5 areas to search thoroughly for contraband

Think you're done searching? Think again – check out these five areas, and make sure to give them special attention when you’re looking for potential contraband

So you’re tossing a cell and you hit all the main spots to hide contraband. You’ve found nothing, so it’s time to move to the next cell, right? Wrong. It’s time to look harder and deeper.

Prisoners know we always look in common spots like their storage area, so they take time to find new locations. Check out these five hot spots to ensure you don't miss potentially dangerous contraband.

1. Containers

What types of containers should you look in? Every container that inmates are allowed to have.

Deodorant containers are good for hiding small items. Simply turn the knob at the bottom until the section of deodorant comes out and look inside.

Look inside petroleum jelly containers; take the lip off and get a good look. Even consider shining your flashlight in from the bottom.

Chip bags are also a good hiding spot. Look inside and shake things around to see if anything is present that doesn’t belong.

Take extra time to look inside game board boxes. More than once I’ve found things stashed inside a checkers box or a box of puzzle pieces.

2. Books

We all know inmates that “find faith” inside of our facilities, so bibles are very common personal items.

The problem is they don’t hesitate to use the same bible they are finding faith in to hide shanks and joints in.

Regardless, if it’s a standard book or a bible, feel down the outer seam. Bend the spline slightly and run your fingers down it feeling for bumps and bulges or stillness that seems out of the ordinary.

3. Mail

Mail is always a great way to conceal contraband and get it sent to the prisoner. Think about it: multiple pieces of paper, folded into a single envelope, multiplied by a year’s worth of mail. That’s a lot of opportunity for contraband.

As far as incoming mail, it should be thoroughly searched before the prisoner gets their hands on it. Once it is in the inmate’s possession, we need to make sure we search the envelopes as we toss the cell. My agency no longer allows envelopes to be mailed into the facility. We went to a postcard-only policy a few years back. That has greatly reduced the time spent searching mail and reduces hiding spots.

4. Legal mail

We are legally required to allow legal mail to be sent in envelopes. Legal mail guidelines will vary from state to state, as well as each institution’s policies. In general, we cannot open legal mail without the prisoner present.

If permissible, I suggest you open the mail and hand each piece to the prisoner separately. Don’t just hand it to the prisoner and walk away. In this day and age, anyone can make their own stationary envelopes to look like they came from a lawyer. And just because you went to law school doesn’t mean you aren’t going to send contraband to your client. Plus lawyers tend to forget we do not want our prisoners possessing paperclips and they tend to use them on everything.

Many also have a belief that you cannot search legal mail as part of a shakedown. That is not true unless your state has had court ruling specifying it is forbidden. We can open and search for contraband but cannot read the contents. This policy should be in place for penological interest. If prisoners know we cannot touch any legal mail where do you thing they will hide their contraband?      

5. Common areas

Trash can liners, toilets, sinks and showers are all good common areas. By common areas, I am referring to areas that multiple inmates may have regular access to, depending on the type of facility you work in. I have found inmates like these areas because, at worse, we find and take away whatever they are hiding. If you have 20 prisoners that use the same shower or bathroom area, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint who it belonged to.

So what can be hidden in those areas? Under trash can liners you could find anything from drugs to weapons. But what about toilets, sinks and showers? Other that the obvious nook and crannies where things can be easily hidden, consider this: take a piece of plastic and wrap up pills or marijuana, then tie a string to it and tie the other end to the shower grate.

I have seen this with the grate in place and have seen inmates that had managed to get the grate off, allowing larger items to hang in the pipes, and then set the grate back in place looking like it was never removed. The same can be done with sinks and toilets with a little ingenuity by a prisoner who has nothing but time on their side.


Corrections officers will need to get dirty when conducting cell searches. The question you have to ask yourself is, are cell searches worth getting dirty over? What are we looking for when we do cell searches? Weapons and drugs.

Weapons can be used on other inmates as well as us, so that makes the answer to that question pretty simply a yes.

But drugs? So they take some pain meds that they smuggled in or had smuggled in; do we really care? Yes, we do for a few reasons. Do we want them overdosing, fighting one another or getting so drugged up and hurting you or a fellow corrections officer?

Of course not.

Although some of our coworkers may take searches for granted, there are many who realize that quality searches will save lives and are necessary as part of our job.

Let us search and be safe. 

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