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Working Definitions of Contraband
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 07/23/2012

Pop quiz As Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity so many years ago, “…I know it when I see it.” [1] While memorable, that simply points out the difficulties in explaining concepts.

When we think of contraband, the same idea of “I know it when I see it” may seem to work as a definition on the surface. However, with the possible sanctions and increased security levels on the table, an offender may naturally contest the definition.

What is the big deal about defining bootleg? Corrections staff want a solid definition so that the rules of their facility can be enforced. The less ambiguity there is, the more likely a misconduct report will successfully be processed. With that comes increased safety for offenders, staff and the public. Quite simply, contraband control increases safety for all.

However, not all agencies use the same definition of contraband. Here is one definition:

“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.”[2]

By that definition we can compile a list of specific items that could be considered contraband. However, one professional’s list of forbidden items may be contested. Among those who could disagree are other professionals, including the facility’s Hearings Officer, offenders, and the courts. Never-the-less, it is not an empty exercise to analyze elements of the definition in more concrete terms.

Any illegal good-
No one – the incarcerated and the free general public – is permitted to possess narcotics. Certain weapons are forbidden even to collectors. These sorts of contraband are rather easy to define. If it is illegal in the free world, it is definitely contraband in the hands of offenders.

Not permitted in the facility-
While most members of the general public have a cell phone, they are increasingly forbidden in most facilities. In fact, only certain staff under very special conditions may possess cell phones in certain worksites. The dangers of cell phones in the hands of enterprising inmates has been explained in other places [3]. But it was not until the item was officially forbidden in the facility in written form that the definition became clearer.

Another example of something not permitted in a facility but is still legal for the general public to possess is a pocket knife or a registered hand gun. Duct tape is another example of something easily obtained by citizens but verboten for offenders.

Someone else’s property (purloined)-
Prisoners are not allowed to take others’ property. If an offender has an mp3 player that belongs to another prisoner, then it could be considered contraband. The same is true of clothing, books, papers, and just about any other personal item.

Some stolen items are harder to define as belonging to another. For example, it is always difficult to track the food items officially purchased from the commissary then unofficially re-appropriated in the prisoner population.

Someone else’s property (with permission)-
When we find an offender in possession of another’s property, it can be considered contraband. Often, the holder will state that he has permission for the other offender. However, if your agency has it in policy, offenders may not officially loan items to others.

The number on a coat that a prisoner wears should match his identification number.

Authorized property in excessive amounts-
In correctional facilities, the unauthorized economy is in constant flux. Incarcerated entrepreneurs rise and fall with the steady undulations of supply and circumstances. Therefore, it is not unusual to discover hoards of items hidden in cells and often surprising storage areas. Prisoners may have official permission to possess certain items. But when the authorized item is held in excess, it may be contraband.

Would, for example, a prisoner really need to have sixteen rolls of toilet paper in his cell at one time? Can twenty boxes of snack cakes indicate an extreme sweet tooth or the tip of the iceberg for a trade operation? Are many pills a sign of a careful consumer or someone who has systematically concealed medication under the tongue? Is a large stack of metered envelopes or copious stamps the mark of a prolific letter writer or another method of exchange? All of these can be answered by what the agency’s policy and /or the Hearings Officer define as “excessive”.

Altered items-
One can see many strange in a correctional facility. The ingenuity and improvisation is staggering at times. It may be as simple as a shirt sleeve fashioned into a cap. From dozens of chewing gum wrappers an interesting photograph frame may be crafted. A sculpture can be made from soap and paper towel. These are just a few examples of seemingly innocuous items that were altered from their original purpose.

What about dangerous items? Eye glasses frames can be modified into a piercing weapon. Newspaper can be moistened, formed, dried, and made into a club. Staples and adhesive bandages can be transformed into a prickly and dangerous set of knuckle enhancing weapons.

All of this does not say in strict terms what shall always be considered contraband. These are just a few examples in a vast sea of possibilities. In the end, it may be that we know an item is contraband just because we know it when we see it. However, the official explanations provided by your agency should make that item easier to define.
  1. www.wikipedia.com 01/10/2010
  2. Wake up and smell the contraband: A Guide to Improving Prison Safety. (2nd edition) Horsham PA: LRP Publications, 2005, by Joseph Bouchard.
  3. Bouchard, Joe “Cell phones – The new contraband” www.corrections.com May 4, 2009.

Corrections.com author, Joe Bouchard, writes and presents on many corrections topics. He is a Librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for The Corrections Professional, Editor of The Correctional Trainer and MCA Today, and an instructor of Corrections for Gogebic Community College. You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321. He is also the author of three books including "Icebreakers III," the third in IACTP's series of training exercises books.

These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections. These are not necessarily the opinions of the Department. The MDOC is not responsible for the content or accuracy

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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  3. jamestown0509 on 07/23/2012:

    Contraband is anything that is not allowed by the policy of the jail or prison. Contraband is anything that endangers the safety and security of the facility. BTW-commissary can be traced because all facilities issue a receipt to the prisoner and keep a copy of what was purchased.

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