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How to prevent drug-smuggling visitors

During contact visitation, you are on surveillance detail, so stay alert and never become complacent

Video phone with inmate 2.jpg

Video visitation is a key way to decrease the amount of contraband coming into a facility.


Drug smuggling by inmate visitors is a nationwide problem in our jails and prisons. Staying on top of strategies to interdict contraband drugs from entering our facilities is a key element in maintaining the safety and security of our facilities.

This news article details how a Sussex Correctional Institution visitor in Delaware was arrested after she attempted to smuggle Suboxone into the facility during a scheduled visit. Inmate Aron McNatt conspired with Teresa Cook to deliver a controlled substance into a correctional facility. Both are being charged with felony offenses in this case.

We read about these situations every week. The visitors who wish to take part in this crime have not received the memorandum that states: “We will find you and we will arrest you!” While correctional officers who work the visitation check-in at our jails and prisons across the country have been doing a great job catching those who contribute to the drug addictions of their inmate friends behind the walls, we can always share training tips to improve contraband detection.

As a reminder, there are several dangers of prison contraband:

  • Inmates high on drugs have physically injured and killed correctional officers;
  • Contraband drugs cause fights and riots among inmates;
  • Contraband drugs cause inmate overdose deaths costing agencies and taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

Training Tips

Be aware of the many ways contraband can enter a jail or prison:

  • Through visitors’ body cavities and clothing;
  • Drop-off areas around the facility grounds;
  • Drone drop-offs;
  • Tennis balls filled with drugs thrown over the fence line;
  • Pastes and liquids on envelopes or visitor clothing (watch for visitors tearing off little pieces of clothing and giving it to the inmate);
  • Mouth-to-mouth drug passes;
  • Drop-offs into the visitation trashcans for inmate orderlies/trustees to pick up;
  • Hidden compartments in bras or any other clothing;
  • Heels of shoes or inside shoes;
  • Children’s diapers, bottles or clothing.

Ask fellow officers who have done visitation for years for tips and strategies on how to watch for visitor contraband. The officers working the frontline know more than anyone else what is going on. In my opinion, nothing beats line experience.

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contraband detection Training

We must train everyone regularly to keep up to date with ever-changing drug introduction techniques. Both old methods and new are used every day.

  • Conduct thorough pat-down searches following your agency’s policy and procedures.
  • Ensure all pockets are empty and caps, belts, shoes and hairpieces are off before a visitor enters the metal detector.
  • Ensure all items removed from visitors go through the metal detector and then do a secondary physical check of items.
  • Officers in the visitation area stay alert and watch for unusual activity such as nervousness; eye movements and hand movements; numerous trips to the bathroom or trash cans; and looking around constantly to see where officers are positioned.
  • Watch for distractions such as another visitor keeping you busy and drawing away your attention from other activities.
  • Communicate with your fellow visitation officers about suspicious activity.

There are many things to learn and watch for inside the visitation park and experience is your best educator. Listen and learn from your training and experienced officers. Read your visitation policies and procedures. You are on surveillance detail during contact visitation. Stay alert and never become complacent.

Interdiction Strategies

During my years on the prison drug interdiction team, we used several tools to help us make arrests of visitors coming in with drugs and other contraband. Here are some of those tools you may already be using:

  • Surprise drug interdiction. Without notifying the facility employees – except for approved notification list – arrive at the facility before night shift being relieved of duty and set up.
  • Shut off inmate phones.
  • Set up ion scanners to detect drugs on prison visitors. Scan alert for drugs alone will not be sufficient for arrest; drugs must be found on a person or in their vehicle.
  • Have K-9 units available for positive ion scan alerts and parking lot vehicle searches.
  • Have a pursuit vehicle ready (according to your state law) for visitors who realize an interdiction is taking place and abruptly leave the prison grounds. At a minimum, this provides good identification for future monitoring and intelligence gathering.
  • Have staff ready to place inmates into interview rooms for interviews and possible conspiracy charges.
  • Retrieve and hold inmate property in a safe area.
  • Have transport vehicles ready to take visitors with contraband to jail

Tools and Monitoring to use Daily

The tools we already have can provide some great intelligence on our inmates and their visitors. Here are a few:

  • Monitor inmate phone calls by setting up keywords. This keeps you from hours and hours of listening to random phone calls. Use keywords line staff have picked up from years of experience listening to inmates talk. Some examples include sticky green, balloons, quarters, suitcase.
  • Ensure inmate mail going in and out is monitored to find any keyword phrases that would alert you to suspected illegal activity.
  • Conduct random pat-down searches of inmates to let them know you are watching.
  • Conduct random cell searches.
  • Supervisors should plan shakedowns of random dorms or pods from time to time.
  • Officers should report suspicious inmate activity and inform oncoming shift of suspicious activity

These are just a few ways we can fight drug-smuggling visitors. Implement your ideas and let’s put these criminals behind bars where they belong. Remember everyone you catch may very well save a life.

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.