AMU Corrections Original Public Safety

Why It Remains Difficult to Keep Contraband out of Prisons

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Keeping contraband out of prisons has been a constant problem for prisons throughout the United States and around the world. Prohibited items that commonly get smuggled into prisons include:

  • Drugs
  • Cell phones
  • Alcohol
  • Tattoo equipment
  • Weapons
  • Money
  • Gang paraphernalia
  • Tobacco

Even a seemingly innocent product such as fruit is banned in prisons. Inmates can use fruit to make alcohol.

How Does Contraband Enter Prisons?

Contraband often enters prisons through inmates who return to the prison following medical appointments that take place outside of the prison, through exchanges with visitors, and even through the prison’s officers. Sometimes, prison officers are bribed into allowing banned products to pass through security; providing contraband can be profitable for prison officers.

An indictment last year involved two former corrections officers at the Leavenworth Detention Center who smuggled drugs and other forbidden items into the prison, such as methamphetamine, marijuana and tobacco. One of the corrections officers was charged with selling packs of cigarettes for $100 to an inmate, who then resold the packs of cigarettes to other inmates for $350 per pack.

In another incident in San Quentin’s death row, a prison officer sold 25 cell phones for $500 to inmates. These phones were later were resold to other inmates for $900 per phone.

How Can Prisons Do a Better Job of Keeping Out Contraband?

Various steps can be taken to keep contraband out of prisons. The use of K-9 dogs is effective in locating drugs within a prison environment. For instance, K-9s can be used to search cells, common areas and intake areas for banned items such as drugs.

Similarly, hand-held detection devices such as metal detectors can also be helpful in detecting weapons. Proper perimeter security and in-custody and re-entry screening is also very important in keeping out contraband products.

Drones have been used to smuggle drugs into prison. In South Carolina, as many as 20 people have been arrested for their involvement in a scheme that involved smuggling drugs and other contraband into the Lee Correctional Institution.

It can be especially challenging to detect drones that may deliver contraband at night. One option that prisons have to keep drones from delivering contraband into their facilities is DroneShield. DroneShield creates a perimeter around the prison to disrupt drones so that they cannot enter a restricted area, and it can alert prison management of the presence of a nearby drone.

Ultimately, the key to keeping contraband out of prisons rests with prison officers. Accountability among prison officers can prevent them from giving into the temptation to make a quick profit and ensures that officers do everything that they can to detect contraband.

Proper searches of inmates and inmate cells is equally essential in preventing the smuggling of banned items. It is also helpful for officers to learn the body language and other indicators of deception that may be an indicator someone is holding or storing forbidden products.

This behavior includes an inmate acting nervous, defensive or aggressive in a way that distracts attention away from a thorough search. In addition, if police officers discover contraband in a cell search, monitoring the inmate’s body language, voice inflection, and eye contact can help officers determine if their reaction warrants concern that more serious contraband may exist in the jail cell.

Prison Supervisors Also Have a Crucial Role to Play in Preventing Contraband

In terms of accountability, supervisors have a crucial role in ensuring forbidden items are not brought into the prison. Supervisors must not only make sure that prison policies and procedures are followed, but should also monitor their subordinates for indicators that a staff member and inmate are becoming too close.

For example, a prison officer who allows too much extra time for an inmate to make a phone call or looks away when small prison infractions are made may later be compromised by an inmate. Once an officer is compromised, the inmate basically “owns” that officer and will pressure them to engage in further illegal activities by threatening to report the officer’s actions to a supervisor.

The Best Way to Control Smuggled Goods Is Prevention

Overall, it is much easier to control contraband in prisons by preventing it from getting there in the first place versus trying to root out illegal products that have already made their way to inmates. While preventing contraband continues to remain a constant challenge for prisons, vigilance, proper training and accountability helps.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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