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Poker face, diversions and true reactions: What the hell is in that cell?

September 23rd, 2016

Opinions about actors run the gamut. To some, actors serve the purpose of providing us an escape from the mundane with their presentation skills. Others may have a less noble view of performers. And between the poles are varying levels of admiration based on talent and popularity.

Seasoned corrections staff will likely agree that there are some superb actors in the prisoner ranks. And in this setting, perception and image are paramount. Some offenders are unbelievably convincing, even if they are selling the ultimate bluff.

But what of those corrections staff that can recognize a Robert Dinero from a Barney Rubble? Is this a necessary skill or just a fluke talent? In the end, it comes down to keeping things safe for staff, offenders, and the public. Those who can penetrate prevarications and masked messages often hold the key to a safer day for all.

Here is a simple test for those who see beneath the mask. Simply ask, “Do you have any contraband?” Once posed, one can expect a variety of possible answers:

  1. Well practiced poker face – This is the ultimate mask of innocence.
  2. Reading cues – A shift of the eyes may point to where the contraband is hidden. Of course, a well-practiced eye shift could lead away from the hiding spot.
  3. True reaction of denial – The prisoner simply does not have any contraband.
  4. Guilty look – Some cannot mask what they are thinking.
  5. Sacrifice contraband – The prisoner will “allow’ you to find something small and not too valuable in order that you give up the search. In the meantime, the valuable and possibly dangerous contraband remains hidden.

Perhaps you are not wired to detect the differences between a true reaction and the subtleties of acting. You still have a few tools at your disposal:

  1. Actual search – Look for bootleg even when you do not have a suspect. Even if the culprit of a scheme is not found, the contraband incident can be recorded and data stored for a fuller picture.
  2. Asking colleagues – Use the corrections employee network to search for likely suspects. Those who work in different areas have may key observations that you do not.
  3. Time is on your side – While it is true that contraband trade is often dynamic, catching contrabandists can be a long game. Staff have time to gather data and form strategies.
  4. Resources at your disposal – Think of the ample contraband control toolbox. Staff have other staff, cameras, experience and the resources of time.

Many contend that the bottom line is all that matters. In other words, contraband is where you look or it is not. But what about the subtle clues? Certainly, as a corrections professional, you likely are not on an Oscar Committee charged with selecting the best performance artists in the field. Still, we read little clues and apply them to our experiences. And these skills may help uncover danger.

Reading faces and understanding how individual offenders mask are useful in the contraband search. They can give a little boost in keeping the facility safer for staff, offenders and the public.


Who should ask ‘What the Hell is in that Cell?’

September 16th, 2016

It takes a village to raise a child, according to the proverb. In that spirit, I believe that it takes a team to keep everyone safe. This applies, without a doubt, to contraband control. Corrections is interconnected and requires cooperation from all staff to run optimally. And contraband is a persistent problem.

The fundamental idea of contraband control is to remove dangerous items from circulation. Also, we confiscate things that are not obviously dangerous, but are tradeable. This leads to a safer facility with fewer weapons and moves toward a more level playing field. This is possible because we reduce opportunities for prisoners to gain power over others through trade of items for goods and services. This is a necessary corrections function. After all, it is often a seller’s market. Services acquired by a contrabandist strengthen his or her economic power.

That is the “what” of that part of the safety operations. Shouldn’t we consider “who” is involved? In other words, who should ask ‘what the hell is in that cell?’

It takes a village to raise a child, according to the proverb. In that spirit, I believe that it takes a team to keep everyone safe. This applies, without a doubt, to contraband control. Corrections is interconnected and requires cooperation from all staff to run optimally.

Custody staff are the obvious contraband control champions. They are trained to find and remove bootleg. They understand firsthand the dangers of weapons and unauthorized trade, as well as the benefits of contraband control. However, support staff offer many talents that buttress the efforts of corrections officers. When we overlook the assistance of support staff, we undermine the full potential of safety and contraband control.

There are many varieties of support staff. Among them are teachers, counselors, social workers, administrative staff and athletic directors. In addition there are librarians, health care staff, maintenance staff, clerical staff and food service workers.

