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The contraband search: Art or science?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 01/19/2009

Regular Corrections.com columnist Joe Bouchard is a librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He also is a member of the Board of Experts for “The Corrections Professional” and an instructor of Corrections and Psychology for Gogebic Community College. You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321.

Whenever a contraband item is removed from a corrections setting, security becomes enhanced. This is true whether a weapon or a simple betting slip is taken out of circulation.

Of course, the weapon is a more obvious threat than the betting slip. However, small things can be traced to larger, seriously dangerous enterprises. It remains that all contraband has the potential to present peril to staff and prisoners.

Without question, security is the paramount goal of corrections. This is true regardless of the size or location of the worksite.

From the smallest local lockup in Alaska to the largest maximum-security facility in Florida, contraband’s ubiquity remains a dangerous truth.

The primacy of security is reflected in so many agencies. One can execute a random search of mission statements in our profession and discover the presence of the words “safety” and “security.” For example, one Midwestern corrections agency, with which I am familiar, lists its goal as an agent of safety for staff, offenders and the public.

If someone were to ask a large number of staff how to best eliminate contraband, there would be a variety of answers. Tactics and styles are quite individual.

However, from that broad store of suggestions, one could compose a fairly good checklist. It is simply up to the discretion of each practitioner to adapt the list to their particular needs. It is a matter of pragmatism.

Then there arises a philosophical question. Is contraband control an art or a science? Let’s see what one can learn for both extremes.

Contraband control is an art

Ask any health care professional, bartender, or corrections staff about intuition. A large number of each will readily acknowledge that they have experienced intuition.

This can come in the form of an “X Factor”, the feeling that something is not really as it should be. There are many in the corrections profession that seem to know that something significant will happen within the facility, even though there are no obvious indications.

This sixth sense can also be applied to contraband finds. Intuitive staff seems to know exactly where to search and are often successful.

Contraband control artists are also adept at feeling the vibe of the institution and the inmate population. The hunches that they act on should not be dismissed.

Overlooked suggestions can lead to disenfranchisement of a valuable resource. Don’t reject the intuitive.

Those who consider the approach of the contraband control artist as flawed tend to label intuition as pattern analysis, a keen sense of personal dynamics, astute observation, and solid corrections experience. Whatever the full truth, contraband control artists enhance safety for all, including the skeptical scientist.

Contraband control is a science

To the contraband control scientist, there is no such thing as luck. Agents of fortune do not exist in their world. Successful contraband control is predicated on a structured and thorough search.

At their purest, contraband control scientists are methodical practitioners who employ a process. Some of the stations on the contraband control process are shared observations, vigilance, the search (both covert and overt), and documentation.

The successful contraband control scientist knows the lay of the land and is realistic about the elusive nature of the goal. They will continually (and methodically) tweak their system in order to uncover more bootleg.

The contraband control artist may consider the scientist as a cold technician who refuses to listen to the informed inner voice. Nevertheless, contraband found by the scientist is a safety win for all, including a dismissive artist.

So, who is more valuable? Is it the artist or the scientist?

As with all apples and oranges questions, no single answer is right all of the time. Scientists are capable of failure and intuition will not always be on target.

Therefore, it is easy to conclude that both methods have their merit. It is more important to recognize the personality types and any feelings attached to the methods. These two search philosophies can coexist. Optimally, they should compliment one another.

Sometimes, we are so fixed on the means that the ends are lost. The very worthy goal of security for all is more important than the tactics of the scientist or the intuition of the artist.

Whatever the search philosophy, it is the public, offenders, and staff who ultimately benefit from the removal of contraband from our facilities.


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