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Needle in a haystack: How to find small items during an inmate pat-down search

Sometimes you have to get up close and personal to find even the smallest contraband items that an inmate might have hidden on their person


Correctional officer Ken Kleinworth frisks an inmate leaving a dining hall at the Washington Corrections Center, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, in Shelton, Wash.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Conducting a pat-down search for contraband requires us to let the inmate into our personal “bubble,” or, as some would call it, the reactionary gap. We are always at a slight disadvantage when it comes to hands-on attacks by inmates. We’re always reactionary and giving up this precious space takes away from the time we have to react to furtive movements or aggressive actions.

Another reason we dislike pat-downs are because, let’s face it, there are a multitude of inmates who apparently don’t believe in personal hygiene. If you live in a warm, humid climate, this problem can be exponentially worse, and I feel for you.

Whatever the reason for a pat-down search, be it to appease supervisors so they can enter “x” amount of pat-downs were conducted during their shift into a log book, or as the inmates are exiting the chow hall to prevent them from taking that piece of food back to the cell, or if you are actually looking for contraband, remember one thing: your diligence during the search could save yours or a fellow staff member’s life.

Getting up close and personal

Hidden weapons do not always cause a bulge in a waistband or in the pant legs. A small toothbrush with an attached razor blade could easily be concealed in an inmate’s waistband. Likewise, a small bag of heroin could easily be concealed in the crotch area, which brings me to my next point. You can’t be afraid to get up close and personal when conducting a pat-down.

It doesn’t take long for an inmate to figure out the best places to hide contraband on their person. It’s easy to just go through the motions when it comes to conducting pat-downs. We’ve all been there, but as I stated before, you must search like yours and your fellow staff members’ lives depend on it.

One way I have found to make my pat-downs more thorough is to imagine I’m searching for a very small item. For example, I usually pretend I’m looking for one small pill, about the size of an aspirin. I think to myself, where could this pill be hidden on the inmate? The answer is anywhere.

I conduct my pat-downs from top to bottom, slowly, but efficiently. If the inmate is wearing any head gear, or has long hair that could contain contraband, check it. If the inmate’s shirt has a collar, roll it and feel for anything that might be tucked inside. This also works well for a hooded sweatshirt. Don’t forget to check those front shirt pockets. Work your way down; check the sleeves, under the arms, the chest, torso and back.

Double check the inmate’s waistband

As previously stated, pay special attention to the waistband. There are arguments for and against running a thumb around the inside of the waistband. On one hand, you can be sure nothing is tucked there, but on the other hand you run the risk of slicing your finger open if there is a bladed weapon hidden along the waistband. I prefer running my thumb along the inside of the waistband.

Moving downward, I use the motto “safety over comfort.” Yes, it’s uncomfortable patting-down someone’s private area, but that’s where you’re likely to discover contraband. After checking the pockets, place a hand on the inner and outer thigh simultaneously, and don’t leave a lot to the imagination frisking downward.

This brings you to another area where contraband can be easily hidden: the shoes.

If time permits, directing the inmate to remove his shoes for inspection can be a great help in discovering contraband. Oftentimes though, time does not allow for such a thorough search. Once you have gotten to this point, it’s easy to discover contraband tucked into a sock by lifting the pant leg up, exposing the ankles.

Another tip for a more thorough pat-down is to have the inmate remove a jacket or coat and searching that separately.

In closing, remember to conduct a thorough pat-down every time. Don’t forget these people we deal with are convicted felons who may intend on doing us harm. You might just save yours or your coworker’s life. Be safe out there.

Alex VanSchoyck works as a correctional officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections, and also as a police officer at a small department in southeastern Illinois. He combines his knowledge, skills, and abilities learned from both working behind the walls and patrolling the streets to be a great asset to his departments and a great resource for his brothers and sisters in uniform. He is currently working on a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice through Columbia Southern University. Alex has worked in the corrections/law enforcement field for nearly six years and brings the younger generation’s perspective into view. He believes that correctional staff need to take it upon themselves to stay updated on training issues, and with advancements in technology. Alex may be reached at