Support staff in general see prisoners interact from a non-custody perspective. In fact, offenders might act less careful around non-custody staff because they are not normally uniformed. In this case, non-custody staff can build a sort of prosopography through quiet, unobtrusive observation.

Housing unit staff see the movers and shakers in each unit. They have information at their fingertips about spending, acquisition, and contacts from the outside world. They can monitor associations within the unit and know prisoner’s temperament. Housing unit staff such as counselors and Resident Unit Managers know how offender follow (or do not follow) rules. They have an idea of the overt and covert prisoner trouble makers in residence.

Administrative staff are useful in the contraband control process in that they facilitate the feeding of the information machine by other staff. They allow a proper flow and ensure that those who need the information receive it. They assess the safety needs of the facility and allow for proper input and judicious dissemination of information. They also can assure that crucial data recorded for future use.

All of this can raise the search from basic serendipity to a bona fide system. Certainly, intuition does uncover schemes. But assistance from support staff gives a better edge to the search. There is great utility in observations and theories offered by non-custody staff.

What we do is important. But by adding more staff to the operations, we can greatly enhance security. That is why the who is important. Any corrections staff, no matter how removed from the strict custodial duties, is a part of the contraband control team. In the end, our successes, like our efforts are for everyone.


M.I.R.R.O.R.S.: What the Hell is in that Cell?

September 6th, 2016

Corrections is a profession where we relish the quiet, routine times. As a group, we do not like surprises. Yet, in the course of a long career, we can see a lot of bizarre things. The seasoned and resilient have seen plenty of eyebrow-raising events as they continue in the profession. In many cases, the learning curve is steep in the first year or two then it levels significantly. Typically, as time marches on, the shock value lessens.

If we could retain all that we learned, we would face fewer surprises. For example, the more contraband we encounter and remove from the system, the larger and more effect our repertoire will be. The more contraband tricks we can identify and thwart, the greater our chances are to keep safe staff, offenders and the public.

Here are a few basic facts and trends about contraband tricks:

  • There is nothing really new under the sun. A note written on a piece of paper certainly is not the same thing as a thumb drive. However, they serve the same purpose. Both store information.
  • Old tricks recycle. When contraband tactics are used less frequently, younger prisoners may stumble on the idea. The may even believe that they have invented a new trick. In other words, the wheel has already been invented, but there are some who rediscover it and consider that it is a new innovation.
  • There are variations on a theme. For example, contraband is often mobile. In order to move it, prisoners may employ similar means of concealment and motion. The act of moving tobacco in a book is not exactly the same as moving it under a trash receptacle. But they are variations on the same theme.

Even knowing some trends, there is the task of remembering the many different tricks. How does one do this? I find the M.I.R.R.O.R.S. technique useful for this.

M – Monitor – Watch patterns of contraband trade. Look at who trades with who, what is traded and where. Also seek patterns about times of day and times during the month that more trade occurs. You could employ a form of crime mapping to help predict some likely details of future occurrences.

I – Invent. Take things apart and find new uses for them. The more you know about an item, the more you will understand how it could be used against you.

R – Record all tricks you have seen. Create a gallery of contraband. Once the contraband is relinquished from the evidence locker, it can be locked in a display case for staff. Create a written record. Keep the logs away from prisoners, of course.

R – Review what you know from time to time. Refresh your memory.

O – Opportunities should be pondered. Think of small, seemingly innocuous items that staff throw away. Consider the opportunities for contraband and trade that an enterprising contrabandist may have from what you discard.

R – Realism is a crucial tool in the arsenal against the chaos that comes from contraband. The truth is that no matter how hard a corrections professional tries, there is no guarantee that the contraband will be found and removed from circulation. Prisoners have so much time at their disposal to concoct schemes and diversions. It is a numbers game that staff are not likely to win. This is not fatalism; it is realism. Nevertheless, victory comes for the side of safety for any bootleg removed from the system – no matter how seemingly inconsequential.

S – Store data in a central location accessible for all staff. A contraband control officer or inspector is a good gatekeeper for this information. It is wise to preserve misconduct reports and to maintain a contraband log.

