The shrinking problem of contraband

One thing is for sure: as the corrections community becomes better at combating the shrinking problem of contraband, the criminals will be working just as hard to come up with new ways to take advantage of the newest, smallest technology

Back in 1992 while working at Missouri State Pen, I was part of the response to a large disturbance in one of the housing units. The inmates were contained to A side, but they were still able to cause quite a bit of damage before we regained control. Anything that could be thrown or broken, was and my Lieutenant wanted video evidence of the destruction. 

The latest technology in those days was a camcorder. He handed it to me and appointed me cameraman. In my “rookie” mind this was quite an honor to be trusted with such a new and expensive piece of equipment. I spent the next hour with a raincoat over my head trying to record the mess while avoiding whatever was coming down from the open bars above. 

Now, for those of you not as old as me, let me describe a camcorder in 1992. The camcorder was a shoulder carried VHS player/recorder that weighed probably 15 pounds. On my waist was a belt that carried multiple power packs weighing 15 pounds also. These would give you a couple of hours of video, unless it was dark and you needed light. If you needed light, you attached a handheld spotlight that produced enough heat to make a grilled cheese sandwich and could be seen for miles. You then had about 15 minutes of power. That was then.

Everything is Smaller Today
Now a video camera will fit in my pocket when I respond to any emergency. Some departments have cameras on their uniform pockets that are as small as their badge and weighing ounces. Technology has definitely made our jobs easier, but as our technology has become smaller, so has the size of the contraband we try to control. One of the most noticeable changes in size is cellphones. 

In the early 90s, it was much harder to sneak a cell phone the size of a lunchbox into prison. Now, the smallest phones are not much bigger than a credit card. These small phones can be easily hid in a book, a shoe, even a body orifice. This has made detection and prevention a daunting task for corrections professionals everywhere.

Many companies are producing electronic cell phone detection systems and jamming devices, but these are non-specific and can interrupt legitimate phone services. Tried-and-true pat searches, metal detectors and investigations are still the go to method for finding cell phones in many correctional facilities.
Drugs have also became smaller. One of the latest problems facing correctional centers is drugs like buprenorphine (also known as Suboxone). Originally developed as a treatment for opioid dependence, Suboxane is the drug of choice for those in prison who can’t obtain heroin. 

Thinner than a sheet of paper and resembling a dissolvable breath strip, Suboxone is very easy to hide. Many of the prime hiding spots are behind postage stamps, between the sheets of cardboard in greeting cards and in book bindings. Flexible, Suboxane can also be sewn into clothing seams.

Cuff keys are another common problem. Years ago cuff keys looked all the same, and overall access to them was more controlled. Things have changed, a quick search online will show the varied and ingenious ways manufactures are now making cuff keys for the public. There are ink pen cuff keys, zipper pull cuff keys, shoelace cuff keys, button cuff keys, belt buckle cuff keys and more. Unfortunately more and more of these are being brought in by well-meaning staff who want to be prepared for the worst case scenario. Many more are being passed in visiting rooms where metal detectors will not pick up these composite plastic items.

As smaller technology evolves, another contraband problem for prisons is on the immediate horizon. Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) or as they are more commonly known…drones. Used to drop phones, drugs, and weapons onto prison compounds, these lightweight machines are just one more example of smaller technology making detection and prevention of contraband more difficult in today’s prisons.

Companies are pulling out all stops to come up with new and inventive ways to combat the nations increasing drone problems. One of the cheaper solutions involves “bolo” type rounds fired from a 12 gauge or 37/40 mm delivery system. These “bolo” rounds fire tethered projectiles that can wrap up and bring down trespassing or unwanted drones. Another company is currently marketing an anti-drone net bazooka. The shoulder fired launcher delivers a net to capture the drone and a parachute to allow safe retrieval. Several other concepts include using drones to hunt other drones. Utilizing either nets, direct capture or signal jamming, these drone hunters may be the high tech solution to a high tech problem.

One thing is for sure: as the corrections community becomes better at combating the shrinking problem of contraband, the criminals will be working just as hard to come up with new ways to take advantage of the newest, smallest technology.

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