5 concepts for effective contraband control training

When teaching contraband control, how do you determine what your facility needs and which training styles benefit the learning capacities of your staff?

The CorrectionsOne Academy features a 1-hour course on contraband control that outlines how to effectively identify, search for and document all forms of contraband. Visit the CorrectionsOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo

There are many different styles and approaches to teaching contraband control to corrections professionals. Some are heavy with hands-on advice, while others dispense a firm foundation of concepts. But how do you determine what your facility needs and which training styles benefit the learning capacities of your staff?

Approaches to a contraband control module will vary, with the institutional training officer and warden having the final say on specifics. The main goal for any corrections facility is a well-prepared body of staff willing and capable of identifying, removing and documenting contraband in order to maintain a safe facility.

What are the five most valuable nuggets of advice in teaching contraband control? Ask 10 corrections professionals this question and you will likely get 10 different lists. When advice is given in light of the needs and experiences of the practitioner, there is likely to be diversity in answers.

The main goal for any corrections facility is a well-prepared body of staff willing and capable of identifying, removing and documenting contraband in order to maintain a safe facility.
The main goal for any corrections facility is a well-prepared body of staff willing and capable of identifying, removing and documenting contraband in order to maintain a safe facility. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

What follows are my current top five contraband control concepts:

1. Remember safety first.

Act like contraband will harm you.

  • Is it sharp?
  • Will it cause infection?

It is true that finding dangerous contraband is great for the safety of the facility, but the searchers need to consider their own safety first. (See the two related classroom exercises below: Wash your hands and Time to take off the gloves.)

2. Employ the overt search or covert search as necessary.

Do you want prisoners to observe you searching? Is your intent to project to offenders that there are searches going on in order to dissuade concealing of contraband, or should it be a hidden search in which the searcher does not wish to tip the hand?

3. Information can be contraband.

Contraband does not have to hurt you directly to be dangerous. Information can bring harm if it inspires fear or has tradeable value. This sort of intangible contraband is found in private information of staff such as social security numbers. Other instances of information as contraband are plans to the prison design and computer passwords. (See related classroom exercise below: Take note: I love you to pieces.)

4. Search me!

Do not forget to ensure that you are keeping personal items that may be deemed as contraband outside the secure perimeter. Self shake and comply to all searches at the gate and inside the facility. Do not supply contraband opportunities through your own negligence. (See related classroom exercise Why we secure our vehicles.)

5. Reassess your process.

If it seems like there is less contraband in the facility, perhaps trade has tapered off. Perhaps offenders have analyzed the search methods of staff, leading to better concealment strategies. Whether it is poor timing, clever concealment, or any other factor, it is wise to routinely consider modifying your search techniques and strategies.

Related icebreakers and classroom exercises

These exercises are featured in the icebreaker books “The Bouchard 101” and “How Do You Like Them Apples?” They are reprinted here with permission from the IACTP. For more information on the International Association of Corrections Training Personnel, visit www.iactp.org.

Wash your hands!

Theories and concepts are important. They allow us to look at models in order to understand commonalities in circumstantial differences. For example, learning the basics of changing a flat tire can be adapted for all sorts of occurrences. The key is to use the right principles in all sorts of weather. However, we should caution on certain circumstances, like changing a tire on an incline. It may seem like stating the obvious. However, once stated, the cautionary tale for special circumstances is in the mind of the future practitioner.

We can also, for example talk in broad terms about the benefits of contraband control. While it is important to see the many groups impacted by good searches, what about the pitfalls? Is a talk about contraband control complete without addressing the ubiquity of potentially infectious materials?

1. Find three volunteers in the classroom. Ask if they are shy or easily embarrassed. If they answer ‘no,’ they are useful volunteers for the purposes of this icebreaker.

2. Pair them each with one recorder.

3. Direct all initial volunteers to tell the recorders everything they did since waking up. It is important to be as detailed as possible.

4. In turn, each recorder writes the daily doings on the board.

5. The facilitator asks if anyone was wearing gloves during these acts.

6. With a red marker or something contrasting the text on the board, the instructor asks if each act is potentially infectious. For example, turning a door knob with a bare palm could be potentially infectious.

7. Now, distribute your agency’s policy directive regarding infectious materials.

8. Remind participants that it is best to look rather than feel when searching for contraband. Many experienced corrections staff know someone who searched with their hands rather than their eyes and was poked with a sharp object.

9. Using a mirror on a telescoping handle, demonstrate how to look for contraband under a table without touching the search area.

Time to take off the gloves.

Because we are trained to think of everything as potentially infectious, universal precautions are important in our profession. Like teachers and healthcare staff, corrections professionals work in a petri dish. Can you conceive of corrections without latex gloves?

Many students with no experience inside might not even consider the risks involved in this environment of infection. It is up to correctional trainers to impress the thin barrier between a CO and harmful infection. There is no way to overemphasize that gloves are critical tools.

Did you ever notice seasoned staff conduct almost everything in latex gloves? It does take a bit of practice. It is like the first time you ever used a mouse – you were almost certainly clumsy, but you got used to it.