Often, we see a contraband method and it plays on the edge of our memory. The phrase I’ve seen this before is apt. M.I.R.R.O.R.S. can help transform that feeling of déjà vu into a course of immediate action for safety.


What the hell is in that cell?: Adhesives

August 19th, 2016

Imagine your life without tape, shoelace, Velcro or staples. These items always seem to be around. In their absence, when need is great, one might think, “My kingdom for a staple!” These are useful and often overlooked inventions.

Scarcity of resources is a fact of life for prisoners. Quite simply, offenders are in circumstances that do not allow for their possession of many items. Things that adhere are often on the forbidden list. Staples, tape, and Velcro are contraband in most jurisdictions.

Agents of adhesion are not usually what comes to mind when one thinks of contraband. But, they are tools that help conceal forbidden items. A cell phone taped under a locker serves as an example. A shank or razor that is hidden on the underside of a table with adhesive bandages is another. Notes containing information about staff or escape plans “glued” between pages in a book is yet another example of the dangerous utility of stick substances in the hands of some offenders.

Staples, paperclips, and tape are generally forbidden in the hands of prisoners. Still, staff have these items in their desks and work stations. So, they are just a diversion away for the prisoner. Offenders assigned as a clerk in the library, office, or warehouse have access to these items, especially if staff are complacent.

Staff must monitor the many uncommon uses of other items not normally thought of as fastening agents. Here is a short list of adhesives at the fingertips of enterprising offenders:

  • Adhesives can also come in the form of items that one can normally buy in the commissary. Toothpaste is a good sticky agent.
  • Glue from envelope flaps also works well to join things.
  • Things that are thrown away by staff are fair game in the mind of the contrabandist. Some prisoners will dive in the garbage in order to retrieve gum.
  • Caulk from the windows can form an effective seal between pages.
  • Naturally produced elements such as semen, mucus or blood can be used as fasteners. As sickening as it seems, necessity is the mother of invention in many cases. This is a reminder of the omnipresence of other potentially infectious materials in the corrections setting.

Contraband in the form of adhesives is often overlooked by staff. It is like the story of a person who smuggled wheelbarrows across a checkpoint in Berlin during the Cold War. The soldiers at the checkpoint diligently searched the dirt as the wheelbarrow was pushed one way. Returning the other way without the wheelbarrow was not questioned. The person was smuggling the wheelbarrows.

Sometimes the tool is another part of the contraband. Common fastening items are so ordinary that staff forget their utility. They are, in effect, hidden in plain sight. Staff must think like contrabandists in order to take these subtle and effective items out of circulation.

It behooves staff to check their agency’s prisoner property policy directive and contraband control policy directive. This will surely help mitigate the peril in everyday, yet overlooked contraband like adhesives.


Suspicion cues: What the hell is in that cell?

August 16th, 2016

When we ask “What the hell is in that cell?”, we do so as concerned corrections staff who strive to make our facilities safe for staff, offenders, and the public. It is our curiosity that fuels this imperative. Most of us acquire the habits of detectives in this vocation.

It is a true statement that not all prisoners will trade or carry contraband. It is also true that many will. This is a reality of the circumstances of incarceration. We cannot overlook anyone housed inside a correctional facility from suspicion. None of this is personal. Rather, we operate under the principle of preponderance of evidence.

Are we forced, then, to search everyone and everywhere? Or do we simply succumb to the overwhelming and inevitable odds against finding destabilizing contraband?

All is not lost. While we will not find everything for which we search, we have a few tools at our disposal. These are suspicion cues. Here are just a few points of departure for the search:

