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Archive for June, 2012

Contraband be dammed!

June 27th, 2012

Although a dam has many uses, flood control is probably the most common. We have been using dams for centuries as a way to maintain safety for citizens. Yet, many of us rarely think of the solid, silent barrier that keeps water where it should be until it breaks. Still, without it, many areas would be very different and less stable.
In that sense, corrections professionals everywhere are a wall of security. We are the unsung heroes in the criminal justice system that keep the public safe by serving as another unseen obstruction against the forces of lawlessness.

Training is a very important part of what makes a corrections professional effective. There are so many parts of instruction that make up this whole. Communication skills, self defense and security threat group awareness are just a few of these. I believe that one of the most important, yet often overlooked, areas of instruction is contraband control.

In my training module “Wake up and smell the contraband”, I outline many concepts and strategies about the common persistence of smuggled goods in correctional institutions. Here are a few points about the nature of illicit trade:
• Everything is for sale.
• Contraband equals power. It allows anyone to purchase the services of others. Someone who is physically weak, with the help of contraband, can acquire protection. That makes anyone potentially formidable.
• Contraband control is a never-ending proposition. Prisoners new to the system will test it as though it had never been tested. Older prisoners will patiently wait until classic modes have been forgotten. With the profit to be had, the lure will always be present.
• Contraband lords are magnets for those who want to obtain associative power. Many inmates will hitch their wagon to the rising stars of bootleg entrepreneurs. The more successful a reputation, the more followers a contraband lord will have.
• The greater the profits from commerce, the more difficulty in prisoner managements. For example, when something is eliminated from an area, the scarcity rives the prices up. If tobacco becomes officially forbidden in segregation units, the demand will remain the same, but the reward for traffickers increases. More prisoners will take risks. The catalyst is profit and increased power.
• Old tricks recycle while new inventions of concealment and transport, though less frequent, continue. Seasoned professionals may take note, for example, of recurrent resurgences in certain methods. One might see the old hollowed-out book vehicle for contraband once in a few years. Through a career, we see fewer new methods as our collection of known modes expands with experience.
• Exchanges and trafficking, when traced fully, are good indicators of dynamics. Documentation of the contraband trail may yield excellent discoveries of intelligence which may later buttress security.
• To prisoners, contraband equals comfort.
• Personnel will find a depressingly low number of all of the illicit items in a facility. Prisoners simply have ample time at their disposal to compose concealment ideas. That is neither fatalism nor defeatism, but realism. Facilities with alert, committed employees and proactive contraband control processes can improve on success ratios.
• Foiling unauthorized commerce enhances security.

Of course, knowing a bit about the nature of contraband is just the first step in maintaining the dam that tirelessly holds back the potential flood of danger. There are many search methods and varying philosophies on the matter. Also, contraband control is not always a simple matter. It is not just stumbling across a discarded shank on the walk. When fully executed, it can be a multi-tiered, coordinated process.

Contraband control is a fundamental part of training for all corrections staff. It is a necessary component for the safety of staff, offenders and the public. Training on the topic of eliminating (or at least mitigating) illicit good in our facilities is really a way to maintain our wall of security against the plentiful and persistent erosive elements. Without it, we are really just an aging dam with cracks and an ominous future.

Contraband Control

Running the long race of contraband control

June 16th, 2012

An important benefit of contraband control is safety for the public, staff, and offenders. That does not mean that it is easy. Not all searches are quick and uncomplicated sprints. The quest for safety through the search sometimes seems like running a series of marathons that you will never finish.

On occasion, while conducting a large-scale search of the library shelves, a song pops in my mind. It is about what goes through the mind of a long distance runner. The piece of music is appropriate, as it highlights a seemingly impossible task. Here are some truisms of the search that are brought to the fore by the song.

It seems futile – Imagine searching for a single needle in a thousand hay stacks and you are only at haystack number 498. When we look up from a long-term job and see that we are less than half way done, it can be disheartening. This is especially true if the search comes up empty. The danger in this is the feeling of futility. Hopelessness compromises the quality of the investigation. Because we have found nothing so far, we reason that nothing will be found and use shortcuts. Ultimately, nothing may be found. However, an important part of the process is in the comforting certainty of thoroughness.

The task never seems to end – The long distance runner may ask, “Who keeps moving the finish line back?” This reminds me of the Mackinac Bridge that joins the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. That bridge spans five miles. You see crews painting it starting on the north end. It seems that when they finally reach the south end, the paint on the north side is worn and needs to be redone. This is like going through a large area with many hiding places. Once you complete the lengthy task, it needs to be restarted because of the time that has passed.

Determination is the driving force – Often, we will find nothing as the search progresses. Yet, if we skimp on the search, we compromise the process. It is like a thorough hunt through your house in pursuit of missing car keys. Looking in the obvious place is one strategy. If that fails, a systematic, complete search must follow. That is where determination comes in.

It is imperative to continue – Sometimes determination is buttressed by necessity. If you are trying to find your car keys at home, you know that you must succeed. Otherwise, you cannot use the vehicle and it simply becomes an expensive, immobile, three thousand pound weight on your driveway. In corrections, reports of a weapon in a certain area heralds necessity. For the sake of safety for all, it is necessary that the search be conducted.

We are all long distance runners in the search for contraband control. The track is long and the task never seems to be done. Unlike the marathoner, we never cross the final finish line until we retire. Contraband control is a series of long races. When we complete a race, there is another one to do. Stamina and persistence are tools that help us run the long race of safety.

Contraband Control

The magic three rules of corrections

June 10th, 2012

A friend of mine reminded me of the magical balance of things that come in threes. You see, my friend is writing a book. She has three main characters. There is a good interplay between the trio. A fourth person is introduced into the story and the whole thing comes apart. The protagonist, number four in the equation, knocks down the whole structure.

Sometimes, two is too few and four is too many. For example, three legs are optimal on a stool. Also, three philosophical ideas seem to provide the right amount of ideas. For some reason, three is a good number for many things.

With that in mind, I looked at the number three and considered it in terms of corrections. I believe that there are many things that a departing corrections professional could tell a newly hired person. In this, two may be too few and four may be excessive. Here are my three bits of advice for the incoming professional.

1. Follow policy – Every part of our job is written in operating procedures and policy directives. In many agencies, the larger directives are also adapted to local circumstances. Policy is our outline for success. As long as we follow policy and procedure, we are doing the right thing.
2. Ask questions – If you do not understand a process, ask about it at an appropriate time. Although you may not necessarily find the answer immediately logical, you will at least have broader knowledge of the job.
3. Be firm but fair – Enforce the rules in a manner that treats everyone the same. Be consistently assertive – not a push over and not aggressive.

In the end, three may be just another number. But, like the three legs of a stool, the number seems to provide a nice balance between too much and too little.

What three bits of advice would you give to incoming colleagues?