Image Source: Pixabay

Let’s start this blog article off with some commentary about the picture above to help you Get In The Know About Illegal Prison Contraband. Imagine how many cell phones and contraband got inside jails and prisons due to contraband smuggling. That is…before the invention and implementation of search equipment and unless contraband smugglers didn’t forget to turn off the cell phone ringers (Lol). Is there more to the story when it comes to prison contraband? You bet.


Contraband has constituted a menace in all prison facilities all over the world. Inmates, visitors, and even correctional officers have contributed to the thriving contraband culture in jails and prisons. We need to set the records straight as most visitors to the prison have ignorantly perpetuated this smuggling act. In this piece, we will explain what contraband in prison is, various forms of contraband, how prisons can checkmate the smuggling of contraband, and legal punishments for visitors and inmates that smuggle contraband.


Prison Contraband is defined as any property that is illegal to own, use, or carry around inside a prison facility. Every prison has regulations that prevent inmates from possessing certain items, some of which are harmful or potentially lethal. Contraband is not always a dangerous substance. It can be anything from phones, clothing, medication, and earpieces to certain types of food. But the underlying definition refers to any item that inmates could exchange, modify or leverage to escape as determined by the prison regulation.


Due to changing regulations, what was formally legal to possess today in prisons could be termed contraband tomorrow. For example, tobacco smoking was prohibited in prisons in July 2011 and since then smoking devices and paraphernalia have been declared contraband in prisons. With understaffed prisons and staff who may be exhausted by overtime hours, manual searches or frisks for drugs, weapons, or contraband are easily smuggled into facilities.


In fact, a 2017 report by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI),  the City's Inspector General uncovered that a DOI investigator in September 2017 smuggled in $5,000 worth of contraband including two scalpel blades, 26.8 grams of marijuana, and five strips of suboxone, a prescription opiate, through the entrances of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Detention Centers.

Image Source: Unsplash



Some common examples of contraband in prisons include hard drugs, pills, phones, tattoo instruments, alcohol, medication paraphernalia, sharp objects, weapons, etc. Other instances of contraband in prisons may include normal and seemingly harmless items that while not illegal, could be explored wrongly by inmates.


Below is a list of the contraband in detail:


Hard Drugs - Such as marijuana leaves weighing up to 20 grams and above or powders suspected to be hard drugs


Communication gadgets - Such as mobile phones, headphones or SIM cards


Sharp Objects - Such as knives, glass, canned products, and other make-shift weapons or work tools outside of authorized jurisdiction


Alcohol - Either beer, spirits, wines, or any other home-brewed related items


Tattoo Devices - Such as inks and needles


Drugs and medication paraphernalia which include tobacco devices and syringes


Other items that can be considered contraband- Such as cash, gang symbolism, another inmate's item, etc.




Prison facilities have devised various screening methods to reduce or stop contraband from entering prisons. The intelligence department in prisons is responsible for analyzing, identifying, and reducing risk areas within the prison facility and keeping abreast of the latest smuggling and concealing techniques.


Today, some prison facilities employ interdiction modalities to prevent contraband from entering their facilities. An interdiction modality is a combination of both the regulatory policies and practices that correctional facilities use to stop contraband from gaining entry into their facility as well as intelligent strategies used to detect and destroy contraband that may have already found its way into the prison yard. Below are some of the practices and methods used to prevent the prevalence of contraband in prisons.


Hiring Process


Even though we most times try to shy away from the obvious, the fact is that the prison officers also engage in the smuggling of contraband in prisons. Their willingness to collaborate with visitors and inmates perpetuates the spread of contraband in the facility. Therefore, the first step towards preventing the smuggling of contraband in prisons is by hiring right. A thorough and comprehensive background check of a potential employee is recommended especially for applicants interested in filling a sensitive and trusted position. Prison administrators now do more than just inquire about the usual conviction or driving history of the applicant. They now go as far as inquiring about the applicant's work history, hobbies, and social affiliations.

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Monitor Officers closely


Also, supervisors are mandated to keep a close eye on officers on duty. By so doing, they get to see what the officers are doing, listen to their conversations, and observe their body language. For instance, if an officer is paying too much attention to certain quarters/units in the prison yard, that is a red flag. If they also appear to have some cozy relationship with certain inmates, it becomes a threat to the integrity of their jobs. If supervisors really pay attention to their subordinates and, better yet, be seen lurking around always, the subordinates will less likely indulge in smuggling contraband. 


Visitors Screening


The visitors that have signed up to visit inmates in prison must be thoroughly screened too, to prevent contraband from entering the prison. Visitors with questionable characters and bad social records are not allowed to visit inmates. Examples are individuals on parole, gang member, felons, drug convicts, etc.


According to New York City Department of Correction officials, in state and federal prisons, strip searches of visitors are permitted with consent, but not cavity checks. In city jails, however, neither strip searches nor cavity checks of visitors are allowed. Be sure to check your state’s Department of Corrections or agency for specific information regarding your state’s policies and procedures on strip searches in jail and prisons.




Some prisons have deployed technologies like X-ray scanning to facilitate more forensic and thorough screening in a bid to detect and deter contraband, especially drugs. Employing X-ray technology eliminates the need for time-consuming manual screening. The machines are also very easy to deploy and easily integrated into existing screening protocols.

Image Source: Unsplash



In the United States, engaging in contraband smuggling is a tier 5 crime on a scale of 1 to 6. The most serious being 1 and the least serious, 6. The penalty for a class 5 crime is at least one and a half years in incarceration. The penalty could be a harsher sentence depending on the level of the crime, such as a longer jail term or time in a state correctional facility as opposed to doing time in county jail. The law ensures that second-time offenders get stronger and longer punishment.


However, it is important to note that a defendant is only guilty of smuggling charges if he consciously and intentionally brought contraband into a correctional facility. The defendant, therefore, cannot be penalized for the crime if he is not aware, he was carrying contraband into the prison. Make sure that you do not turn yourself into a victim of your own ignorance by not knowing about the consequences of smuggling contraband in jail or prisons.



Contraband negatively and falsely empowers prisoners and defeats the reason for their incarceration in a correctional facility. Even items that appear harmless can be dangerous inside a prison and compromise the integrity and security of the facility, its staff, and prisoners.


Currently, there are not any full proof ways to abolish smuggling contraband into jails and prisons. Whether you are a visitor, inmate, or prison officer, all must join efforts in combating the entrance and impact of contraband in correctional facilities. We leave you with some interesting and controversial videos about prison contraband.

(Disclaimer: Cell Block Legendz does not own the rights to these videos.)


Surprising Ways Inmates Have Snuck Contraband into Prison

Cell Block Legendz Does Not Own The Rights To This Video.

Former Inmate "Lucky" Talks Prison Contraband

Cell Block Legendz Does Not Own The Rights To This Video.

An Inside Look At Prison Contraband

 Cell Block Legendz Does Not Own The Rights To This Video.

Additional Sources


Musumeci, N. (2018). Smuggling Contraband Into NYC Jails Has

Never Been Easier. Retrieved from New York Post.


Ransom, J. (2018). Women Describe Invasive Strip Searches on Visits

to City Jails. Retrieved from New York Times.


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Wake Up and Smell the Contraband: A Guide to Improving Prison Safety: Second Edition (Paperback) by LRP