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You think that it’s funny, but it’s not
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 01/12/2015

Contraband 7 The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

Let’s face it, when there is scarcity, people will sink to unexpected means of obtaining and retaining things. I have heard of some prisoners who smuggled cigarettes under the sole of their shoes in order to make a sale. The ‘customer’ may or may not know that the product is a foot cigarette.

Below is an article that addresses some of the unorthodox ways that prisoners use fasteners of all kinds to secure contraband.

Some of it is practical and not so shocking. Others involve what many consider disgusting human fluids. But all have been used in order to circumvent the investigations of corrections professionals duty-bound to mitigate contraband threats in the facility.

This is a very simple icebreaker.
  1. Break the class into groups of four or five;
  2. Have them select a scribe to write the answers;
  3. Have the group select a spokesperson to read the results;
  4. Select a floater to observe group dynamics;
  5. Distribute the “Fastener Quiz”;
  6. Tell the groups something like this: “Prisoners will often use what they have to conceal contraband. Sometimes, these are very shocking and disgusting manners of concealment. With that in mind, please discuss the following questions and answer to the best of your ability. You may draw on experience or theorize.”
Fastener quiz
  1. What sorts of ways do prisoners hide contraband?
  2. What items that prisoners can legitimately obtain from the store can be used to fasten a note under a desk?
  3. What human secretions can be used to adhere a razor blade between two pages in a book?
  4. Can human secretions be monitored or eliminated in a prison setting?
  5. How can we stop trade in contraband?
  6. What is the most disgusting means of concealment that you have seen or hear of?
The discussion may take some interesting paths. Below is an article that may be used as reference to this topic.

Fastening agents

When we think of contraband, we usually focus on the end product. Illicit goods such as spud juice, shanks, and stingers often come to mind. But what about the items that shape the final tradable commodity? What about the tools?

Let’s not focus on traditional tools like screwdrivers, hammers, and pliers. While those are all potentially dangerous for obvious reasons, let us instead ponder something that seems less dangerous: fasteners and adhesives.

We can classify items that help in the distribution and manufacturing of contraband as secondary contraband. They are not end products, or primary contraband (like a razor melted into a pen barrel or a lock in a sock).

Secondary contraband is used to progress a contraband scheme makes them potentially perilous. Fastening agents fall into the category of secondary contraband. One can think of them as contraband’s little helpers.

Sometimes, we forget about fastening agents. While they are not necessarily contraband in and of themselves, they are tools that assist in concealment and, therefore, increase danger in the corrections setting. Anything that bonds something to a surface is a fastening agent.

Fasteners come in many forms, and are divided into four general categories:
  1. Fasteners obtained from an official source: These are legal items that can be used as adhesives: Toothpaste, soap, deodorant, envelope flaps, adhesive bandages, and sticky deodorant labels can all be used to fasten one object to another.
  2. Naturally produced glues: These are all disgusting and potentially infectious: Saliva, mucus, and semen. Of course, they are impossible to forbid, as they are naturally generated.
  3. Illicit fastener group: These are fasteners that inmates can’t legally obtain: Velcro and all types of glue, clear tape, and the champion fastener -- duct tape.
  4. Construction materials
A common, yet overlooked adhesive is caulk or “window gunk.” This is the insulating, sticky material that bonds a pane of glass to a window frame. Window gunk is easily obtained: Every cell and pod that has a window is likely to have a large store of this evenly divided along the frame.

The most common use I have seen for this window gunk is page adhesion. Contrabandists use this to carefully conceal keys to codes, hit lists, by-laws, love letters and betting slips between pages. These are difficult to detect in a large book with many pages. Also, the neater the job is done, the more elusive it is.

Granted, a betting slip or a love note does not rank as high on the danger scale as a shank or narcotics. Still, instructions for a hit or a riot can easily be overlooked because of the neat application of window gunk in an unexpected place.

These items, in and of themselves, are not necessarily dangerous. Their danger comes from their ability to aid concealment – inmates can use adhesives to keep notes, instructions and other correspondence hidden from staff eyes.

The fasteners in groups one and two are particularly efficient at hiding correspondence between book pages, under meal carts, and under furniture. It takes just one dangerous note to incite a riot or plan an escape. Whatever the origin, fastening agents can be used to stow weapons under tables.

Let’s look at two cases of fasteners from group three.

Velcro – I have heard of staff who altered their work clothes with Velcro to facility easy undressing for illicit inmate relationships. Of course, the sexual contact is just the tip of the iceberg; after they’d had sex, inmates had leverage for manipulating the compromised staff member into smuggling contraband and doing other favors.

Duct tape – Duct tape, whether it’s given to an inmate by an officer or smuggled in by another method, is a potential source of great power for inmates. With duct tape, inmates can construct false walls or floors in mobile food carts by cutting a piece of cardboard or fabric to size and taping themselves into the cart. Once the cart has been moved to an area closer to the outside, they escape.

How do we stop the trade in contraband fasteners?

I do not believe that we can completely halt the trade in contraband fasteners. Like the trade in other types of contraband, fasteners will always exist in prisons and jails.

Rather than focusing on stopping the trade completely, we should accept that the best we can do is reduce it and its ill impacts.

In the meantime, we must:
  • Continue thorough and frequent searches of all who enter the secure perimeter
  • Treat everyone who enters like they may be carrying contraband (either on purpose or inadvertently), regardless of good reputation or friendship
  • Conduct random searches of all areas of control to keep contrabandists on their toes
Offenders come and go, but the goals of contrabandists are pretty much constant: To use goods and services to enhance their power and personal comfort while incarcerated. This is often achieved with the use of unauthorized fasteners.

Handy household tips can be quite valuable inside a correctional facility. Many prisoners who endeavor to trade goods, services and information know this and use every item they can to their advantage.

I am sure that a book that lists 1,001 uses for common items would be a formidable (if not subtle) weapon in the hands of a contrabandist. It is amazing how seemingly useless items have a utility beyond what they appear. Window gunk falls neatly into this category.


Love it or hate it, contraband control is crucial to maintaining order in our facilities. This keeps safe staff, offenders and the public. Some of the means used to conceal illicit goods are disgusting. But, the more we explore these tactics, the safer we will be.

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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