Correctional Insights

Contraband: How Facilities Find It

What do birds, burritos, and balloons all have in common? They’ve all been used to smuggle contraband into prisons.

Broadly speaking, contraband is anything within a correctional facility that could be used to make a weapon, get you high, or talk to someone in the outside world.

While each facility has it’s own list of prohibited items, the three major categories of banned items include weapons, narcotics and electronic devices. As a general rule, inmates caught with contraband face additional charges and added time on their sentences, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to smuggle it into facilities.

To keep dope, shanks and cellphones out of their facilities, correctional officers have to be eagle-eyed; here’s how they do it.

Keeping an Eye Out for Contraband

In an Associated Press article posted to the Daily Herald’s website, Assistant Jail Commander Lieutenant Robin Byers said a majority of contraband is made by inmates out of items, such as soap and papier-mache. Byers said one of the more memorable attempts to smuggle in drugs was when an inmate hid them behind a false eye.

Whether it’s drugs, cellphones or weapons, inmates are always finding new ways to sneak contraband into correctional facilities.

According to Vernon Freeman Jr., of WTVR, a pigeon was found with a cell phone and battery attached to its back by corrections officers in Sao Paulo’s Franco da Rocha prison. Officers were clued into the failed attempt after several inmates tried to catch the bird in the prison yard.

While birds aren’t exactly the simplest mode of transporting contraband into prisons, other detainees have attempted even more hi-tech forms of smuggling.

Waseem Abbasi of USA Today reported that drones were being used to drop off items into a prison. USA Today submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find proof of these attempts, and the government verified them. The Department of Justice sent several documents to the news outlet which “…uncovered more than a dozen attempts to transport contraband — including mobile phones, drugs and porn — into federal prisons in the past five years,” Abbasi wrote.

One such incident happened in South Carolina in 2014 according to an article by Harriet McLeod for Reuters. A drone was used to send in cell phones, marijuana and tobacco, but it crashed outside the correctional facility’s walls.

Perfecting Search Techniques

Of course, drones aren’t the preferred method for smuggling. Most inmates hide contraband in objects or clothing, such as books or underwear, and attempt to sneak it into general population.

Byers told the Associated Press, “’We do find a lot of it. Some of it does get into general population. We find a lot of drugs during strip searches around the anal cavity. Sometimes we’ll find it in a plastic bag or balloon.’”

Correctional officers must be eagle-eyed to find contraband in and around the facility. It is standard procedure to search inmates before they are incarcerated. In men’s and women’s correctional facilities, inmates are subjected to cavity searches as contraband is frequently hidden there. Prisons are now performing X-rays on incoming inmates to help identify forbidden objects that could be hidden within organs, such as the stomach.

If an inmate swallows a balloon of narcotics, they are moved to a dry cell until they pass the substance or have the objects removed surgically. The inmate must be monitored during this time, so that stomach acid doesn’t deteriorate the bag and cause an overdose.

Balloons and bags are easily found during X-rays. Bonneville County Jail in Idaho Falls, Idaho has trained correctional officers to look for any abnormalities, whether it be something metal on their clothes or contraband in the stomach or body cavity.

According to Johnathan Hogan of the Idaho Post Register, “Deputies are trained to recognize what an X-ray should look like with no hidden items and what items may look like when hidden on an X-ray, making it easier to recognize when someone is hiding contraband.”

Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Michael Pickett told Hogan that the body cavity is the most commonly used way to sneak in contraband. The jail subjects inmates and their cells to searches every week to help reduce the passage of contraband around the facility.

The Main Goal is Safety

Correctional officers don’t perform searches just for inmate safety, but for their own as well. It’s an officer’s duty to protect inmates and help them on their road to rehabilitation. Homemade weapons and drug-trading threaten everyone in a facility.

According to McLeod, “Illegal cellphones, an issue in prisons nationwide, have drawn particular alarm in South Carolina. In 2010, a cellphone smuggled into the same prison was used to order a hit on a prison officer, who was shot six times at his home but survived.”

Corrections officers deal with possible dangers every day when they enter their workplace. Inmates may be the most obvious threat to safety, but they aren’t the only one, as visitors can bring in harmful objects as well.

A corrections officer’s main goal is facility security and having illegal items smuggled into a correctional facility endangers everyone.

Correctional Insights

How Law Enforcement Uses Social Media as an Investigation Tool

Social media sites provide a great way to keep up with friends and family. They can help you meet new friends, or reconnect with old ones—and if you’re a member of law enforcement, they can help you find a possible suspect. Today, more and more law enforcement agencies are using social media as an investigation tool, even though that wasn’t social media’s traditional function.

