Searches, Shakedowns, and Contraband in Prison

Searches, also called shakedowns, are a normal part of prison life. This is when a prison guard searches an inmate for contraband.

While there are several types of searches authorized in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, most consist of the simple pat-down search and occur in a number of areas of the prison, both routine and random.

The pat-down search usually consists of a prison guard telling the inmate they are going to search them. This is often seen by the guard saying something to the effect of, “You, come over here.” From this point, the prisoner walks over to the guard, turns to face away from them, and lifts their arms perpendicular to their body so the guard can run their hands along the prisoner’s arms, back, and down their legs. The guard will wear protective gloves when doing so.

During the search, the guard will pay special attention to the prisoner’s pockets. If there is something inside their pockets, the guard might require the prisoner to empty them. If contraband is found, the guard might take it and write an incident report, or, if it is just something simple (e.g., a stolen apple or too many stamps), the guard might just take it and let the prisoner go.

Another common type of search is prison cell searches. All federal prison guards that are assigned to inmate housing units are instructed to shakedown several cells during each shift. This usually occurs while the inmate population is eating, though it can occur at any time.

During jail cell searches, the unit officer enters the cell and pokes around for a few minutes. Some might only go into the cell and ensure that it’s clean or doesn’t smell of alcohol, while others elect to go through the lockers, hanging bags, and do a more thorough examination. Other guards don’t bother to search at all.

Another common type of search consists of prison guards trying to catch inmates stealing food from the chow hall. Basically, as federal prisoners leave the dining room they will have to walk past one or several guards who are stationed there to stop the theft of food. These guards will call specific prisoners over for a pat-down search. If they find something (e.g., a piece of bread, carton of milk, etc.), they will ask the prisoner to throw it away in a waiting trash can. Incident reports are not issued for such trivial items.

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While the Federal Bureau of Prisons does allow for invasive, full-body searching, this is rarely done, and only in the most extreme of circumstances. The only exception to this is when a prisoner is leaving visitation and the guard assigned to the searching area (called the “Shakedown Area”) does a visual search of the prisoner as they take their clothes off.

For those unfamiliar with prison life and society, this type of stop-and-frisk searching will feel invasive and jarring, but with familiarity, this will pass. After several months of this type of searching, it becomes second nature.

How often you will be searched can depend heavily on the prison where you are incarcerated, along with plain old luck. It can vary from once in a while to several times a week.

Female prison guards regularly search male prisoners, although not in the visitation setting where a strip search is required following a visit. To protect against sexual assaults and the claims of such, female prisoners are usually searched by female prison guards.

Getting caught with contraband

Inmate contraband can be divided into two general categories: hard and soft. Hard contraband consists of weapons, drugs, alcohol, and other types of items that can’t be ignored. Soft contraband can consist of food stolen from Food Service, excess property, and other less serious items. Pornography falls somewhere between the two categories. If hard contraband is found, you can count on it being confiscated and receiving an incident report. Depending on the person conducting the search, if soft contraband is found, they will either allow you to keep it, simply throw it away, or tell you to get rid of it.

When actually written up for it, soft contraband usually results in a Code 305, Possession of Anything Not Authorized, incident report, which is usually good for 30 to 90 days loss of a privilege (e.g., email, commissary, telephone, etc.). An incident report for hard contraband is a different story due to it being a much more serious infraction. Possession of a weapon, alcohol, and other such items (e.g., escape tools) can result in a 100 series incident report. If found guilty, this can result in a disciplinary transfer to a higher security prison, solitary confinement, loss of good conduct time, and many months loss of various privileges.

Contraband in Prisons

In all honesty, most prisoners do have contraband items, but to differing degrees. For example, while most prisoners wouldn’t be concerned about possession of stolen packs of peanut butter, they wouldn’t want to be caught with an intoxicant or drugs. Even having too many paperback books constitutes contraband since it equates to property in excess of authorized limits. It all depends on your accepted risk threshold.

If you’re caught with hard contraband in jail, you’re going to receive an incident report regardless of your subsequent actions, so our recommendation is for you to remain silent. The name of the game changes from avoiding detection to preparing for your disciplinary appeals. Mitigation often doesn’t work, it only provides prison security officials with more evidence of which to convict you of the disciplinary infraction. This is especially the case when it comes to hard contraband, which could result in a disciplinary transfer to a higher security federal prison.

Searches and shakedowns are part of prison life. While not the most enjoyable thing in the world, you will become used to them within short order. Those with nothing to hide have nothing to worry about either.

Contact us for more information on prison searches, shakedowns, bringing contraband into jail, and other aspects of prison life.

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For more information about prison life and how to prepare for prison, please email [email protected] or call 843-620-1100. Our team of experienced prison consultants stand ready to assist you in your time of need.