1. To start this exercise, select four people from the class.

2. Give each of them a pair of nitrile gloves.

3. All will don their gloves and perform the task appointed to them. The object is to do increasingly difficult tasks with the gloves on.

4. Appoint a judge who can award points. If a glove wearer gets a hole in any part of their glove they are disqualified.

5. The person with the most points can select a small item from a box of dubious prizes as selected and compiled by any good instructor. This can be comprised of key chains, plastic snakes and the like.

Here is a sample of tasks done while gloved along with suggested point values:

  • 1 point: Write your name.
  • 2 points: Zip up your coat.
  • 3 points: Button your shirt.
  • 4 points: Tie your shoe.
  • 5 points: Pick up a handful of thumb tacks without piercing the glove.
  • 6 points: Untie a knot.
  • 7 points: Make an origami swan.
  • 8 points: Unfold a tightly folded piece of paper.
  • 9 points: Deal and play a hand of poker.
  • 10 points: Shuffle a deck of cards

After the prize is selected, this is a great time to segue into hygiene in the corrections setting.

Those on the line sometimes take gloves for granted. Infections are pervasive yet invisible. Corrections staff deserve to be reminded of the importance of universal precautions.

Take note: I love you to pieces.

What does the note say? Is it a love note? Does it have escape plans? Is it written in code?

Information is power. Contraband can come in the form of what seems to be a simple note passed from one prisoner to the next. However, the note that you intercept may be a matter of life or death. Is it ever as simple as finding a note and showing it to the inspector? Not always.

Prisoners know that information is power, too. In fact, the task of relaying written information to other prisoners under the collective nose of staff is not easy. That is why offenders utilize codes, misdirection and camouflage. Whatever their motivation to relay information, it is likely that the more important the message, the more likely it will be hidden.

In this training exercise, the facilitator follows these steps:

1. Read the following scenario: As an officer in the education building, you see a prisoner who leaves the classroom and goes to the restroom. The next prisoner to use the bathroom is from the library. Then the same prisoner from the classroom appears again in the restroom. You know that these prisoners are from different units and are unlikely to intermingle. You believe that the bathroom is a drop and pass location. When the restroom is empty, you don a pair of gloves and commence a search.

2. The instructor had created a note prior to the exercise and ripped it up into a dozen pieces or so. See below for sample notes.

3. Instruct one gloved student to retrieve the fragments of a note (or notes) in the waste paper basket in the classroom.

4. The instructor selects a team of three and gives that team a roll of tape.

5. The instructor says, put together that puzzle and send it to the inspector. Participants must wear gloves when assembling the scraps of paper.

6. The instructor appoints an inspector. The inspector judges the merit of the intel delivered.

Some sample letters to print:

Dear Sherlock:

Elusive! Sometimes you look for something and it is not there. Just because a note is torn up and placed in a trash receptacle does not mean there is anything of consequence on the note. It could be a ruse. It could be a test. It could be a note written out of boredom.

While you are wasting valuable staff time and frustrating yourself reconstructing this note, another message – this time an important one – is being passed to another’s hands. The crucial message that spells chaos for staff is not in the hands of a mover and shaker who will get the nefarious deed done.

So, Colombo, finish your puzzle and pat yourself on the back for finding nothing. (Where’s your crown, King Nothing?) You can look everywhere, at once, but you will not see everything well. It is like you went duck hunting and shot the decoy.

Subterfuge! Misdirection! Made you look! Does a note always have to contain a crucial piece of information?

Love and kisses, your nemesis Chaos



You discovered information that prisoners did not want you to find. You went the extra mile and with gloved hands pulled out this note. Sure, it was in the bathroom trash. Certainly, no one knows what sort of infection it may harbor. Yet, you diligently reconstructed this missive with tape, patience and logic. The bad deed that was intended can now be thwarted. Because of this, staff, prisoners and the public will be safer.

Follow facility operating procedures when relaying information. This is some general advice:

  • Show the letter to the inspector;
  • Show the letter to staff who may know different handwriting;
  • Record this with time, date and prisoners involved;
  • Write a misconduct report if there is good evidence;
  • Keep vigilant.

Bear in mind that you will not always find something significant. But when you do, it pays off in safeguarding facility security.

Why we secure our vehicles.

1. Break into teams.

2. One person in team will unlock her/his car.

3. One person will act as the recorder and write down what is reported in step 4.

4. Remaining team members will search car (with owner’s permission) and report any non-factory items in vehicle.

5. Facilitator asks each group to share list of items verbally.

6. Facilitator asks which item is most dangerous to the general public.

7. Facilitator explains the “chain of 7 IFs.”

Imagine this:

If the items are in a car and

If the car is unlocked and

If a prisoner in a the lower level leaves the unsecured building and

If the prisoner reaches the car undetected and

If prisoner takes item and

If prisoner returns inside undetected and

If the prisoner uses the items as contraband.

8. Facilitator asks these questions:

  • Are there enough safeguards to not lock our cars in prison parking lots?
  • How can this hurt the operations of a facility?


Never doubt the importance of contraband control instruction. Although education on contraband control is taught in the classroom, the practices are best applied and improved in the facility itself. The payoff is when the training becomes effective so that it improves the safety of staff, inmates and the public.

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