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Little Things Can Mean a Lot
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 04/29/2013

Contraband 7 One of the most fundamental mistakes corrections professionals can make is to underestimate a threat. For example, a smaller inmate may be disregarded as a potential hazard because the inmate is not overtly formidable. Yet, when a diminutive offender uses the element of surprise in an assault, size is of no importance.

The same is true with objects. Little items may seem harmless, but that is not necessarily so. There is a certain class of items called nuisance contraband. This is any item that is not overtly threatening. A nuisance contraband item can be something that is small and often commonplace.

Part of the nuisance is that some staff consider the item as an inconvenient incident about which to write a misconduct report. Granted, there are only so many hours in a day and so much contraband to remove from the system. But, one is more likely to issue a ticket over a four inch shank made from the top of a metal can from the kitchen than for a spool of dental floss.

Here are some little, seemingly harmless items that could pose danger in your facility:

Plastic wrap – This is easily found in kitchens, as spare garbage can liners, and in packaging from the commissary. Plastic wrap conceals the odor of tobacco and is shrinkable with heat. It repels water so things can be hidden in toilet tanks. With plastic wrap, pills can be protected and hidden in petroleum jelly or peanut better by.

Staples & Tape – Common is classrooms, offices, libraries and in mail items, staples and tape are often overlooked by staff. If applied correctly, these can hinder keys from opening locks. Another hazard is the sticky utility of tape. Enough tape can conceal notes of instruction and weaponsin a drop and pass location quite out of view of staff.

Dental floss – Fishing season never ends inside the walls. And dental floss is a great way for contrabandists of all levels to pass information and goods between cells. Dental floss is the high end fishing line in this environment.

Newspaper – The formula is simple: N + W + F + D = W. Newspaper plus water plus formation (application of hand pressure and shaping) allowed to dry can equal a weapon. Believe it or not, a tightly wound newspaper, alternatively moistened and dried, can become a hard club.

Candy – Sweets of any description are the ultimate trading commodity. Local economics will determine worth - X number of hard candy equals a good or service. Though most prisoners are not allowed to possess coins or dollars, candy serves as a sort of illegal tender. Also, candy can be sharpened by saliva. This may not make the most formidable sticker. But, with surprise, candy could be harmful.

Here are some tips to thwart mini-menaces:
  • Secure all nuisance contraband, even if a misconduct cannot be written,
  • Look at office and trash areas for contraband opportunities and fix possible breaches,
  • Use effective searches on prisoners and in their areas of control,
  • Do not take small things for granted,
  • Record all incidents where nuisance contraband is a part and share with staff and control center.

Of course, not all little things are connected to a large, nefarious scheme to topple all control and safety measures. However, little things can mean a lot. Nuisance contraband left unchecked can embolden would-be contrabandists. The plastic bag that you confiscate can actually be the container for a substance that once traded can cause violence and chaos.

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

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