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Archive for August, 2016

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.