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The big deal about a little contraband
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 08/03/2009

55mph sign Speeding, in the eyes of the law, is speeding. If the 55 miles per hour speed limit is exceeded, it is against the law. Someone who travels at 56 mph is, technically, in the same category as those who violate at a much higher speed. They are just as guilty of breaking the law.

So, does 56 mph really equal 70 mph? The answer is “yes” and “no.” An officer’s discretion more readily allows for a warning to the former but a ticket for the latter. Conditions may also warrant flexibility in enforcement, and fines may vary according to the intensity of the infraction.

Often, we judge posted speed limits as wrong. Many times we justify that conditions permit us to push beyond the maximum. We can, after all, control speed with safety, despite the posted limit. But, should our own perception of safety be the last word in enforcement of any kind?

Unfortunately, this mentality comes into play in our correctional facilities. Some professionals believe that contraband control is conditional. Not all contraband is equal, they reason. Little things that seem innocuous do not represent a threat or warrant punishment. What harm, they would ask, is a stick of gum or a staple? However, both items can disable a lock, serve as fasteners of notes with instructions for mayhem from one prisoner to another, or represent the beginning of an illicit trade empire inside the walls. All contraband items, no matter how seemingly insignificant, represent a potential danger to the facility.

To understand this, let’s look at a definition of contraband.

“Contraband is any illegal good. It is something that is not permitted in the facility. It is anything prohibited by law, rule, or policy. It is someone else’s property, purloined or borrowed or authorized property in excessive amounts. Contraband can be permitted items that have been altered without permission.”[1]

Perhaps the key to all of this is in the second sentence - something that is not permitted in the facility. If it is not permitted, it is forbidden. Just like a posted speed limit, the line is drawn at a certain place. It is neither conditional nor graduated. There is no interpretation necessary. “Is not permitted in the facility” quite simply means that the item is not permitted. Unfortunately, some staff will justify their actions as they redefine the rules. They may reason that little things do not mean much.

For example, imagine that your facility recently forbade staff to bring in pens that do not have a clear barrel. Some staff will cling tenaciously to a favorite pen, even if it becomes a forbidden item inside the walls, asking ‘what threat could that type of pen represent?’ A pen with a dark barrel can conceal many things. Large denominations of money, for example, or notes, instructions, small maps, and correspondence can all be hidden inside a pen. Narcotics too can be bootlegged in a pen. All of that is less possible with a clear pen. Entry control staff can very simply look at the clear pen for bootleg and permit staff to enter if all is clear.

Imagine that a staff member is compromised by a prisoner who was successful in a game of manipulation. The origin of this power play could come from one of a number of sources: over-familiarity, naïveté, filling a void in the life of the staff member, or as a reaction to staff division. As a result, that staff person may feel compelled to break the contraband introduction rule for an inmate. The compromised staff member would face discipline or lose his job if he performs the favor of introducing contraband into the facility.

But suppose this staff member brings narcotics into the facility using a non-clear pen barrel. This one incident can produce many possible dangerous outcomes, since contraband equals power. Now the prisoner with the narcotics supply will be able to purchase a reputation of power and wealth through commerce. That inmate will be able to hire protection and place hits on staff and prisoners at will. Contraband also creates a powerful rallying point for security threat groups because they are strengthened by illegal commerce. Staff and prisoners will be less safe and the overall safety of the facility might be in jeopardy. All of this is due to one staff person refusing to follow a clear pen barrel rule.

Staff vigilance and enforcement of contraband rules bring security to a facility. However, it is not just the responsibility of the front gate officer. All of us have a stake in maintaining a facility clear of illicit goods. The administration can facilitate safety. For example, new changes to rules should be posted. If they are simply read at line-up, not everyone will be aware of the changes. Posting a list of permitted items near entry control lets all those entering know which items are acceptable and forbidden.

The administration also has a responsibility to enforce these rules in an even manner. Uniformity is key. Staff will know the likely sanctions of introducing contraband into their facility if punishment remains consistent. Uneven rule enforcement sends mixed messages. Staff should never interpret a facility’s contraband guidelines in light of their own needs. Rather, it is best to think in terms of the worst possible punishment for the smallest item, which will help reinforce the idea of dissuasion.

It is everyone’s responsibility to report any contraband. Each incident should be written and include the nature of the contraband, time, place, persons involved (both staff and prisoners) and any document that officially removes the contraband from circulation. All of this makes it easier to add the incident to a crime mapping scheme to ascertain patterns.

In contraband control, little things do mean a lot. The least significant item can actually be the gateway to instability, staff and prisoner injury, pandemonium, and even death. Unfortunately, some staff smuggle in an item that is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Yet, the inexorable flow of contraband can be slowed by corrections professionals. Each illicit item out of circulation contributes to a safer facility.
  1. Wake up and smell the contraband: A Guide to Improving Prison Safety. (2nd edition) Horsham PA: LRP Publications, 2005, by Joseph Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page


  1. derrikson on 11/22/2019:

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