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It's the Little Things
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 02/19/2018

Contraband hello my name is
The following is an installment in "Icebreakers 101: Hello, My Name is Problem", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

Nothing chills the blood of corrections professional quite like the discovery of a twelve-inch shank. Yet, the vocational reality of dangerous weapons comes in many forms. Sometimes we forget that the little thing can also bring pain and disorder.

(For example, look [see photo] at how many little weapons can be made from a small measuring tape.)

This is a fast-moving excursive that needs little prompting for participants who have worked inside correctional facilities.
  1. Split the class into teams of three or four members each
  2. Issue a safety warning. “Be cautious! Be careful with the materials provided.”
  3. Give one team a box of paper clips and a bag of rubber bands.
  4. Give the next team pens and tape and paper.
  5. Give the next team staples and three manila folders.
  6. Give the next team a tin of mints and a sock.
  7. Tell the teams that they have to make a weapon with the materials provided.
  8. Give fifteen minutes and let each team report their creations to the rest of the class.
  9. Distribute the article below.
  10. This icebreaker is a great segue into contraband control modules.
This exercise takes staff into a mindset that small components ban be fashioned into dangerous weapons. For example, paper clips and rubber bands can made into a mini mace with a flexible whip-like handle with metal spikes.

The Big Deal About A Little Contraband

Speeding, in the eyes of the law, is speeding. If the 55 miles per hour speed limit is exceeded, it is against the law. Someone who travels at 56 mph is technically in the same category as those who violate at a much higher speed. They are just as guilty of breaking the law.

So, does 56 mph really equal 70 mph? The answer is “yes” and “no.” An officer’s discretion more readily allows for a warning to the former but a ticket for the latter. Conditions may also warrant flexibility in enforcement, and fines may vary per the intensity of the infraction.

Often, we judge posted speed limits as wrong. Many times, we justify that conditions permit us to push beyond the maximum. We can, after all, control speed with safety, despite the posted limit. But, should our own perception of safety be the last word in enforcement of any kind?

Unfortunately, this mentality comes into play in our correctional facilities. Some professionals believe that contraband control is conditional. Not all contraband is equal, they reason. Little things that seem innocuous do not represent a threat or warrant punishment. What harm, they would ask, is a stick of gum or a staple? However, both items can disable a lock, serve as fasteners of notes with instructions for mayhem from one prisoner to another, or represent the beginning of an illicit trade empire inside the walls. All contraband items, no matter how seemingly insignificant, represent a potential danger to the facility.

To understand this, let’s look at a definition of contraband.

“Contraband is any illegal good. It is something that is not permitted in the facility. It is anything prohibited by law, rule, or policy. It is someone else’s property, purloined or borrowed or authorized property in excessive amounts. Contraband can be permitted items that have been altered without permission.” – From “Wake up and Smell the Contraband” 2nd edition, by Joe Bouchard, LRP Publications 2005.

Perhaps the key to all of this is in the second sentence - something that is not permitted in the facility. If it is not permitted, it is forbidden. Just like a posted speed limit, the line is drawn at a certain place. It is neither conditional nor graduated. There is no interpretation necessary. “Is not permitted in the facility” quite simply means that the item is not permitted. Unfortunately, some staff will justify their actions as they redefine the rules. They may reason that little things do not mean much.

Imagine that a staff member is compromised by a prisoner who was successful in a game of manipulation. The origin of this power play could come from one of a number of sources: over-familiarity, naïveté, filling a void in the life of the staff member, or as a reaction to staff division. Thus, that staff person may feel compelled to break the contraband introduction rule for an inmate. The compromised staff member would face discipline or lose his job if he performs the favor of introducing contraband into the facility.

For example, imagine that your facility recently forbade staff to bring in pens that do not have a clear barrel. Some staff will cling tenaciously to a favorite pen, even if it becomes a forbidden item inside the walls, asking ‘what threat could that type of pen represent?’ A pen with a dark barrel can conceal many things. Large denominations of money, for example, or notes, instructions, small maps, and correspondence can all be hidden inside a pen. Narcotics too can be bootlegged in a pen. All of that is less possible with a clear pen. Entry control staff can very simply look at the clear pen for bootleg and permit staff to enter if all is ordinary and legitimate.

But suppose this staff member brings narcotics into the facility using a non-clear pen barrel. This one incident can produce many possible dangerous outcomes, since contraband equals power. Now the prisoner with the narcotics supply will be able to purchase a reputation of power and wealth through commerce. That inmate will be able to hire protection and place hits on staff and prisoners at will. Contraband also creates a powerful rallying point for security threat groups because they are strengthened by illegal commerce. Staff and prisoners will be less safe and the overall safety of the facility might be in jeopardy. All of this is due to one staff person refusing to follow a clear pen barrel rule.

Staff vigilance and enforcement of contraband rules bring security to a facility. However, it is not just the responsibility of the front gate officer. All of us have a stake in maintaining a facility clear of illicit goods. The administration can facilitate safety. For example, new changes to rules should be posted. If they are simply read at line-up, not everyone will be aware of the changes. Posting a list of permitted items near entry control allows all those entering know which items are acceptable and forbidden.

The administration also has a responsibility to enforce these rules in an even manner. Uniformity is key. Staff will know the likely sanctions of introducing contraband into their facility if punishment remains consistent. Uneven rule enforcement sends mixed messages. Staff should never interpret a facility’s contraband guidelines in light of their own needs. Rather, it is best to think in terms of the worst possible punishment for the smallest item, which will help reinforce the idea of dissuasion.

It is everyone’s responsibility to report any contraband. Each incident should be written and include the nature of the contraband, time, place, persons involved (both staff and prisoners) and any document that officially removes the contraband from circulation. All of this makes it easier to add the incident to a crime mapping scheme to ascertain patterns.

In contraband control, little things do mean a lot. The least significant item can actually be the gateway to instability, staff and prisoner injury, pandemonium, and even death. Unfortunately, some staff smuggle in an item that is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Yet, the inexorable flow of contraband can be slowed by corrections professionals. Each illicit item out of circulation contributes to a safer facility.

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" among others. 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:


  1. festival status on 05/01/2018:

    greate sir its very informative for me and helpful for me thankes for this post.....Regards lodhi - Festival Status

  2. Sovilsingh73 on 02/23/2018:

    Thanks For Sharing This information …. Really Helpful for us…… Regards Sovil Singh – Hindi Status

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