interested in joining authors network, email us for more information.


Archive for November, 2011

The Contraband Nerd versus the Contrabandist

November 22nd, 2011

In late April of 2011, I published the article called “The Contraband Nerd”. This essay outlined the variety of enthusiastic, talented staff who excel at uncovering dangerous items in our correctional facilities.

Contraband Nerd was defined in that article in this way:
1. A person who is enthusiastically and diligently engaged in discovering unusual uses for ordinary items,
2. A focused corrections professional who strives to understand contraband control methods and whose goal is to enhance safety,
3. A devoted corrections professional with a talent for discovering illegal schemes that utilize bootleg.
Recently, a colleague outside of corrections asked me about the Contraband Nerd. Perhaps the idea wasn’t conveyed as well as it could have been. She mistakenly thought that the Contraband Nerd could be a prisoner. I suppose that they may be two side of a staff/prisoner coin. In the purest terms, both of these would have opposite aims.
This is not about name calling, nor is it about simple labeling. In fact you could call staff Contraband Nerd, Contraband Hound, or any number of terms. Objectively, a prisoner who excels in trading or finding different utilities for common items could be called the Contrabandist. I would simply like to expand the definition a bit.
For the sake of this piece, let us suppose that the term Contraband Nerd applies solely to staff. Also assume that the term Contrabandist applies strictly to offenders. Let’s take a quick look at some of the differing roles and goals of the Contraband Nerd and the Contrabandist:

Contraband Nerd is a staff person who:
• eliminating danger from the facility
• keeping safe staff, public, and prisoners
• searching appropriately – using the overt search to demonstrate that the area is regularly looked over and using the covert search to uncover bootleg while prisoners are not looking
• communicating finds with staff
• documenting finds
• collecting concealment tricks in order that contrabandist can be foiled in the future
• educating interested staff in the ways of contraband control
• analyzing trading trends to better maintain safety
• using crime mapping on contraband incidents where resources permit and philosophies insist
Contrabandist are prisoners who:
• making his or her stay as an incarcerated person as comfortable as possible – no matter the cost
• thwarting the efforts of staff to discover illicit trade
• using wherever means possible in order to maintain trading enterprise or contraband empire
• accepting whichever trading alliances are available, even if the philosophies of both affiliated groups or individuals seem diametrically opposed
• getting the highest price for each item
• bartering, negotiating, coercing, enforcing all avenues of trade

Looking at the two very different archetypes, they truly are like opposing sides of an argument. Members of both of these groups are in a constant tug-of-war for the safety of a facility and all those contained within. It is a struggle that will never end. Both parties have vested interests and are not likely to completely abandon their desired outcomes. I believe that it behooves staff to reflect on their inner Contraband Nerd. Your contribution to the battle against illicit trading may ultimately save your life.

Contraband Control

Checkers, Chess and Contention

November 18th, 2011

The game boards are the same. There are 64 squares, arranged 8 x 8 in two different colors. Yet, chess and checkers are as different from each other as a flat screen television is to a coloring book. There are times when we are prepared to enjoy high definition and we are handed a book of simple drawing and a box of crayons.

When we are dealing with offenders, is no secret that some are very contentious. Their record seems to indicate that they retaliate to all defensive and punitive actions. For example, if you issue a verbal reprimand for violations of a minor rule, some inmates will complain all the way to the Supreme Court – very literally so. Perceptions of right and wrong are not important. Is just something of which staff should be aware.

It is prudent to prepare for the worst, of course. But is there such a thing as too much preparation? Might we anguish or squander resources on something that does not come to pass? We sometimes sit down for a game of chess only to discover that our “opponent” is looking for a game of checkers? Or is it the other way around? How do we prepare for contention?

• Preparation can be built into your routine. Logbooks and notes help jog the memory and are the basis of defense in any accusation.
• Following policy and procedure to the letter not only keeps the conscious clean, it also protects us. If you’re not one who operates in deviations and policy, accusations to the contrary are ridiculous.
• Remember the repeat offenders. If you encounter a contentious prisoner over and over through the years, you can take some solace in your growth as professional. Some prisoners are transferred often. If an argumentative prisoner transferred but is back to the institution after two years, this can be considered an opportunity for professional development. For you, that should count as two years of experience and skills accrued in his absence.
• Many people mellow. If a contentious inmate from your professional past resurfaces, stand on guard. But do not launch an offensive before the prisoner starts arguing. We have enough authority to see if the inmate has tempered argumentative ways.

