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Hiding in Plain Sight
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 05/09/2011

Stealth bomber

The recent discovery of Osama bin Laden’s location has brought a phrase back into popular usage. We're hearing "hiding in plain sight" quite often these days. Even as we filter and analyze all that comes from the notable event, we in corrections should consider that phrase on a deeper level.

There are three basic categories of things that can be hidden in plain sight. They are a single item, a person, and an enterprise.

Hiding an item in plain sight – I've seen this many times in my career. Offenders have been known to sometimes hold more magazines in their hand then they are allowed to officially borrow. Yet, because they're not stuffing them in their coat sleeves, in their pants, or folding them into other books that are officially checked out, these items are in plain sight. The offender is less suspicious because he does not appear to be hiding anything.

I used to stock the facility’s library with small, paperback dictionaries. It was extremely difficult to retain these. These were certainly a hot commodity. I remember an instance where a prisoner stood for a search with the blatantly marked dictionary casually resting in his right hand. Though his hand was outstretched and the institutional markings were evident on the book, the officer did not notice this. I sighted the soon-to-be-purloined book, confiscated it, and issued the appropriate misconduct report. Later I asked myself, “How many times have I missed something such as this?” I had to admire the audacity of that prisoner, though his intent was to steal valuable resources.

Hiding people in plain sight – I once witnessed an assault in the library. One prisoner stood up seemingly without provocation and started striking another offender on the back with a chair. The attacker then spun in a Tasmanian devil fashion and needed to be subdued. When the dust settled, staff noted that the prisoner who was attacked blended into the crowd that now lined up near the wall. The had, in effect, simply melted into the crowd. Fortunately, he was identified. Yet, many times the anonymity of the institutional uniform allows the prisoner to hide in plain sight.

Long lines of prisoners on the way back from meals or activities serve as a way to hide people in plain sight. For example, general population prisoners shouting acknowledgments and instructions to those on segregation yards can easily be obscured while still in plain sight. The crowd, the distance, and the way that voices carry, hide the perpetrator. Staff may know the general direction of the communication. Further, staff may understand any message that is shouted though it may be coded. But the person remains unidentified.

Hiding enterprises in plain sight – Although a rule may state, for example, that offenders may not possess can be in a certain area, that rule may not be well enforced. And sometimes the audacity of one offender passing a piece of candy to another does not appear noteworthy. Yet, prisoners will make exchanges in plain sight. One can suppose that the strategy is to look as natural as possible. Of course, it is not limited to an exchange of candy for services. A quick embrace or clasping of hands could be the display of "natural" behavior" designed to hide the exchange in plain sight.

Hiding things in plain sight comes in many manifestations. Ordinary, natural behavior is a good obscuring agent. Planned diversions elsewhere assist plain sight traders, as well. Sleight-of-hand is also an effective method. Also, giving up lesser contraband to staff on keeping something more sinister (a.k.a. sacrifice contraband) is a common way to move bootleg under staffs’ noses.

The art of concealment does not have to be complicated. The object does not need to be unobtrusive to be hidden. As we recognize these blatant or subtle ruses, we build the foundation for greater security.

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