Police departments across the country initially created Twitter and Facebook accounts to improve the public’s perception of law enforcement. For example, the Bellevue Police Department in Nebraska continues to post memes, photos and videos to show a more affable side of themselves. In June 2017, Lincoln Police Officer Courtney Leaver challenged the department to a dance-off via Twitter during National Sheriff’s Week. The call was answered when six officers broke out their dance moves for a short video.

However, the social media strategies of law enforcement agencies across the nation have matured, and their accounts now sport information relating to traffic accident, PR events and ongoing investigations. Today, social media helps police build relationships, and that in turn helps them do their jobs.

Social media to topple crime

In 2017, Sydney Loofe, a 24-year-old from Lincoln, Neb., was reported missing and later found deceased in Clay County. Without the help of her digital “breadcrumbs,” Loofe’s remains might not have been discovered.

According to an article written by Lori Pilger for the Lincoln Journal Star, the Lincoln Police Department used information from Loofe’s social media accounts, cellphone and bank information to help discover her last known location.

In Pilger’s article, Larry Barksdale, a retired Lincoln police investigator, said “a digital footprint includes cellphones. But it also includes information from online apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, from credit card purchases or ATM visits, and from cameras along the state’s highways, outside gas stations or inside businesses…” In this case, Bailey Boswell and Aubrey Trail also posted videos denying their involvement which helped police locate them. Trail and Boswell are currently facing charges, including first-degree murder in Saline County.

In this instance, the Lincoln Police Department used social media as an investigation tool which aided in solving a crime, but that’s not always the case.

In late 2017, Kenneka Jenkins’ body was discovered in a walk-in freezer at a Hotel in Rosemont, Ill. Her death was ruled an accident by the Cook County medical examiner. Her death soon became an internet phenomenon which sparked countless conspiracy theories. Amateur web sleuths utilized social media as an investigation tool by analyzing video footage to provide information to the local police department.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune by Kim Janssen and John Keilman, “Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens said local police are working with outside agencies to investigate Jenkins’ death but that fevered online guesswork about the case is hindering the probe.”

While tips from the public are helpful in solving some cases, law enforcement officers are required to follow-up on every lead, which can be taxing on a metropolitan police force — let alone a small-town department.

Using social media to identify criminal activity

According to Doug Wylie of PoliceOne, “Many criminals have posted damning evidence of their crimes on social media.” This includes gang-affiliated individuals who brag about their exploits to intimidate rivals or gain status. Because of this behavior, gang members are more likely than individual offenders to leave evidence online.

In Heather Kelly’s article for, the Cincinnati Police Department used social media as an investigation tool to identify members of a local street gang. Seventy-one members were arrested in 2008 after a nine-month social media investigation.

Law enforcement can also use social media as an investigation tool to acquire probable cause for a search warrant. So far, this practice has not been challenged in court as some laws are not necessarily up to speed with the digital age.

Wylie spoke with Rick Graham, a former Chief of Detectives in Jacksonville, Fla. who said, “Gathering a mountain of evidence from social media and being able to properly analyze it transforms raw information into ‘actionable intelligence’ and results in the effective deployment of valuable resources.”

In addition, agencies can surveil social media sites through software programs, including X1 Social Discovery, Geofeedia and MediaSonar. Though these programs have helped solve crimes and locate suspects, they don’t come without baggage.

Creating laws for social media surveillance

Law enforcement’s use of social media surveillance software has spurred some controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union has voiced concerns about whether using social media as an investigation tool could be abused to monitor those who are not suspected in any crime.

According to Jonah Engel Bromwich, Daniel Victor and Mike Isaac for the New York Times, the location-based analytics platform Geofeedia pinpoints a user’s location from social media sites, then markets that information to law enforcement agencies. Geofeedia helped Baltimore police officials locate protests following Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody in 2015.

Users of said social media platforms were concerned with each company’s lack of oversight on how their data is used. This is what first piqued the ACLU’s interest in protecting people’s online information.

The ACLU helped create Community Control Over Police Surveillance laws to “ensure residents, through local city councils are empowered to decide if and how surveillance technologies are used, through a process that maximizes the public’s influence over those decisions.”

CCOPS laws have been passed in cities, such as Seattle, Nashville, Berkeley and many more. California and Maine have even passed statewide CCOPS laws.

