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The importance of early interdiction and vigilance in contraband detection

Spend your resources on contraband prevention early and save on the interest you’ll pay for response


AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

By Zohar Zaied

At 1900 hours last Thursday, Trustee Jones received a package containing two books from a vetted vendor. The mailroom technician, while answering a phone call, approved both books without thoroughly inspecting the second one. Unbeknownst to staff, this book had 29 pages soaked in fentanyl.

On Friday morning, Jones received the books, and after a few days, he managed to exchange work duties with another trustee. This enabled him to sell the drugs in various housing units. In just a week, the fentanyl caused multiple fights, assaults on staff and overdoses, resulting in lockdowns, emergency responses and inmate segregation.

The four stages of contraband control

How many reports start from a single oversight in the mail room that results in a network of chaos that grows in multiple directions within your facility? How much staff labor are we spending on searches, investigations, classification changes, CERT responses and emergency medical responses? How much money would one death cost an agency because an inmate was “allowed” to bring deadly narcotics into a correctional facility?

If you focus your drug interdiction efforts at the source where contraband enters your facilities, such as the mail room or civilian entry points to your facility, you will significantly slow the spread of contraband in your facility as there will be less to spread around to begin with. The further downstream narcotics make it into your facility, the more you will pay to address the problems you should have focused on before they spread throughout the facility.

4. Response to drugs already spread to incarcerated consumers

When a shipment of drugs spreads to multiple housing units and inmates are holding narcotics for use and resale, jail staff focus on searches, inmate behavior and criminal investigations.

Regardless of how you address drugs that are already spread throughout your facility, you are responding to a large problem with a high resource cost, like a wildfire that has spread to millions of acres. At this time, it is too late to address the specific issue with preemptive risk management. Refer to your cell search manual and best of luck to you. Stay safe.

3. Preventing drugs from spreading within a facility

Inmates are likely trying to move drugs or other contraband from one housing unit to another in the time it takes you to read this article. Inmates primarily use trustees to move contraband throughout a jail or prison. Let’s back up and start by removing the word “trustee” from your vocabulary. You can treat inmate workers with respect but don’t trust any inmate to behave well all the time. Always stay tuned to possible nefarious motivations behind inmate behavior, especially positive inmate behavior. Encourage positive behavior but remember there may be a hidden motivation.

Staff should have stopped inmate Jones from leaving the housing unit for the simple reason that he volunteered. The housing deputy should have quickly chosen another inmate to fill in, preferably someone who is not close with Jones. Disrupt potential plans quickly. Do not give inmates time to readjust a nefarious plan.

Additionally, consider strip, pat, or body scans of all inmates who move from one area to another. For example, a group of inmates leave their housing unit to work in the kitchen, then move to another housing unit to serve food, then return to the kitchen, then return to their housing unit. That equals four points where a search would help eliminate contraband movement. It sounds expensive and time-consuming to search at every point, but if you focus on the entry and exit to the kitchen, you disrupt the entire chain in one location, even if the original shipment of contraband gets spread out within that single housing unit.

2. Check a second time, even if it’s “not your job”

An “approved” stamp on a piece of mail should not stop you from double-checking the work of someone up the contraband-checking stream. If you find a dangerous drug that the mailroom missed, you will be doing the mailroom staff a favor. A conversation about missed contraband and improved workflow is much easier than defending a lawsuit from the family of an inmate who dies of an overdose because staff missed a book soaked in fentanyl.

This is still a spot in the contraband stream where a higher measure of inspection and prevention will pay back in a big way because staff members have a shot at interdiction before a bulk delivery of drugs is introduced into and spread throughout the facility.

In housing units populated with “low-risk” inmates who have a high level of mobility within your facility, it is worth considering a mobile mail scanning unit for extra measure. Additionally, a housing unit with lower classification level inmates should still be subject to random and regular searches. Inmates feel they can hide contraband with a lower risk of getting caught in this setting. Their expectation is you will search low-security housing units less.

1. Invest in bolstering security at the source of the contraband stream

Exterior doors in homes are made of tougher materials than interior doors. An exterior door can stop intruders before they ever step foot in your home. Once an intruder enters your home, stopping his behavior is messy and more dangerous. Likewise, increasing contraband security at entry points to a correctional facility, such as your jail’s mailroom will help you stop a larger number of drug introduction attempts.

Every successful interdiction in the mail room can help avoid a pandemic-like spread of narcotics in a facility from the one attempt to bring in wholesale drugs by inmates. With high-tech scanning equipment and a higher level of training in the mail room, dangerous narcotics can be detected before they expose staff or inmates. Deploying a high measure of contraband security at the earliest possible location where contraband will be introduced will ultimately cost an agency less than responding to multiple drug overdoses, increased violence and rampant liability.

Pandemics, wildfires and narcotics all share a common response criterion. The more effort and resources you spend to prevent the spread, the less you will need to spend on response. An agency still needs to maintain contraband control measures at all levels within a facility. However, it will be the source of contraband entry, before a dangerous narcotic spreads to multiple areas, where interdiction investments will pay the most rewards.