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Suspicion cues: What the hell is in that cell?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 08/15/2016

Contraband-7 When we ask “What the hell is in that cell?”, we do so as concerned corrections staff who strive to make our facilities safe for staff, offenders, and the public. It is our curiosity that fuels this imperative. Most of us acquire the habits of detectives in this vocation.

It is a true statement that not all prisoners will trade or carry contraband. It is also true that many will. This is a reality of the circumstances of incarceration. We cannot overlook anyone housed inside a correctional facility from suspicion. None of this is personal. Rather, we operate under the principle of preponderance of evidence.

Are we forced, then, to search everyone and everywhere? Or do we simply succumb to the overwhelming and inevitable odds against finding destabilizing contraband?

All is not lost. While we will not find everything for which we search, we have a few tools at our disposal. These are suspicion cues. Here are just a few points of departure for the search:
  1. The quiet ones – Have you ever observed a prisoner who seems to ‘do his own time’ and stay of touch with others? They certainly exist. However, the under the radar type can serve as a perfect cover for contraband storage and trading. The notion of one having to look out for the quiet ones does have merit.
  2. Conspicuous consumer – When you are faced with someone who suddenly seems instantly wealthy, you should take notice. Those who quickly increase store purchases or wear more jewelry or better clothing may be in the employ of a contraband lord.
  3. Instant muscle – Consider offenders who had previously appeared to associate with just a few people and who never had an entourage. Suddenly, they are in the company of many others and apparently heavily protected. One has to wonder what draws others to this person. Perhaps goods and services are exchanged for protection.
  4. Income from nowhere - It is true that funds may come from the outside world in an official manner. Those without funds are not necessarily contrabandists. Still, a person without an institutional job who seems to purchase many items from the commissary bears watching.
  5. Groups – Sometimes, prisoners settle into groups and pursue contraband endeavors. These are known as Security Threat Groups and other names.
  6. The x factor – Some staff have what can be described as intuition or a gut feeling. They feel that something is not quite right or that something is ‘in the air’. A look back shows that this is a staff person who seems to see things coming with more of a feeling than evidence. The jury is still out if the x factor is simple intuition or an unconscious pattern analysis. Whatever the root, the result can be an indicator of a contraband niche.
  7. Colleague opinion – Prisoners may behave somewhat differently on a school or job assignment versus how they carry themselves in the housing unit. One of greatest the greatest weapon in our contraband control arsenal is communication. Through this, staff share observations. A comparison of activities of a prisoner in different setting might reveal a contraband scheme.
Naturally, these are cues, not dictates. Sometimes, for example, a quiet prisoner is simply a quiet prisoner. Consider these seven suggestions as possibilities, not as absolutes.

We are correct to be suspicious. Contraband is ubiquitous and it is dangerous, no matter the form. When we do not find contraband from these suspicion cues, it does not mean that we were necessary wrong. We may have just overlooked it during the search. Whether you trust your gut or look at strict preponderance of suspicion, the action which follows is important.

There is no doubt that offenders have ample time to plot concealment tactics. However, staff have advantages of training, communication, and a fresh start every day. Still, since we cannot be everywhere all of the time, we need to utilize suspicion cues whenever we can. The safety of so many depends on this.

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

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