Social media is a great tool to use both personally and professionally, and in time, it will become an even more integral part of daily life. Law enforcement agencies currently use these platforms to relay information and build rapport with their communities, and that’s benefited them enormously. It’s a privilege to be responsible for upholding justice, and safeguarding the public’s data is a part of that. By following CCOPS laws and standards (even if no relevant law exists in your jurisdiction), law enforcement officers can protect public privacy while continuing to use social media as an effective investigative tool.

Correctional Insights

Incarceration’s Affect on Inmates’ Children

Last year, childcare costs per family averaged $8,772 nationwide. Parents across all tax brackets will feel this increase, and many will rely on dual income sources to finance their childcare expenses. The children of inmates are especially vulnerable to these kinds of rising costs, because in most cases, there is no second income to support them.

In fact, the children of inmates are more likely than their peers to experience a whole range of disparities related to education, wealth outcomes, and family contact. These disparities may seem like insurmountable challenges, but jail administrators and prison officials can make a real difference in the lives of the children of inmates.

Pursuing an Education

For kids with parents behind bars, it’s harder to pursue a post-secondary education. Researcher Joseph Murray found that the unintended consequences of parental imprisonment included the “diversion of funds away from schools and universities.” In part, this means that family earnings and wages aren’t invested in the next generation. Instead, those funds are redirected to provide for the incarcerated parent.

If jail administrators can find ways to reduce the costs incurred incarcerated parents, that money could instead be used to fund the child’s education. For officials looking to go the extra mile, setting up a scholarship fund for inmate children could also be an effective way to support their educational aspirations.

Short-Term Family Wealth

When a parent is first incarcerated, their children are almost immediately financially disadvantaged. According to Professors Amanda Geller, Carey Cooper, Irwin Garfinkel, Ofira Schwartz-Soicher, and Ronald Mincy: “The incarceration of a father, even when parents are no longer romantically involved, often leads to decreases in household resources.” Because children with incarcerated parents are more at risk for economic and residential instability than their peers, it may be harder for them to build assets of their own as they mature.

To combat this reality in Ghana, researchers Kwadwo Ofori-Dua, Kofi Osei Akuoko & Vincent de Paul Kanwetuu made the following recommendation: “Economic problems are major challenges facing families of incarcerated persons. Prison authorities should enhance the ability of inmates to work while in prison so that they [can] remain economically active and remit their families at home.” While this recommendation pertains specifically to the prisons of Ghana, making similar adjustments here in the US could provide more funds for the children of inmates.

Maintaining Family Contact

In addition to the educational insights presented in his work, Murray also found that “Ninety-five percent of women reported that family contact was extremely important to them, but only 67 percent of imprisoned mothers were visited by their children. The absence of visits appeared to relate to practical difficulties of travelling, distance between prison and home, the cost of travel, and visiting times.” It is important to note that these practical difficulties have nothing to do with the intent of the child.

Often, it is not the child who decides whether or not to visit their incarcerated parent, but the child’s caregiver. Researchers Julie Poehlmann, Danielle Dallaire, Ann Booker Loper, and Leslie Shear write that “[Caregivers] need support for dealing with their stress and concerns about visitation. The financial and logistical difficulties of arranging visitation, as well as the increased burden presented by the demands of child rearing can affect the caregiver, who often serves as gatekeeper in terms of his or her willingness to facilitate contact.” For caregivers, arranging transportation, shelter, and all the other considerations that go into a physical visit can be overwhelming. However, jail and prison officials can take direct actions to reduce these logistical and financial burdens.

How Officials can Help the Children of Inmates

Simply by modifying their facility’s community-facing messaging, jail administrators can entice caregivers to schedule visits, instead of rebuffing them. Prominent, easy-to-read visitation rules and availabilities are key to inspiring confidence in caregivers, and a confident caregiver is that much more likely to schedule a visitation for their child. An incarceration facility’s website is also critically important. Jail administrators should hound their webmasters into making their sites as user-friendly as possible.

Finally, if increasing parent-child contact in your facility is important to you, consider partnering with a socially conscious video visitation provider. Make it a priority to find one that offers a secure, standalone solution to enable frequent teleconferencing between children and their incarcerated parents. No child should ever be denied the opportunity to visit their parent because the hotels, gasoline, or time off of work is too expensive. With a video visitation solution, jail administrators can keep families close, and in frequent contact.



Correctional Insights

Scandinavian Jails: Why is Their Recidivism Rate So Much Better?

