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Archive for September, 2016

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.