|The Overt Search for Contraband|
|By Joe Bouchard|
Contraband is everywhere. Whatever the form or amount, it is always potentially dangerous in a correctional facility.
An important instrument in the fight against contraband is the physical search. In its most basic form, it is a visual inspection of the any area of control. Two kinds of searches are overt and covert searches. This is a choice that will depend on the circumstance.
During an overt search, staff are not masking the fact that they are looking for contraband. It is not a stealthy sting. The overt search is meant to be seen by prisoners.
The overt search has many benefits. Among them are:
Impression. The overt, or the open search. is partly for show. If you want to allow prisoners to see that you are taking part in the actual search, the overt search is best. It may be that staff will want to paint an obvious picture. The message is that they intend to keep the area clear of items intended for illicit trade. If one prisoner sees the prominent display of examination, then it is likely that the prison grapevine will inform others of such. Overt searches can be timed for peak prisoner traffic times. The desired result is that news of the search will disseminate.
Deterrent. Prisoners may abort or suspend future plans for hiding or trading contraband in a certain place if they see staff combing the area regularly. The well-watched area is not the place to risk valuable goods. The overt search may serve as the inspiration for prisoners to remove well-hidden contraband from the area.
Serendipity. There is always the surprise of finding something unexpectedly. And, the overt search might just produce a clue to some other institutional mystery. By looking for nothing in particular, staff might unearth something that helps solve a riddle that has plagued the inspector for some time.
There are many cautions to consider when employing the overt search. Sometimes it just is not appropriate for staff to make prisoners aware of the search. For example, there may be a danger in prisoners knowing that staff will search a particular area. Or, an obvious search may thwart the time and effort invested in a lengthy investigation already in progress. If stealth is more appropriate for the situation, the covert method of search is preferred.
Also, those that use the overt method should not just go through the motions of the shakedown. If you are searching, you should actually look. You should not pretend to inspect.
Adept prisoners may be able to see through a feigned search. If it is believed that the search is just for show, some may challenge the level of scrutiny. They may test the thoroughness of staff by planting something with little value (sacrifice contraband) in an obvious place. After the overt search, they would arrange to check if the planted item was disturbed.
And, prisoners may reason that if an overt search has been performed, it may take a while before the next time the area is scheduled to be examined. They may believe that areas are not necessarily searched randomly, but in a rigid order.
Despite the cautions surrounding the overt search, it is still an important corrections tool. Any search is time and effort invested into institutional safety for staff and prisoners. Searches for contraband are indispensable in the workday of all corrections staff.
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
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