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Triple threat to contraband empires
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 06/21/2010

Bleachers It seems that we ascend an endless set of steps in the pursuit of safety. Contraband is a common menace in prisons. It will exist as long as there is incarceration. It is a never-ending proposition.

But an established contraband lord is not free of pressures to maintain an empire of illicit trade. There are three threats to contraband empires, they are competing prisoners, corrupt staff, and professional staff. Understanding the structure and motives of these three groups will help foster safety for all in correctional facilities.

                          Triple threat to contraband empire

Prisoner competition           Corrupt staff           Professional staff

Which would you choose as the lesser of two evils? Would you select the persistent and efficient criminal whose methods you know? Or would you pick an unknown element, one which could be either more or less dangerous than the current threat to security?

Which inmate will conduct a personal campaign to rule others through the economic might gained through a contraband empire? It would be useful if corrections professionals could predict the next hazard to institutional safety that arises to fill the shoes of the dethroned lord of illicit trade. To do so we need some additional information. It is crucial to study the motivations, methods, movements, and economic structures of illicit goods. That allows us to theorize about the location of the next nest of contrabandist.

It has been said that what goes up must come down. Staff may take solace in the idea that no single prisoner can retain the title of contraband king perpetually. But that should not be an invitation to fall into complacency.

There is a danger for staff and prisoners alike when the forces of illicit trade shift. Stakes are higher, especially when a newcomer who is desperate to gain power associated with trade does so forcefully. The prize of prison commerce to some inmates is very strong. Misconduct reports and even additional charges on their sentences are not always dissuading factors.

Established contraband empires are challenged by three groups:
  • Prisoners new to the business that aspire to obtain a slice of the illicit trade pie
  • Unscrupulous staff looking to earn some illegal money
  • Honest staff who locate contraband to derail trade for the sake of safety

Prisoner competition – Comfort is very important in prison. Inmates are provided with basic amenities. However, many will seek means to remain as comfortable as possible while in confinement. This also means keeping free from the coercion of other prisoners and prisoner groups.

One way that prisoners alleviate the daily pressures of incarceration is to hire protection. This is sometimes done on the back of contraband trade. Another way to gain comfort is to dethrone a legend. If an aspiring contrabandist can take business away from an established trader, the reputation of the former rises.

When considering some of the motives, it is easy to understand why a new contrabandist would be eager to get into the trading game.

Corrupt Staff – Corrections does not really want to discuss the staff member gone wrong. It is an embarrassment and a source of public scorn. However, it is a niche that exists and is not likely to go away.

Unfortunately for official operation of prisons, some staff members take a wrong turn in their vocation. We can solace in the fact that very few staff take this route.

This is what prisoners known as Inside Traders need in order to operate. In this scheme, corrupt staff obtain goods from the outside and facilitate sales with a prisoner liaison inside. Key inmates call the shots behind the scene. They may make staff believe that they are in control, but this is not the case. To complicate the ruse, more than one staff agent in an institution may be on the prisoner payroll. Yet it is possible that the staff puppets are oblivious to those acting in the same capacity.

Of course, staff are the wild card in all of this. If staff on the take inform their superiors of their indiscretions, the empire of the Inside Trader will collapse. Staff who have strayed from professionalism have a very strong motive to topple the enterprise. That motive is to mitigate the consequences of their imprudence.

Professional staff – Corrections professionals of all classifications maintain a safe environment for all by even and fair enforcement of the rules. Contraband control is a basic building block of this.

This is potentially the most powerful of the three threats to contraband lords. The motive to derail trade can be based on the altruism of a better work place or the pragmatism of overall safety. This is in contrast to the motives of competing prisoners and corrupt staff whose motivation is centered on self preservation and avarice.

Despite the ubiquity of illicit trade, alert staff hold all of the cards in the search. As a collective staff have these tool to effectively cripple the inevitable trade caravans of bootleg in prison.
  • We can search with virtual impunity if we do not cross over the line of professionalism into the area of harassment.
  • We have a potentially effective machine to collect intelligence.
  • We have staff that rotate among two or three shift and return refreshed. The search can potentially be conducted in some form for 24 hours a day.
  • Potentially we have a supremely united communications network.
  • We have the ability to concentrate efforts in special areas.
  • We can tap the expertise of experience in the field.

Contraband control is a never-ending proposition. Prisoners new to the system will test it as though it had never been tested. Older prisoners will patiently wait until classic modes have been forgotten. With profit to be had, the lure will always be present.

Knowing that there are three primary threats to contraband empires will not guarantee total safety for any facility. However, that knowledge in the hands of perceptive staff can help foster a safer environment and offer intelligent predictions of the source of potential problems.

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