Imagine a picturesque summer landscape in southern Norway with the scent of blueberry bushes, birch trees, and the North Sea wafting through the air. None of the 300 inmates at the Halden maximum-security prison have to imagine anything—that seaside breeze is part of their daily routines. Unlike the majority of prisons on Earth, Halden allows its inmates to freely roam the facility for 12 hours per day. Now, visualize electric fences with razor wire, guard towers with snipers, and 400 other inmates crammed in all around you. That’s what the 1-2 hour yard time at ADX Florence Supermax feels like. Based on these accounts, It’s easy to see that Scandinavian jails and prisons are very different from their American counterparts. But why are the recidivism rates of Norway and Denmark so much lower than America’s?

Well for one thing, American correctional institutions are some of the most heavily populated institutions in the world. While American sheriffs and jail administrators can’t make immediate changes to federal law enforcement policy, they can mine the Scandinavian incarceration model for strategic wisdom. To that end, here are some of the key differences between Scandinavian and American facilities:

Scandinavian Jails Offer More Freedoms and Amenities

Scandinavian jails, including Halden, get a bad rap from American media. They’re portrayed as cushy, naive, and soft on crime. Halden is one of Norway’s newest maximum-security prisons near the border between Norway and Sweden. According to an NPR article by Jeffrey Kofman, each inmate’s cell is a private room equipped with a fridge, a television, and a desk. Inmates also have access to a fully-equipped kitchen, and a metal and woodworking shop. In short, while it’s true that Halden was not designed like an American maximum-security facility, it’s hardly a caviar and bonbons experience.

According to an article in the New York Times written by Jessica Benko, Halden had no security fence or warnings about picking up hitchhikers because no inmate had ever tried to escape the facility. “There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers—nothing violent, threatening or dangerous,” Benko wrote.

At ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, it is a completely different world. Each cell gets a four-inch window; a concrete bed, a stool and a desk. Showers at ADX are set on timers, and the toilets and sinks are combined units. It also houses nearly twice the number of inmates as Halden normally does.

Norway Focuses on Life After Incarceration

There are significant differences between US and Scandinavian punitive systems. Norway’s incarceration rate is 72 per every 100,000 people compared to America’s 693 per 100,000 people. Norway also has the world’s lowest recidivism rate at 20 percent, while America sees 75 percent of its prisoners re-offend within five years of release.

According to Benko’s article, Halden takes a different approach to rehabilitating its prisoners. In this Scandinavian prison, the facility staff focus on preparing inmates for life after incarceration. Amazingly, guards are also encouraged to cultivate friendships with the inmates. In Norway, there is no death penalty, nor is there a life sentence. The maximum sentence is 21 years, however, five-year increments can be added onto a sentence if the Norwegian justice system finds that a prisoner hasn’t been rehabilitated.

In Colorado, where ADX Florence is located, capital punishment is legal and each criminal sentence depends upon the severity of the crime. While America has its own process for rehabilitating inmates, the Scandinavian model is extremely successful at keeping its citizens out of prison. Since there is a staggering difference between the recidivism rates of each country, American jail administrators should take notice. By creating facility policy that focuses on life after incarceration, jail administrators could reduce American recidivism on their own.

North Dakota Prisons Test the Norwegian Philosophy

Don Specter of the Prison Law Office funded the US-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program in partnership with Dr. Brie Williams and Cyrus Ahalt of the UC Criminal Justice and Health Consortium at UC San Francisco. This program allows criminal justice professionals of all levels to tour Norway’s correctional system and learn from European reform leaders.

In 2015, North Dakota prisons chief Leann Bertsch and her deputy Karianne Jackson enrolled in the program. They toured Halden and came away with the knowledge to enact a similar system in North Dakota. According to Dashka Slater’s article in Mother Jones, Bertsch found some modular units to house inmates at the Missouri River Correctional Center (a minimum-security facility) and urged the staff to adopt the Norwegian philosophy. Inmates had the opportunity to snag one of 36 private rooms in exchange for good behavior. Some of these rooms even included showers and toilets. Bertsch and her deputies also reevaluated the list of minor infractions and searched for candidates in solitary confinement that could be transitioned into general population.

Since the new system was established, North Dakota prison officials have noticed large declines in violence, threats against the staff, and the use of force by staff. It should be noted that North Dakota already had a lower-than-average incarceration rate compared to other states, and that not every prison can move inmates around on a whim. Larger facilities in many states may have different problems and needs.

Slater went on to say that some states with larger prison populations have enacted rules encouraging staff to interact with inmates without relying on command terminology. Maybe that’s a step in the right direction. It’s a relatively small change to make compared to building 36 special housing units. Instead of showing force in a tense situation, staff could employ empathy to resolve an issue without burying resentments within inmates. The best incarceration facilities have staff that can treat their charges like human beings, while maintaining an air of impartiality. However, only jail administrators can craft facility policies that encourage this type of conflict resolution.