• A reminder of the past may be warranted. But does not necessarily have to be use like a bludgeoning tool
• Play the game, but don’t be too absorbed in the details. It is good to have basic contingency plans. However, if you over-plan, you clutter the field with hypotheticals. Balance your planning with execution.
• Let others know if you are faced with constant contention. Chances are, highly argumentative individuals do not limit their complaints to one person. You may learn valuable coping skills or important information from colleagues.
• Do not get discouraged if a prisoner lies. In the course of disputes, this happens.
• Professionally speaking, assertion is better than aggression.

Like checkers and chess, each game of human interaction is different from the next. But the general principles of preparedness remain. And dealing with the contentious person in the past will not necessarily be identical to the next time you encounter someone of this nature.

Security, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

A tribute to IACTP

November 18th, 2011

This past week in Nashville, Tennessee, the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel held its annual conference. This is a collection of correctional trainers from all over the nation – and the world – who meet annually and share modules, techniques, and tactics for the very important job of educating corrections professionals.

Though the scope is international, I was not aware of IACTP until about seven years ago. Bill Hudson, former IACTP board member and corrections training head for Michigan, advised me of this Association. On his recommendation, I attended my first IACTP conference in 2005.

I admit that I was apprehensive prior to the meeting. Although I work under the larger umbrella of corrections, my sub profession is that of a prison librarian. And though I am an adjunct instructor of corrections for a community college, I went to the first conference with a self-imposed inferiority complex. At the risk of self analyzing, I wondered how a prison librarian who teaches part-time would fit in with veteran corrections trainers.

My self-doubt was quickly put to rest by the friendliness of this group. There was a great vibe of inclusion and curiosity about new members. And I witnessed a healthy intermingling of groups – not at all a clique-laden proposition.

It seems to me that IACTP attracts a creative and extroverted type. To be certain, there is a bell shaped curve of personalities. From the shy to the gregarious, IACTP runs the gamut. But even the quiet members seem to have talents and drawn out of them during training sessions. It is the mixing of various specialties in getting goals accomplished seems almost magical to me.

In addition, I attended many programs with different presenters. This allowed me to view a variety of techniques and tactics in teaching adults. One presenter was able to reel in a group of enthusiastic and gregarious participants/trainers with a soft voice and finger chimes. Another wielded a slideshow of dogs set to music during intermission. This was a creative and effective way for her to entertain the crowd while arranging her notes and getting a drink of water. A third dropped funny, self-deprecating lines that were not only amusing – they also buttressed his points.

IACTP is not just about teaching techniques. The Association also features presentations of great varieties. A few among them are: working with an intergenerational workforce, writing in corrections, professionalism, icebreakers for staff relation modules, avoiding set-ups, copyright concerns, and legal issues.

As a prison librarian, I can relate to the working conditions of your average institutional training officer. This is a person who is the only one of a kind in an institution. There may be training sergeants, for example. However one person is usually responsible for the training in a facility. Because of this, the problem professional isolation is not far away. But this is rectified through the IACTP network and through the annual conference. The training world is brought closer together the quarterly journal The Correctional Trainer.

There are lots of corrections organizations in the field. And though the scope and size varies, I have always felt that home at a corrections conference. Quite simply, this is a place for professionals to gain new ideas, enjoy professional camaraderie, and relate to others about the stress of the profession. However, of all of the conferences I have attended, I am most at home with IACTP. If anything, this Association has taught me the power of individual initiative and the benefits of pooling talents. I hope that Nashville was successful and enjoyable for all who attended.

For more information on IACTP, please check out

Dear Reader

Perspective on operations and change

November 10th, 2011

There’s nothing quite like a clear, starry night to make most people feel small and insignificant. The overwhelming size and complexity of the universe can pull routine thinking into a different mode. In other words, it is all about perspective.

Contemplating the cosmos relative to our own existence is one way to gain perspective. A more down to earth way, if you excuse the pun, is to ponder the many complexities of all operations as compared to your own area of responsibility.

Considering operations in the prison, it behooves us to maintain a broad perspective. It is often a matter of seeing how your work assignment fits into the larger picture. Here are some concepts that help achieve this:

Structure – Operations should flow with regularity. Schedules should be easy to remember. The rhythm of movement is like a heartbeat and circulation system. Almost all staff and prisoners like structure.