  1. The quiet ones – Have you ever observed a prisoner who seems to ‘do his own time’ and stay of touch with others? They certainly exist. However, the under the radar type can serve as a perfect cover for contraband storage and trading. The notion of one having to look out for the quiet ones does have merit.
  2. Conspicuous consumer – When you are faced with someone who suddenly seems instantly wealthy, you should take notice. Those who quickly increase store purchases or wear more jewelry or better clothing may be in the employ of a contraband lord.
  3. Instant muscle – Consider offenders who had previously appeared to associate with just a few people and who never had an entourage. Suddenly, they are in the company of many others and apparently heavily protected. One has to wonder what draws others to this person. Perhaps goods and services are exchanged for protection.
  4. Income from nowhere – It is true that funds may come from the outside world in an official manner. Those without funds are not necessarily contrabandists. Still, a person without an institutional job who seems to purchase many items from the commissary bears watching.
  5. Groups – Sometimes, prisoners settle into groups and pursue contraband endeavors. These are known as Security Threat Groups and other names.
  6. The x factor – Some staff have what can be described as intuition or a gut feeling. They feel that something is not quite right or that something is ‘in the air’. A look back shows that this is a staff person who seems to see things coming with more of a feeling than evidence. The jury is still out if the x factor is simple intuition or an unconscious pattern analysis. Whatever the root, the result can be an indicator of a contraband niche.
  7. Colleague opinion – Prisoners may behave somewhat differently on a school or job assignment versus how they carry themselves in the housing unit. One of greatest the greatest weapon in our contraband control arsenal is communication. Through this, staff share observations. A comparison of activities of a prisoner in different setting might reveal a contraband scheme.

Naturally, these are cues, not dictates. Sometimes, for example, a quiet prisoner is simply a quiet prisoner. Consider these seven suggestions as possibilities, not as absolutes.

We are correct to be suspicious. Contraband is ubiquitous and it is dangerous, no matter the form. When we do not find contraband from these suspicion cues, it does not mean that we were necessary wrong. We may have just overlooked it during the search. Whether you trust your gut or look at strict preponderance of suspicion, the action which follows is important.

There is no doubt that offenders have ample time to plot concealment tactics. However, staff have advantages of training, communication, and a fresh start every day. Still, since we cannot be everywhere all of the time, we need to utilize suspicion cues whenever we can. The safety of so many depends on this.


What the Hell is in that Cell?

August 1st, 2016

Pardon the following light profanity. Many of us in corrections ask “What the hell is in that cell?” Whether the location in question is a cell, dormitory, kitchen, library, or laundry room, the searcher seeks the same thing. That thing is safety.

I believe that corrections is a team sport. It runs best when all classifications of employees assist in safety functions. Therefore, everyone should participate in the search for contraband in whatever way possible. Certainly, one needs to look at the division of labor and consider policy and procedure. Non-custody staff can aid in the search by monitoring the activities of offenders and report unusual occurrences to custody staff.

So, support and administrative staff should ask “What the hell is in that cell?” It is not solely for custody staff to ponder what may be hidden.

In the course of increasing safety for staff, offenders, and the public, we assess the scene before we search for contraband, the omnipresent danger in all corrections facilities. When there is time, it behooves us to ask ourselves some or all of the following questions:

  1. Secure – Is the area secure enough to search? Does your partner have an eye on all activity nearby?
  2. Clean – Is the area clean? Might you contract a disease if you are incautious? Everything should be regarded as potentially infectious. Universal precautions such as gloves should be on hand.
  3. Rigged – Has the area been arranged to trap or endanger staff? Once a colleague with more time in the facility than I handed me an envelope. Inside was a twisted rubber band stapled to each side of the envelope. A paperclip was in the middle of the rubber band which was twisted multiple times. When I opened the envelope, the rubber band unwound, made a loud noise and surprised me. It could be more dangerous that that mild prank. For example, a sharp edge infected with feces might be placed under a shelf. If staff feel rather than look, they might become injured or infected.
  4. Planted – Has sacrifice contraband been placed in the area? Might you be satisfied to find a few purloined manila folders and conclude the search? Did the prisoner hide something more valuable?
  5. Obvious – Has anything been hidden in plain sight? Does a prisoner palm something while being searched?
  6. Acting – How are offenders acting before the search? Is there either adamant or seemingly non-caring postures? Is there too much or too little resistance to the search?
  7. Proximity – As you search, is there anything going on around you? How are prisoners reacting to staff? Are there diversions?
  8. Documentation – Is the search written down? Will you issue a written misconduct report?
  9. Expectations – Did you find what you thought you would find?

