Behind Bars: Contraband is a constant battle for correctional officers
By Joe Henry
Per Minnesota’s 2911 rule:
“Contraband” means an item possessed by an inmate or found within the facility that is prohibited by statute or facility policy. This includes items that are authorized but in excess of allowable limits.
Specifically, contraband can be something that’s brought into the facility by an inmate or something found and possessed by an inmate that they’re not allowed to have. Contraband can also be anything that’s issued to an inmate that is altered from its original state or, as stated above, an excessive accumulation of any item issued to an inmate.
Contraband is a constant concern for Corrections Officers and a problem that can potentially be deadly. The above definition is how the Minnesota 2911 rule defines contraband but in real life terms, the contraband we have to deal with on a daily basis can take many forms:
n Controlled substances (drugs)
n Cell phones
n Food & Beverages
n Clean urine
Yes, you read that last one right: clean urine. Inmates that are serving a sentence and are granted work release privileges by the court and the jail are required to submit to a urine analysis upon checking into jail and periodically throughout their sentence to make sure they’re not using controlled substances while out of the facility at their place of employment. We’ve had people check in to jail carrying and trying to conceal clean urine so that they can pass a urine test. That’s pretty crazy, right?
What amazes me is that there are people willing to jeopardize their livelihood and extend their confinement just to get high.
Addiction is a sad and frightening thing and I could go on and on about it but this is a post about contraband and the personal politics of addiction is beyond the purview of this discussion.
So how do we prevent the introduction of contraband to our facility? We can’t completely eliminate the possibility but we do what we can by thoroughly searching inmates as they enter our building.
The first step is a clothed pat search. For a new arrest, an initial, cursory pat search is usually performed by the arresting officer prior to transporting the individual to the jail. Upon entry to the jail, however, a much more thorough pat search will be performed.
This is a vital first step for keeping contraband out of our building and it can also be a potentially dangerous step for COs. We use nitrile exam gloves for searching people because we want to be able to feel anything that could turn out to be a weapon or other contraband but we don’t want to come into direct contact with bodily fluids, parasitic infestations (lice, scabies), etc.
The problem is that some arrestees conceal “sharps” in and on various parts of their bodies: needles, knives, hooks and other items that could poke or cut through the glove and penetrate our skin. COs are trained on how to prevent this as well as how to prevent infection and the spread of blood-borne pathogens.
The next step is to “change them out.” This means strip searching the person and giving them jail clothing to wear while they’re in the facility. Strip searches are an uncomfortable process for everyone involved but we perform the search thoroughly and in as professional manner as possible. The process is essentially the same for work release inmates as well as Sentence To Serve work crews.
Constant vigilance is another tool we use to control contraband. Despite our best efforts at keeping contraband out, prohibited items do get in. Just as often, however, contraband we find turns out to be items inmates have acquired after being booked into jail. COs are constantly on the lookout for inmates grabbing things they’re not allowed to have, things that normally wouldn’t cause a problem but in the hands of an inmate can cause issues.
We also periodically perform “shake-downs” throughout the facility. This is where we physically search a portion of the jail. It’s kind of like what you see on TV where Corrections Officers go through a housing unit searching through and removing all the contents of an inmate’s cell.
We’re not as destructive as what you see on TV as we feel we can thoroughly search a cell without making a huge mess. Shake-downs are an integral part of keeping control of contraband and maintaining a safe facility for staff and inmates alike.
Something we might take from inmates during shake-downs, but which may seem odd to people not involved in our profession, is excess food that inmates save from meal times. Bread, fruit, water, a vessel to brew in, and time are all that’s necessary to make “hootch.”
Hootch is a fermented concoction that looks and smells absolutely disgusting but does contain alcohol and is therefore a highly sought after item to certain inmates. Obviously we try very hard to keep inmates from making hootch.
The last thing we want in a housing unit is a bunch of intoxicated inmates.
Controlling contraband is a constant battle. Inmates have 24 hours a day, seven days a week to think of ways to obtain and conceal contraband items. We don’t (we have lives outside of jail) but we do take the challenge seriously and are always on the lookout for contraband.
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