Flexibility – General operation should have a structure – but not a rigid one. There should be enough flex to accommodate deviations to the schedule. And aberrations are common enough. Some things that thwart activities starting on the dot are: fights and assaults, mistakes in meal preparation, equipment failure, weather events, and mobilizations.

Judicious corrections – Sometimes, circumstances call for radical rearrangements and rescheduling. However, as adjustments occur with staff and prisoners, we must be careful as we evaluate each new paradigm. Tweaking the schedules as necessary is important to do. But this should not be an exercise in wholesale reconstruction with many architects of varying opinions. Ideally, opinions can flow to a centralized location so unilateral, unfiltered modifications do not happen.

Interconnectedness – Usually, a new way of operating leaves us with a Rubik’s cube. When one thing is moved, there are visible ramifications that seem to further complicate the puzzle. Because of the interconnectedness of time, the intricacies of timing and the scarcity of resources, one little change can derail what was originally conceived as a smooth running operation.

Safety – Our mission statement place high priority on safety for staff, offenders, and the public. All considerations of operation should have this as a cornerstone.

Patience – A change in operations can be a stressful event for both staff and prisoners. But, time is a great equalizer. Often, we simply need more time to absorb the new changes. This is particularly true if the change supplanted an old, long-term paradigm.

I remember a lesson on perspective from my childhood. When my cousin and I were children, each of us thought that the full moon followed us. To test this, we stood back to back one night. As we walked in different directions, the moon appeared to follow each of the beholders. We both thought that the other was wrong and lying. Thus, an argument ensued. Realistically, change is not always unanimously agreed upon. It is not always welcome and is not always easy. But, larger perspective helps to make it easier and a little more welcome.

Assessing the organization, Staff relations, Training

Reading the signs

November 2nd, 2011

I have lived in a heavily wooded area for nearly 2 decades now. I had no idea that I would eventually be able to identify a bobcat by sound. Still, I am no expert tracker. I do not read the signs of nature such as paw prints or broken twigs as well as others.

Inside of a prison is a different story. There is human psychology behind each movement and action. Some of it is unintentional. Other times, a clue is left as a ruse.

Recently, I noticed something that gave me reason to consider signs. There was a recent upswing of interest in a particular section of the library. That interest had not been there before. Suddenly, there were three or four prisoners gather around the section of shelves. Invariably, one of the prisoners crouched and looked at the right side of the middle shelf. Why the sudden interest?

Four different ideas occur to me.

Valid interests – Perhaps a news story or newly released movie sparked interest in the subject area on the library shelf. I had seen the rise and fantasy books with each Lord of the Rings movie that came out in the early part of last decade. The congregation around a specific area of interest is possible given media attention.

Social – Maybe the area of congregation just happened to be where a social group got together to exchange salutations. It was certainly not disruptive. So I just watched and pondered the possibilities.

Diversion – It is possible that these prisoners (in collusion with others) got together to focus my attention towards them rather than at another place in the room. While looking at the West end of the room, something could’ve been happening at the East hallway. Using ceiling mirrors and direct observation, I saw nothing out the ordinary.

Blocking – The last possibility that occurred to me is that something was going on in the area where the prisoners were gathered. I saw no weapons. There did not appear to be any sexual activity. The facial expressions did not look to tense. Yet it seemed to me for some reason that something was going on. The feeling had no immediate justifications.

I waited until the library was clear of prisoners and searched the shelf. I discovered a metal piece of shelf measuring 2″ x 1″. It was moved away from the wall a bit, like a little tab. In other words, someone was trying to work the metal. True, a 1″ x 2″ rectangle of metal might seem like a small threat. Still, I imagined it affixed to a melted toothbrush handle. When done correctly, that would be a formidable weapon.

In a way, I was missing the forest for the trees. While I thoroughly searched the books, I forgot about the shelves themselves. It was only by accident I found the metal, as it was in a hard place to see.

Ultimately, this gave me another place to look during routine searches. As a postscript, the metal was adhered to the wall with a rivet. Now I see the signs of who might continue to frequent the area and what their facial expressions may be.

I know the growth patterns of trees and altered flight paths of birds can possibly mean something. I do not know what these events mean however. I’m aware that with nature, there’s no intentional deception. But when we read the signs in human action and interacting there may be a ruse.

Contraband Control