For more information about Norway’s prison system from the inmate’s perspective, check out this translated video.

Correctional Insights

The Real Constituency Impact: Inmate Family Finances Post-Release

Shopping for a new inmate telecom service provider can feel like walking through the shampoo aisle of your local supermarket; way too many options, and not nearly enough time to try them all out. As a jail administrator, you’ve got a whole community relying on you to make a reasonable choice when it comes inmate phones and video visitation platforms. That can feel like a lot of pressure. However, many of the best incarceration officials see it as a challenge. “How can I make the absolute best choice for my county?” they ask themselves, surrounded by desks stacked with RFPs and proposals. Choosing a new provider is tough, especially when so many vendors only differentiate themselves based on commission rates. Perhaps the best approach to selecting an ICSP involves stepping back and considering the end-user—and especially the family finances of that end-user.

In a previous article, we discussed the pressures inmate families face while their loved ones are incarcerated. The piece explained that in most cases, law-abiding inmate family members are responsible for covering the healthcare, economic, and communication costs related to incarceration. One factor that article failed to adequately address was the post-release impact inmates have on family finances. This may come as no surprise, but returning inmates face a number of economic challenges in the free world. Consequently, their families face those struggles as well.


Employment opportunities for former convicts are underwhelming. Not only is the inmate’s relevant job history depreciated, their individual skills and competencies may have decayed during their time spent in prison. Social networks dwindle without attention, and contacts who could have provided career references or job search assistance are likely gone by the time the inmate gets out. All of this is compounded by the fact that a criminal record on a job application is a serious limiting factor.

Regrettably, these limitations are exacerbated by other problems, as detailed by researchers David J. Harding, Jessica J.B. Wyse, Cheyney Dobson, and Jeffrey D. Morenoff: “Low levels of human capital, poor health, and lack of work experience also pose barriers to former offenders’ economic stability and mobility. Forty-one percent of those released from prison lack a high school education, and 73% have a history of drug and alcohol abuse.”

This economic insecurity isn’t limited to the released inmate. Any income hardships inmates face after release will trickle down to impinge family finances. To put it bluntly, when former inmates can’t afford to put bread on the table, their families will have to pick up the bill.

Public Aid

Since ex-inmate earning power is so underwhelming, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is ample government assistance for former inmates and their families. The truth is another matter. Researchers Harding, Wyse, Dobson and Morenoff go on to state that “former prisoners face considerable barriers to attaining economic stability and integration. One important set of barriers includes legal and policy restrictions on former offenders. Many states have banned those with felony convictions from benefits such as food stamps, TANF, SSI and residence in public housing, either permanently or temporarily.” This means that the people with the worst long term economic prospects also receive little public assistance for their basic survival. With no help from the state, inmates can only turn to their family, and as a result family finances take another hit.

Debts and Fees

Sitting in jail can be very expensive, but not just in terms of opportunity cost. While on the inside, inmates can rack up debts and fees related to all sorts of things, and those obligations don’t just disappear after release.

According to a report published by The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, “the costs of calls, visitation, commissary, health care, and other costs are borne by individuals with convictions and their families. This study found that it is family members, predominantly women in the family, who primarily bear responsibility for the financial costs of maintaining contact. For a number of these women, including many who were mothers, these costs put them into debt.”

It’s obvious that taking on debt with the prospect of decreased future earnings is a recipe for disaster as far as family finances are concerned. Yet inmate families do it anyway—which in some ways is a testament to how important contact with loved ones is. Despite that, it is in this area that jail administrators can provide the most immediate relief.

Ella Baker Infographic.
Image Courtesy of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Relief for Inmate Family Finances

When inmates are released back into society, they’ve done their time in the eyes of the law. At this point, it’s no longer necessary to extend their punishment through reduced employment opportunities, inaccessible public aid, or excessive debt. In light of these factors and others, the Ella Baker report reached the following conclusion: “We need to shift our sentences to focus more on accountability, safety, and healing of all individuals involved rather than punishing those convicted of crimes.” They couldn’t be more correct, especially about accountability. The reality is that law enforcement groups, citizens, politicians and businesses all need to hold each other to a higher standard if criminal justice reform is going to stick. We’ve all got skin in this game, and we can all contribute in our own ways. For jail administrators, consciously considering inmate family finances is the best way to make a real, positive impact.