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Training civilian staff about contraband

Kitchen, medical and maintenance staff are all potential sources of contraband for inmates

The number of accidental inside sources of contraband is endless. In previous articles, I defined accidental inside sources as “people we allow to have access to our prisoners that have no intent to provide them with contraband.” In this article I will cover multiple other civilian staff we have in our jails and prisons, including kitchen staff, medical staff and maintenance staff.

Kitchen staff always get a bad rap in correctional settings. Let’s face it, when is the last time you saw a food tray that came out of a prison kitchen and said, ‘I’ll take two please?’ Generally, kitchen staff are not very highly paid, and in recent years facilities have started contracting out to the lowest bidder. Not a lot of college-educated and well-trained people are applying for these low paying jobs. That is not to say we don’t have some very smart and friendly people working in our kitchens, because we certainly do.

Our concern needs to be on how much our kitchen staff knows about our facility and how concerned they are for the security needs our facilities are required to maintain. Background checks are extremely important for our uniformed corrections staff, but with the increased number of outside contractors, we need to be more detailed in our background checks on those agencies’ employees. Kitchen staff have ready access to the most serious forms of contraband that we actually provide to them, and, even worse, we allow kitchen staff to put those items in the prisoner’s hands on a daily basis.

Think of the obvious items we have in our kitchens: knives, spatulas, metal tongs, meat slicer blades, and heavy serving spoons, to name a few. However, we also have various chemicals, broom handles, large mixer blades, and what I call large stirring paddles (used with large cooking kettles). All of these items can be used as stabbing instruments, blunt force striking instruments, and the chemicals can burn and/or impair vision. And since we can’t prevent these items from entering the facility, we need to have a system in place to prevent them from leaving the kitchen.

My number one rule is always search inmate workers going to and returning from work assignments. Facility administration also needs to have policies in place on how the kitchen staff distributes and collects all items they use. This should never be left to the kitchen staff to make these rules. I would also recommend that certain items never be handled by the inmate workers. That, too, should be determined by facility administration. Staff, regardless of civilian kitchen workers or corrections officers, need to remember when in areas where inmate workers use various tools that they need to keep their situational awareness active.

Now it’s time we pick on our medical staff. Just like with kitchen staff, we have seen an ever increasing number of contracted medical agencies being used across the nation. Generally we have little-to-no say on what doctors these agencies use. My agency does get to have a say on the support staff that the agency we contract with uses. Generally we see quality nurses and other support staff. Just like with the kitchen staff, these medical professionals know very little about what our security needs are. It’s our responsibility to make sure they get up to speed on what we expect of them.

Last week I asked one of my agency’s medical staff to provide me with a list of items they use on a daily bases that an inmate could easily turn into a weapon. Thirty minutes later, he came to my office with a list of about 45 items that he found just standing in the exam room. I have noticed that corrections staff tends to be a little less observant when they have prisoners in the medical unit. Our medical department consists of two small staff offices and one exam room with one way in and out, so there is not a lot of room for movement. That setting makes it easy to let your guard down, but thinking from a contraband standpoint, we need to be just as observant, if not even more observant, with prisoners while in our medical departments.

Maintenance staff is a different animal altogether. Maintenance goes hand-in-hand with tools of all sorts. The obvious ones include screw drivers, hammers, and wrenches. Depending on the facility you work in, your maintenance staff could be full-time or part-time. They could work in multiple correctional facilities or, if you work in a jail, they could work for the municipality as a whole in various departments. The amount of security they use changing a light bulb in the surveyor’s office differs greatly from that while fixing a shower in a jail cell. Leaving a screw driver on the surveyor’s secretary’s desk means back tracking to find it; leaving a screw driver in a jail cell means finding it in someone’s back.

Maintenance workers tend to blend in to the day-to-day operations, and we generally know who they are and they know the layout of our facilities as well as we do. Whenever they work in housing units, they need to be escorted, and if the housing unit is emptied for more serious issues, we need to inspect the unit with great detail before re-populating it with prisoners. Making sure that only the required tools enter secured areas before entering and exiting the areas and taking inventory are very helpful.

It is our job to think ahead and outside of the box when it comes to safety and security of our facilities.

Sergeant Todd Gilchrist started his career in Public Safety as a part time firefighter in 1989 and became an Emergency Medical Technician in 1991. After graduating from the police academy, he started his career in law enforcement as a Corrections Deputy for the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office in 1995. Todd was promoted to Sergeant in 2007 where he has supervised the correction, court services and transport divisions. He is also an instructor in Corrections and Emergency Medical Services and serves on the West Michigan Criminal Justice Corrections Training Consortium. Todd graduated from Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, School of Police Staff and Command in 2012 where he was awarded the Franklin M. Kreml leadership award.

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