What is contraband?

Knowing what contraband is, and what damage it can cause, is a powerful tool for corrections officers

By Joe Bouchard

Contraband is commonly defined as goods prohibited by law from being imported or exported. There are many different kinds of contraband, including homemade weapons, gambling paraphernalia, excessively metered envelopes, weapons, drugs, food, and whatnot. As most corrections professionals know, almost anything that can be traded or modified can be considered contraband.

In a prison, almost anything can be contraband — even excessive amounts of allowable property, such as postage stamps, count as contraband. Contraband can also be an altered item, such as a hollowed out law book. Contraband can also be a dangerous weapon, such as a razor blade melted into a toothbrush handle.

Cell phones are an insidious and prevalent form of contraband currently plaguing the country's prisons and jails.

Cell phones are an insidious and prevalent form of contraband currently plaguing the country's prisons and jails.

Often it is something that may not seem inherently dangerous, but is still forbidden by policy. Things in this category include money, maps, exempt policy directives, or officer uniforms.

Of course, contraband is also anything that is explicitly illegal, such as narcotics or firearms.

Even information can be considered contraband. For example, prisoners can use staff credit card information to coerce officers into lax rule enforcement, or for entrapment in a set-up scheme.

Contraband is power for prisoners — it allows them to gain power over others. For enterprising prisoners, trade in illicit goods and the performance of prohibited services are the building blocks of power. With planning and work, the smallest gambling enterprise has the potential to develop into a large trading empire inside the walls. With such an empire, inmates can procure weapons, narcotics, loyalty, and outside help, all of which can destabilize the security of any institution.

One of the most common hazards in corrections occurs when staff underestimate the far-reaching nature of seemingly harmless, but forbidden goods and services. The simple trade of candy, for instance, can be a cover for protection services. A few betting slips may be the starting point for a widespread gambling empire. One prisoner giving a cigarette to another may be payback for a nefarious act.

The introduction of illicit goods into our institution facilitates escapes, compromises staff, and lowers morale. The existence of contraband also shatters the public’s perception of security.

Staff should closely monitor the movement of contraband goods, and that monitoring starts with an understanding of the various definitions of contraband and the dangers each type present.


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