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Ultimate Teambuilding Exercise: The Facility Search for Contraband
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 06/08/2015

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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.


Consider this riddle:

What am I? I have hundreds of eyes and at least one of them is always open. My many brains know most everything and recognize where to find answers to that which we do not know. I have the potential to save lives, property, and organizations. I have the ability to be everywhere. You won’t recognize my voice, as it always changes. Without me, all will quickly fall into chaos.


One can easily imagine some multi-headed organism, strange, omniscient, confident and omnipresent. Yet, this is not some being from the horror or science fiction genres. The answer to the riddle is the collective potential of all staff in your facility. In other words, it is Team Corrections.

It can be conceded that teamwork will not always erase all friction between work areas and individuals. However, its presence will always inspire an environment that is harmonious, safe and efficient.

Teamwork is one of the most important cohesive agents in corrections. It builds a broader perspective for all staff, develops professional empathy, and increases safety through cooperation. When positive collaboration becomes a stronger part of an institutional culture, there results less harassment complaints and lowered stress leave. This sets the stage for security enhancement.

Flipping the coin, an absence of teamwork can spell disaster for any worksite. As teamwork erodes, there are the following effects:
  • Factions increase and disunity becomes infectious.
  • Harmful cliques that were broken will form anew to fill the vacuum left when the team mentality diminishes.
  • There is less concentration on larger safety issues, while staff becomes focused on their own local concerns.
  • Smaller decisions are implemented independently without consideration about their impact on larger operations.
  • With diminishing regard towards the larger picture, the likelihood of staff division and manipulation by enterprising offenders increases.
  • There is a de-emphasis on the safety aspect of the mission statement. This drain on security is due to infighting. In due course, this endangers staff, offenders and the general public.
Those are the chief reasons that team building in corrections is so important. Unfortunately, with the many challenges inherent in our vocation, we often unwittingly contribute to our workload with anti-team actions.

Training can go a long way in addressing this haunting specter. Modules that outline staff unity set the stage for the healing. The next step is to arrange useful illustrations with team building exercises. Tangible drills buttress the classroom learning.

There are many examples of team building exercises that point up the merits of cooperation. For example, some modules incorporate the use of rope climbing and trust, paper tower construction and even the use of jigsaw puzzles. More elaborately, there is training that allows participants to design and build a bridge out of tooth picks and glue. Often, a competition between teams is fostered when the strength of the bridge is measured.

Certainly, all of those are effective. But are they always easy to arrange? Are the materials easily accessible? Can any of these be executed for the benefit of all staff in a facility simultaneously?

The answer to these questions is “yes” when we consider the ultimate team building exercise: the comprehensive facility search. The institutional shakedown is a way to illustrate tangible benefits of teamwork.

This is very easy to arrange. The class room is already set up, as it is the actual institution. There are no ropes to hang, no toothpicks and glue to buy, and no complicated instructions. It is simply a matter of sounding the siren, taking a count, and issuing a few fundamental instructions to staff.

The materials are easily accessible. When staff have donned their particular universal precautions, the search begins. Staff can be paired in a variety of ways. Perhaps, though, it is best to incorporate support staff to maximize resources. Partner support staff with custody staff. This sets a situation for custody-to-support-staff mentoring on the job.

The lessons for non-custody staff do not lie solely in the actual search. There are some backing activities, as well. Support staff can also record, relay messages of findings to supervisors, and write misconducts as necessary. And other functions that workers normally perform can be done by support staff. One of these is working in food service. That would be a crucial function in the middle of a total lock down.

Inclusion of non-custody staff supports teamwork. This allows those who may rarely work in a housing unit to see the dynamics of the job. Also, custody staff that may have a strong anti-support staff bias may see the utility of their presence. It is an interaction between groups on the same team who have different function. In sum, it builds professional empathy.

This exercise directly benefits the facility. In the short term, it potentially removes dangerous items from the institution. In the longer term, this helps keep the playing field level in terms of individual and group power among offenders.

These are a few of the many suggestions to fit into your particular institution. They are based in common corrections common sense:
  • Activate siren.
  • Lock down the facility.
  • Take a formal count.
  • Turn off water to thwart flushing of small contraband.
  • Arrange for non-custody staff to work with custody partners.
  • Issue clear instructions about each person’s function.
  • Do not overlook some of the less obvious non-custody staff. The benefits of the exercise are increased as more staff are incorporated.
  • Target a few items to look for in particular. Some of these foci could be narcotics, handwriting, specific correspondence and weapons.
  • Include as many support staff as possible.
  • Send follow-up reports of findings to all staff areas after the exercise is completed.
Cynics may pose a few questions. What can you really learn from making sandwiches or searching property? Is it ever worthwhile to lock down a facility just to train non-custody staff in contraband control? Will custody staff get anything out of this?

When we consider the potential good that this does the institution, skeptical questions can be dismissed. Mutual empathy between different classifications can be earned. Cross training is a valuable experience. Seeds for collegial future good are planted. Offenders are assured that staff are seriously engaged in the security of the institution. Inmates, staff and the public are safer with illicit elements removed from the prison.

Whatever team building exercise you choose, the improvement of morale, safety and operations efficiency is potentially great. But consider the benefits that can come from the ultimate team building exercise – the institutional search.

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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