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In This Room
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 04/23/2018

Contraband The following is an installment in "Icebreakers 101 - Volume IX: UNDAMMING THE ICE", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

Corrections practitioners have different concepts of the threshold of contraband. In other words, one may find a single piece of tape innocuous while another will view the same object as a possible component to a larger, more dangerous scheme. There are strong arguments for both sides and all points in between. Still, it may be best to introduce pre-professionals to the concept of contraband while erring towards caution. Initial lessons in contraband control, arguably among the most important training for the novice, should have a blunt impact.

There are two items necessary for In This Room. They are:

A roll of duct tape
A rubber knife
  1. Keep the rubber knife and duct tape out of view.
  2. Seek two volunteers. They will be the contrabandists in this exercise. Do not announce what they are to do at this point. The element of surprise must be in place and the other students will learn the lesson better with fewer indications of what may transpire.
  3. Appoint an observer. This person will note the hiding tactics and the progress made. The facilitator will also observe and comment later as necessary in order to support the observer.
  4. Send the other students out of the room.
  5. The facilitator tells the contrabandists that they use tape and hide the shank. The contrabandists are forbidden from disassembling or altering any part of the room or the furniture. I once conducted an exercise like this with no instructions like that and the students placed contraband inside a computer. True, it was not discovered and I took solace in the fact that the computer was not harmed. Still, one never knows the price exacted by zealous contrabandists.
  6. Contrabandists discuss where to hide the shank and list the possibilities.
  7. The shank is hidden in the best place deemed by the contrabandists.
  8. The observer takes notes.
  9. Students are called back and told this: “There is a weapon hidden in this room. It is not on the person of the three students (contrabandists and observer). Find that weapon. Be careful. Do not damage anything in the room.”
  10. The observer watches the search and take notes on the tactics and organization.
  11. Once the weapon is found, unless it is not found in a reasonable time, the observer conducts a post mortem.
  12. The searchers have a chance to give their observations.
  13. The observer then conducts a post mortem on the methods of hiding.
Once discussion has ceased, distribute the following article and commence the module on basic contraband control.
What the hell is in that cell?

Imagine your life without tape, shoelace, Velcro or staples. These items always seem to be around. In their absence, when need is great, one might think, “My kingdom for a staple!” These are useful and often overlooked inventions.

Scarcity of resources is a fact of life for prisoners. Quite simply, offenders are in circumstances that do not allow for their possession of many items. Things that adhere are often on the forbidden list. Staples, tape, and Velcro are contraband in most jurisdictions.

Agents of adhesion are not usually what comes to mind when one thinks of contraband. But, they are tools that help conceal forbidden items. A cell phone taped under a locker serves as an example. A shank or razor that is hidden on the underside of a table with adhesive bandages is another. Notes containing information about staff or escape plans “glued” between pages in a book is yet another example of the dangerous utility of stick substances in the hands of some offenders.

Staples, paperclips, and tape are generally forbidden in the hands of prisoners. Still, staff have these items in their desks and work stations. So, they are just a diversion away for the prisoner. Offenders assigned as a clerk in the library, office, or warehouse have access to these items, especially if staff are complacent.

Staff must monitor the many uncommon uses of other items not normally thought of as fastening agents. Here is a short list of adhesives at the fingertips of enterprising offenders:
  • Adhesives can also come in the form of items that one can normally buy in the commissary. Toothpaste is a good sticky agent.
  • Glue from envelope flaps also works well to join things.
  • Things that are thrown away by staff are fair game in the mind of the contrabandist. Some prisoners will dive in the garbage in order to retrieve gum.
  • Caulk from the windows can form an effective seal between pages.
  • Naturally produced elements such as semen, mucus or blood can be used as fasteners. As sickening as it seems, necessity is the mother of invention in many cases. This is a reminder of the omnipresence of other potentially infectious materials in the corrections setting.
Contraband in the form of adhesives is often overlooked by staff. It is like the story of a person who smuggled wheelbarrows across a checkpoint in Berlin during the Cold War. The soldiers at the checkpoint diligently searched the dirt as the wheelbarrow was pushed one way. Returning the other way without the wheelbarrow was not questioned. The person was smuggling the wheelbarrows.

Sometimes the tool is another part of the contraband. Common fastening items are so ordinary that staff forget their utility. They are, in effect, hidden in plain sight. Staff must think like contrabandists in order to take these subtle and effective items out of circulation.

It behooves staff to check their agency’s prisoner property policy directive and contraband control policy directive. This will surely help mitigate the peril in everyday, yet overlooked contraband like adhesives.

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:


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