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Contraband Detection Technologies
By Joe Russo & Doris Wells, National Institute of Justice
Published: 02/11/2019

Contraband This article does not necessarily reflect the findings, views and/or opinions of the American Correctional Association. Furthermore, the findings and conclusions reported in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

All correctional agencies, to some extent, struggle to control contraband, an umbrella term referring to anything inmates are prohibited from possessing. In general, contraband consists of any item that poses some sort of threat to institutional security, public safety as a whole and inmate health and welfare.

Although each agency may define contraband differently, there are four universal constants: contraband can enter an institution through a variety of pathways; is often difficult to detect; fuels the black-market economy within the institution; and ultimately undermines the safety and security of the institution. Agencies are increasingly relying on technology to support contraband interdiction efforts. To help agencies identify the available technology options, the National Institute of Justice funded A Market Survey on Contraband Detection Technologies. Prepared by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, operators of the National Criminal Justice Technology Research, Test and Evaluation Center, this survey presents information on 103 contraband detection products offered by 33 commercial vendors.

The Problem

As long as correctional institutions have existed, there has been contraband. Contraband can be a moving target in more ways than one. What is considered contraband may vary among correctional agencies and over time. Some types of contraband are consistent across jurisdictions (e.g., weapons, tools, drugs, alcohol). Some contraband may vary among jurisdictions (e.g., tobacco was sold in institutions for decades but is now considered contraband in the states that have banned smoking). Further, societal and technological changes may create new forms of contraband. For example, 25 years ago, cellphones were not thought of as a threat to correctional institutions as they are today. Although all forms of contra-band can, to varying degrees, pose a risk, cellphones and drugs appear to be particularly challenging and growing threats [1].


Contraband cellphones have been described as the most pressing concern of many correctional administrators; these devices pose a significant threat not only to institutional security, but to public safety in general. For example, inmates have used cellphones to plan the murder of witnesses in the community, escapes, attacks on correctional staff and institutional disturbances. Inmates have terrorized victims and operated ongoing criminal enterprises from drug smuggling to elaborate wire fraud and money laundering schemes. By conservative estimates, tens of thousands of contraband cellphones are confiscated each year [2]. Of course, this represents only a fraction of the total number, as many devices are not located and remain in circulation.

A recent disturbance at a South Carolina prison illustrates the danger of contraband cellphones. During this disturbance, considered the deadliest riot in 25 years, seven inmates were murdered and 17 others were wound-ed in a gang-related dispute over control of the contraband cellphone market [3].


Drugs have been a perennial concern for correctional administrators, due in part to the large number of inmates with substance abuse issues. Drug use is rampant in some jurisdictions. In California, for example, a quarter of the state’s prison population was drug tested, and nearly 23 percent were positive [4]. Beyond the violence associated with gang control of the drug trade, the presence of drugs can hinder rehabilitative efforts. Further, overdose deaths in correctional institutions are becoming increasingly common. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that a total of 139 in-custody deaths were attributed to drug or alcohol intoxication in 2014 — a 54 percent increase over the previous two years [5,6]. Many institutions are reporting increasing inmate use of synthetic cannabinoids (e.g., K2 and Spice), which can cause dangerous behaviors, and several news reports have described inmates exhibiting acute psychotic reactions to these drugs [7]. One increasingly common contraband drug, suboxone, may be hidden under postage stamps on letters mailed to inmates.

These two major, but very different forms of contraband illustrate some of the challenges of detection. The technologies used to detect cellphones likely will be quite different from those used to detect drugs, but there are further nuances to be considered. For example, the technologies used to detect drugs hidden in mail will be different from those used to find drugs that have been smuggled within a body cavity. Moreover, because contraband takes various forms, there is no single technology that will detect all contraband. Thus, to effectively address the contraband issue, agencies, especially with limited budgets, should assess their greatest contraband threats and develop awareness of the cost-benefits of solutions available — how they work and how best to apply them.

To view the full report click here.

Joe Russo is the corrections technology lead at the Justice Technology Information Center, an NIJ program funded through a grant to Leidos.

Doris Wells is a writer-editor at the National Institute of Justice.


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