Of course, these are not all the questions that might be on every contraband hunter’s list. Circumstances will guide the questions. Those above are excellent points of departure.

Why do we occasionally need to think of so many things prior to executing a search? In a way, it is like knowing about the entire iceberg. We see only about the tip of the iceberg, but there is so much more. Consider the immense and unseen part of it underneath the water. In addition, it is important to assess the surrounding waters.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. This is particularly true in a correctional facility. What you find in the search may be related to some other contraband enterprise in the facility. And by reviewing these questions, your search may become more focused and successful, enabling you to increase safety for staff, offenders, and the public.


Contraband and the horse and pug riddle

August 11th, 2014

Everyone knows someone who has a knack for provoking thought. A friend of mine frequently asks me questions that are odd and interesting. Here is a recent installment:
“Would you rather fight 100 pug-sized horses or one horse-sized pug?”

At the time, my mind was rather occupied with a particular contraband control issue. But the unusual images pulled me away from that stream of thought. What an odd concept. Yet, it seems that the chief issue is would you rather tackle one large and visible problem or many tiny problems?

I imagined the normally sedentary pug as a one ton carnivore, imposing because of its size. It is as big as a horse, after all. How could one tackle that colossal beast, arguably the largest terrestrial carnivore today?
Then I thought of 100 horses at about 20 pounds each. A single horseling would be no problem to control. But the thought of one hundred of them brings its unique set of problems. How does one corral 100 miniature horses? Which particular horse does one target to maximize control? Do all tiny horses need to be subdued or merely swept from view?

This can be superimposed on contraband control.

100 pug-sized horses – One can think of this as a multitude of seemingly insignificant exchanges of bootleg. There are numerous trading and sales of betting slips, candy, and medication. These traders are not connected together and are often chaotic. If you catch one, many others gallop away.

Is this dangerous? Perhaps small items that are not obviously perilious can be dismissed. Yet, continued trade can weed out less cautious vendors and spawn an oligarchy of contrabandist who eventually specialize in more dangerous fare. It is like the fast growing weed that is not pulled until a shovel is needed.

Small problems, even if there are many, need to be addressed. Realistically there are only so many tiny contraband schemes that one can hinder. Time and many locations are limiting factors for staff. Still, the contraband that you stop and remove from the system may have otherwise grown into a bigger problem.

One horse-sized pug – This can be represented by one prolific weapons manufacturer. A virtual bayonet factory. This prisoner has supplied the highest bidder with metal and plastic blades. The contrabandist has many well paid eyes and ears as defense. He has paid others to act as diversions to thwart discovery by staff.

This is obviously more dangerous than the nuisance contraband described above. Order is directly at stake. Injury is more likely. The risk is higher and more imminent. And the problem is not likely to go away with just a few exchanges of good and services. The demand is high and the contrabandist is rewarded for production.

In both cases, recognizing the scope of the problem is key in maintain safety in our facilities. One size does not fit all. Yet, some common strategies can be employed. Here are some general ways to combat many little contraband problems or one large challenge to safety:

  • Communicate with colleagues. Do not let small observations go unreported;
  • Document what you find, who was involved, where and when the transaction took place;
  • Look for patterns;
  • Write the appropriate misconduct;
  • Vary your search pattern and rounds as possible;
  • Do not relax vigilance when some contraband is uncovered. Continue the campaign.

Contraband beasts come in all shapes and sizes. They may not always be large and obvious. In all cases, they are dangerous or potentially dangerous. No matter the size or scope of the problem, contraband should not be ignored.

In the end, we realize that we cannot choose our problems. If 100 little problems manifest, we need to address them. If one gargantuan problem looms, we have to adapt strategies to vanquish it. How we react to contraband will set the stage for the safety of staff, offenders, and he public.


Our Many Motivations

April 2nd, 2009

The importance of decision making in corrections is clear. How we operate on the job impacts the lives of our colleagues and those housed in our institutions. And while safety inside our facilities is important, the public is also a factor. Our vocational performance can be viewed on the backdrop of public safety.

There is no escaping the fact that all of us are faced with scores of decisions every day. Therefore, it behooves us to consider how we face decisions and what really motivates us.

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Staff relations