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Contraband Cards
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 03/20/2017

Bouchard_cards




The following is an installment in "Operation Icebreaker: Shooting for Excellence", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

What do Mother’s Day, Christmas and birthdays have to do with prison? If you think of opportunities for prisoners to make illicit money, you are near the mark.

We can concede that those incarcerated want to send greeting cards home to loved ones. In many institutions, the Chaplain or other staff fill this need by obtaining greeting cards in bulk. Still, there is an opportunity for unofficial profit to be had in filling this demand.

And with that is consideration of the underground economy. Prisoners who have talents, goods, and services to barter can maneuver others into improving their lot. For staff, this is distressing, because the goal of keeping everyone safe is thwarted with contraband and unauthorized activities. And, believe it or not, selling prison-made cards is an unauthorized activity.

To understand this better, the facilitator can ask a series of questions. They may also be presented as a worksheet to groups for discussion (See Contraband Cards worksheet at the end of this exercise). Below are questions with possible answers in bold print:
  1. What material is needed for making a contraband card?
    Pens, markers, markers, manila folders, and paper. Artistic talent is also needed.
  2. Where can one obtain the materials?
    From inattentive staff in schools, the library and housing units. Some items can be purchased from the commissary. Items can also be traded.
  3. Can a good tattoo artist also be a good paper artist?
    Yes, without question.
  4. What do you think a quality card could be traded for?
    The sky is the limit. It is interesting to hear what students say for this question.
  5. Do you believe the price for the card will rise in a prison setting as the occasion to be celebrated approaches?
    Yes. That is a constant in economic law.
  6. Are some prisoners willing to risk sanctions of theft and contraband charges in order to sell cards they made?
    Many will risk sanctions to make a profit.
  7. How important to prisoners is connection to family manners?
    It is very important to many prisoners. That is why this unofficial activity is lucrative to good artists.
  8. Is there an official way for prisoners to contact family on special occasions?
    Yes. These can be obtained from staff who obtained them in bulk for free. Also, the prisoner may make his or her own card from legitimate stock without the paid assistance of another prisoner.
Even with the advent of technology, greeting cards are still a big part of our lives. Granted, this has diminished due to texting, Facebook, and e-cards. Still, there are segments of the population who buoy the greeting card industry. The time has not yet come for a total electronic-driven (though monitored) communication from prisoners to those on the outside. Until then, we can count on seeing prison-made greeting cards in circulation.

Contraband Cards worksheet
  1. What material is needed for making a contraband card?
  2. Where can one obtain the materials?
  3. Can a good tattoo artist also be a good paper artist?
  4. What do you think a quality card could be traded for?
  5. Do you believe the price for the card will rise in a prison setting as the occasion to be celebrated approaches?
  6. Are some prisoners willing to risk sanctions of theft and contraband charges in order to sell cards they made?
  7. How important to prisoners is connection to family manners?
  8. Is there an official way for prisoners to contact family on special occasions?


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” and "Operation Icebreakers: Shooting for Excellence". 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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