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Contraband Searches – Diversify or Specialize?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 02/25/2013

Binocular man Have you ever lost a favorite pen at home? If the pen means enough to you, the house may be turned inside-out in order to retrieve the coveted writing implement. However, items that you stumble upon on the way to finding the pen count as bonus discoveries.

If during the search you find change in the cushions, you would not put the coins back because you were not technically searching for them. Would you disregard a long-missing remote control that you found when searching for a pen just because it was not the pen you sought?

Recently, I was asked why I sometimes focus on specific items in a search. In other words, why not just look for contraband in general rather than specific items? This is a valid point. Here are some additional thoughts:

Specific searches do not necessarily equal limited searches – Looking for something in particular does not mean that you are locked into that search. Two or three (or many) specific items can be on your search list at once.

A target item is a helpful focus – Imagine that metal lids from large food cans are missing. The image of what these items look like and what they could be fashioned into fuel the search. Certainly, time is of the essence in this case. Sometimes, circumstances warrant a specific search.

Don’t overlook secondary items – One can still search for specific contraband while removing other items from circulation. If, for example, intelligence suggests that there is a cell phone in a certain area, you look for that in particular. However, if you find stingers, stickers, betting slips, spud juice and a spy pen during the search, you do not allow them to remain in the inmate economy. You write the contraband removal slip, issue the misconduct, inform other staff /your chain of command, and continue the search. A specific search does not negate serendipitous finds.

Contraband runs the gamut – All staff need to occasionally think about the many different items one can encounter during a search. It is so much more than just shanks and betting slips. The world of inmate ingenuity produces so many variations on a theme. Thinking about how specific items relate to one another opens the mind to the staggering diversity in contraband.

Specific items sometimes mean specific hiding places - The specific search allows one to think in terms of hiding strategies. If, for example, you are acting on a tip about a spud juice operation, you can make certain assumptions about how it will be hidden. Containers will be suspect. Sealed trash bags and latex gloves are not innocent in this search. Larger operations are likely (though not always) to be concealed in hot areas so the hooch can ‘cook”.

Embrace diversity - We are all different. Some will look in general, while others will conduct specific searches. Even if we attend the same training, our experiences and how we are wired will impact on how we think about a search. Especially if searches are coordinated, complementary search styles are more likely to uncover more contraband than two homogenized approaches. Different eyes and varied search philosophies increase chances of success in removing bootleg.

Is there one right way? Should we disregard the specific search and just conduct clean sweeps? The answer to that will depend on factors such as your search style, staff dynamics, and the circumstances. In the same way that search styles vary on the intuitional-methodical range, foci differ. General or specific do not matter so much as long as searches continue. Whether a 12 inch shank is discovered because of a specific search or by a sweep is of less consequence as it being taken out of circulation. Theories and practices vary. But we can all agree that contraband control reduces danger in our facilities.

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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