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Contraband control: Theory and practice are not enough
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 05/31/2010

Stool Q. What has three legs but usually uses just two of them?

A. Most contraband control systems.

Consider the steady flow of contraband. It is seemingly as unstoppable as a widespread infestation. As corrections professionals, we can readily recognize that the dangers of the unofficial economy are very real. Each of us, as an agent of stability, battle to level this playing field through the elimination of contraband. By doing so, we work towards the ideal of achieving greater security for staff, offenders, and the public.

To nudge the ideal closer to the real, let us look at the structure. There are three components to complete any contraband control system. They are theory, application, and coordination or T.A.C.




Everyone has a theory of contraband control. It can be as simple as knowing which drop and pass locations are active. A theory may be as fundamental as an awareness of how prisoners generally settle debts after major sporting events.

Theories can be more sophisticated. For example, there is the seven step contraband control process and the 25 laws of contraband.[i]


Still, this is not enough. Having a notion of how illicit goods are exchanged does not mean that bootleg will be removed from the trading loop. Action is what is needed to bring theory to life.

As an individual practitioner, your application of contraband control theories is manifested in your action, not just in your head. For example, you are aware that coffee will be passed between offenders on the first few days after store is delivered. But application of theories comes into play when you actually seek the coffee during the likely trading times.


Still, that is not enough. What is necessary is the forgotten component of most contraband control systems - coordination. Just because a theory is brought to life through individual application, it does not mean that the bootleg mitigation operates at an optimal level.

In essence, it is a widening of the net. Certainly, items will be removed from the trade loop. But, this could be achieved through a more efficient and thorough way. And fulfillment of this comes with coordination. This brings a living individual practice to a greater potential. Safety is enhanced when lone efforts are linked.

A coordinated effort can be as fundamental as two staff partnering in a contraband search. By simply sharing a log of areas searched, colleagues coordinate efforts. Or it can be complex, like an entire facility charged with the task of searching for a specific item during an institutional lockdown.

Concerted contraband control ventures can be more sophisticated than that. The formation of a Contraband Tracking Committee, complete with crime mapping functions, is possible. Contraband control, when matched with crime mapping, provides an excellent manner to determine patterns and help us anticipate upcoming events. And this can be expanded to multi-facility, multi-agency endeavors.

Of course, the level of cooperation will vary from place to place. However, its limits are defined by resources, leadership commitment, staff cooperation, and imagination. In the end, the contraband search is done to make any corrections setting safer for staff, offenders, and the public. This is a practical and altruistic goal.

It is much like a tripod or a three legged stool. The legs of theory and application will never balance if there are only two legs utilized. But the third leg, the component of coordination, brings undeniable stability into play. Just like with a stool, the third leg allows the contraband control process to function in a more complete, reliable manner.

[i] Bouchard, Joseph. Wake up and smell the contraband: A Guide to Improving Prison Safety. (2nd edition) Horsham, PA: LRP Publications, 2005.

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