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Migratory patterns: Tracking how contraband travels in a facility

How we can gain a considerable upper hand by considering how contraband moves


Correctional officer Kim Hill checks an inmate for contraband inside a wing of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Beto Unit prison in Tennessee Colony, Texas. (AP photo)

As most tenured corrections professionals know, almost anything that can be traded or leveraged in a facility can, and should, be considered contraband. As staff, we’re accustomed to hunting for stationary contraband. Yet we can gain a considerable upper hand in the fight when we consider how contraband travels.

It is useful to consider the obvious: Inmates have less control over their environment than they had in society. Thus, for those who trade in illicit goods, contraband enables them to arrange for a variety of services, including assaults on others.

Contraband is power
The power base that an enterprising offender can build with contraband is something to consider. Esteem is a hard commodity to come by in prison and contraband can help an inmate not only to achieve esteem, but to leverage it in malicious ways.

Because it is a fundamental source of prisoner strength, unauthorized items are very valuable in the hands of unauthorized traders. Yet, contraband would be of less worth if it were not mobile.

Some would argue that the longer an illicit item is stationary - no matter how ingenious the hiding place - the more likely it is to be discovered by staff or prisoners.

Still, many staff do not look at the dimensions of contraband’s mobility. Let’s consider the many ways that illegal commerce is facilitated through movement.

Modes of transport
Contraband travels in a variety of ways. It can be passed hand to hand. It can be stored temporarily at a predetermined “drop-and-pass” location. It can be sent through the mail under the guise of legal mail or other correspondence.

Sometimes, staff unwittingly assist in the transportation of illegal goods. Institutional carts can be utilized to bring any sort of contraband from one location to another. For example, tobacco can be moved in trash cans from the kitchen to housing units, small items can be placed in envelopes and adhered to the bottom of library carts, and, of course, laundry bags are often used to move items.

Contraband travels more widely than is commonly suspected. It can travel between levels of custody within an institution. It can move from facility to facility. And it can back and forth from outside of institutional walls.

Frequent fliers
Sometimes, contraband is stored temporarily in the same place for a long period of time. This can be done out of necessity. A prime example of this is prison-made alcohol or ‘spud juice’. Since it has to cook or ferment, it cannot be easily moved.

Other times, contraband is temporarily stationary, like a weapon hidden for an assault opportunity that is stowed at a location where the target frequently appears.

At other times, contraband is stored for an ease of exchange. The contraband trafficker will place it somewhere - sometimes right under the noses of staff - to wait for the prime moment to make the switch.

Smoke and mirrors
Often, contraband moves with the aid of the diversion. In other words, the goods change hands in close proximity of staff while a third party creates a disturbance.

Some prisoners may hide a few forbidden items of low importance on their person during a standard pat search in order to draw attention away from the primary contraband, the most valuable item, which is stowed in a more elusive spot.

The secondary, or sacrifice, contraband is concealed in an obvious place. Perhaps it is a cigarette or a stamp. During the shakedown, the prisoner will let the staff find it. And although they may receive a minor misconduct report, the ‘shakedown’ may not progress to the point of finding the more valuable, sometimes dangerous, item.

A complex system
Often, it seems that alert staff hold all of the cards in a search. However, all will not always go perfectly. Prisoners have ample time at their disposal to contrive effective ways of moving items. The sheer number of items in any facility in any given day is astoundingly high.

But, do not be dissuaded by the pervasive nature of contraband. Every bit of contraband removed from the exchange loop buttresses the overall safety of the facility. This is done through vigilance, communications, interception, decrypting messages and teamwork from all areas of the facility.

Mobile contraband is inevitable. But, corrections professionals can disrupt some migratory patterns. And that is just one of the ways that we keep our corner of the criminal justice system safer for staff, offenders and the public.

Joe Bouchard worked in a maximum correctional facility for 25 years and is now retired. He continues to write and present on many corrections topics. He is the former editor of The Correctional Trainer. Bouchard has been an instructor of corrections and criminal justice since 1999. He currently teaches at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Bouchard also has online writing clips at He is also the author of three corrections books for LRP publications and 10 books for IACTP’s series of training exercises books. Order now.