamilton, Corrections1 Contributor

When I first started working at San Quentin in 1989, I was in awe of the correctional officers who seemed to have a magic gift for finding things, especially contraband. Over the years through trial, error and effort, I established myself as one of those officers who has the gift of being able to find items carefully hidden by inmates.

For me, this was an acquired ability rather than a natural skill, which means it is a talent that can be learned and developed by any officer with enough desire to do so. To that end, I will discuss how correctional officers can develop their contraband detection skills. Developing these skills takes merely effort, imagination and curiosity.

Where and why to look

Whenever an officer approaches me to glean a few tips on contraband detection, they invariably begin with the exact wrong question: “Where should I look?” While I could go on and on about places to search, their question misses the more important question which is: “Why do you look where you look?”

Let me break down the difference between the two. On average, I would say 70 percent of the serious contraband I have discovered is through interpreting signals provided by the inmates. The other 30 percent I discovered through luck. Here are some thoughts on how to read inmates in groups or individually and describe techniques and drills for developing your detection skills. Let’s start with the basics. I begin each shift by doing the following:

  1. Review of files and disciplinary reports of inmates that have come to my attention;
  2. Direct observation of the unit/yard I am working;
  3. Review of intel from prior shifts.

Once I have completed these steps I decide on the basic areas I will search during my shift. During each shift I take into account the following considerations to help focus my efforts:

  • Space: The minimum amount of area in which any given bit of contraband can be placed. My focus may vary depending on if I have a specific type of contraband in mind. My mindfulness of space will change if I am looking cell phones as opposed to drugs.
  • Accessibility: How often any specific contraband needs to be accessed in order to be useful. For instance, a standby weapon can be placed somewhere more inaccessible than drugs, which must be consumed or sold, or a cell phone, which must be accessed to send or receive messages or calls.
  • Security: The measures inmates must take to keep contraband safe. While inmates might risk losing a weapon in a common area, high-dollar items like drugs or cellphones require better hiding places, as well as active measures, such as inmate look outs and diversions. Being mindful of where look outs are positioned is an excellent way to locate all sorts of contraband.
  • Consequence: The penalty for being caught with or losing the contraband. Think felonies versus misdemeanors here and you will get the idea. Inmates are much more careful about catching a new case than an administrative slap on the wrist.

Keeping these concepts in mind will allow you to better focus your efforts and help you succeed in your mission.

Part of doing your prep work is of course reading and understanding the inmates to give you an insight of where and or when to search. I use the following indicators to help determine where to begin my searches:

Over communication: Anytime an inmate is attempting to convince you of something versus simply relaying information or that information is superfluous or unnecessary or diversionary, you are probably in very close proximity to contraband.

A few weeks ago I was passing through a bathroom in a dorm setting. I paused to make a quick visual inspection of the lights and vents. From the corner of my eye I saw an inmate get up from his bunk and approach me. He asked if I was looking for asbestos.

To me this was the equivalent of, “You’re getting warmer!”

Less than five feet away, behind the shower valve finish ring, I discovered three bundles of marijuana. The look on his face the rest of the day every time he saw me was priceless. Rarely should any interaction you have with an inmate be taken at face value. Be curious, be imaginative, question and investigate everything.

Moving away from an area when you are present: Sudden or furtive movements are always a dead giveaway. Be aware that this is almost always an attempt to put distance between the inmate and the contraband.

The following example includes both over-communication and movement away from an area as well as what I call “making the play” – an attempt to help prove guilt when you are attempting to charge the inmate.

Entering a dormitory setting one day I called out for an inmate who was not present. An inmate in the rear of the dorm suddenly got up (movement from area) and approached me volunteering to go find the inmate on the yard (over communication). I checked his bunk area with negative results but found a cellphone under a pillow on the bunk next to his. Based on his movements, I immediately accused him of ownership of the phone (making the play). I knew – based on the circumstances – that charging him would be difficult, but another inmate suddenly claimed ownership (over communication).

I radioed for backup because I knew at that moment there was more contraband. As staff arrived, I found two Blackberries under the same mattress. Using photos on the first phone I was able to charge four separate inmates for possession of a single phone and able to charge the inmate who was assigned to the bunk for possession of the Blackberries.

Lack of eye contact or sudden change in activity: When inmates deliberately avoid eye contact or suddenly change their activity or activity level, contraband is nearby.

Recently while entering a building an inmate momentarily looked up at me but then cast his glance toward the ground (lack of eye contact). I stared at him for perhaps 30 seconds but he only continued staring at the ground. I walked away from the area to see what he would do, and as soon as I was 20 feet or so away he got up and started to leave (leaving the area). I called him back and searched him with negative results, then searched the area discovering a cellphone hidden in a hole in the wall where he was sitting.

On another occasion I entered a dorm at count time. The inmates were expecting it, but they also know I search a lot. There were being quite boisterous when we entered, but then went dead quiet (sudden change in activity). I thought that they were worried about me searching so I immediately began a search. In less than two minutes I had a weapon and three new, uncharged cellphones with the fake screen stickers still in place on each of the screens. It pays to pay attention.

Learning the Signs

There is a lot to be said for learning body language and behavior – it can mean the difference between a successful search and an unsuccessful one.

Experience will sensitize you to what inmates are telling you through their behavior and body language, but you can also improve that learning curve by actively observing and using critical-thinking skills to understand the signals that inmates unknowingly send us all the time.

If you really want to improve your contraband detection skills, think of your institution as a living laboratory. Use every opportunity you have to get inmates to lie to you. When they do, study their actions, observe and file the behavior away. One thing I used to do was to deliberately let inmates think I was not watching at chow and they would double back in line. Then, starting with the inmates in front, begin checking their identification cards all over again, making careful observation of their fidgets, their demeanor and any guilty signs they made in front of me.

When searching cells or dorms and I found something like a tattoo gun, I would overlook it for a moment to gauge their reactions. It is all part and parcel of the bigger game for bigger stakes and more serious contraband. Remember that imagination is essential to the game. If you watch for and gauge inmate reactions, then take your own cues from their behavior to determine when and where to search, you will put yourself far ahead of the game.

About the Author

Russ Hamilton is a retired sergeant for the California Department of Corrections.

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