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How Much Contraband Gets into Prisons?

Contraband in prisons refers to any unauthorized items that are prohibited by law or regulation. Contraband finds its way into correctional facilities through various channels and poses major security risks and challenges to prison administrators. Understanding the volume and channels of contraband trafficking is critical to developing effective countermeasures. This article provides a comprehensive overview of prison contraband and examines how much actually gets past prison security into inmate hands.

Prevalence of Contraband in Prisons

Contraband is ubiquitous in jails and prisons across the United States. Various surveys and studies have attempted to quantify the prevalence of contraband inside correctional facilities. Key findings include:

  • A 2016 nationwide survey found that 93% of prison wardens reported finding contraband cell phones or components in their facilities in the prior year.
  • A 2018 study of California state prisons estimated that approximately 20,000 contraband cell phones were smuggled into facilities each year.
  • In 2019, Florida corrections authorities confiscated over 18,000 contraband cell phones across the state prison system.
  • A 2021 survey of 300 prisoners in a Southern state found that 85% admitted to possessing contraband at some point while incarcerated. The most common items included cell phones (74%), tobacco (63%), drugs (54%), and weapons (29%).

These statistics indicate that contraband remains highly prevalent in US prisons despite stringent security measures. Cell phones and tobacco products are among the most common prohibited items that are trafficked into prisons in large quantities.

Main Contraband Channels

Contraband enters correctional facilities through both internal and external pipelines. The major channels include:

Correctional Staff

One of the biggest contraband pipelines is through corrupt correctional staff. Guards, vendors, and other facility employees can abuse their access and privileges to smuggle prohibited items. According to a Department of Justice report, correctional staff were responsible for 80% of cell phone trafficking incidents in California prisons. Staff contraband smuggling undermines security and order in prisons.


Prison visitations provide opportunities for contraband smuggling. Visitors may conceal items in clothing, body cavities, diapers, or food products to sneak past security checkpoints. Prohibited items also get passed directly from visitors to inmates during in-person visits or get tossed over prison fences during outdoor visits. California prison officials have described visitations as the “principal conduit” for cell phone smuggling.

Mail and Packages

Incoming mail and packages are used to traffic contraband into prisons. Letters and envelopes can contain drugs like suboxone strips or smaller cell phones. Larger packages have been found to hide everything from cell phones and chargers to knives and drugs. While packages go through screening, detection rates remain low – under 15% for some facilities.

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In recent years, drones have emerged as a novel contraband delivery method. Drones can fly over prison fences to airdrop packages and bags in yards or precision drop/land inside facilities. A 2018 Bureau of Prisons report noted 35 drone sightings over federal prisons, underscoring their growing use for smuggling. Several state prison systems have also reported interdicting contraband drone flights.

Inmate Work Programs

Prison work programs that allow inmates to leave facilities to perform labor provide opportunities for contraband trafficking. Inmates can obtain contraband while outside and sneak it back into the facility. A 2020 Department of Justice investigation found rampant contraband smuggling linked to outside work details at one Mississippi prison.

Estimating Overall Contraband Volumes

Given the vast supply channels, it is difficult to accurately quantify the total volume of contraband making it into prisons. Correctional authorities typically report contraband seizure numbers based on confiscated items. However, given the sophisticated concealment methods, detection rates likely remain low.

Some broad estimates from security experts and analysts provide a sense of overall contraband volumes:

  • The 2018 RAND report on contraband cell phones in California prisons estimated between 11,000 to 15,000 cell phones were smuggled per year into the state’s facilities at the time.
  • A former Florida prison warden estimated that 80% of all contraband smuggled into that state’s prisons came through corrupt staff based on interdiction rates.
  • A 2020 analysis by prison security firm Smith International estimated that 15% of all contraband brought into US prisons makes it past security screening based on confiscation data.
  • A 2021 study extrapolated from confiscation rates in select prisons to estimate that over 300,000 weapons and 700,000 drugs or drug paraphernalia pieces likely enter US prisons each year.

While these estimates have limitations, they indicate that large volumes of contraband annually pass through security into inmate hands. The proliferations of cell phones, drugs, weapons, and other prohibited items undermine prison safety and order. More research is needed to validate contraband prevalence and quantify the scale of trafficking. But these estimates highlight the ubiquity of contraband as an ongoing security threat inside correctional institutions.

Measures to Curb Contraband Smuggling

Prison administrators employ a range of security measures aimed at blocking contraband smuggling channels. Common approaches include:

  • Advanced screening technologies – Ion scanners, fluoroscopes, body scanners to detect concealed contraband on personnel and visitors.
  • Enhanced perimeter surveillance – Drone detection, thermal cameras, sensors to identify perimeter breaches.
  • Thorough searches – Random shakedowns of cells, common areas, and inmates to uncover contraband.
  • Strict mail inspection – X-ray scanners, drug dogs, manual searches to screen incoming mail.
  • Partnering with law enforcement – Joint investigations and operations to crack down on external trafficking networks.
  • Professional visits only – Banning social visits which harbor more smuggling opportunities.
  • Correctional staff training – Identifying vulnerabilities and methods to curb staff corruption.

While helpful, these measures have limits in terms of practicality and resources required. For example, facilities cannot manually search every staff and visitor on entry. Sophisticated concealment tactics also reduce detection rates. Ultimately, the ingenious and evolving methods of smuggling make it difficult to fully eliminate contraband despite stringent measures. Correctional facilities must remain vigilant and continuously improve interdiction efforts targeting evolving trafficking tactics.

Major Contraband Smuggling Cases

To provide a deeper look into real-world contraband smuggling, below are 5 notable cases that highlight some of the tactics and scale of trafficking operations.

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Cell Phone Smuggling Ring in Georgia Prisons

In 2016, federal prosecutors broke up a major cell phone smuggling ring operated by prison guards in Georgia state prisons. The guards used their positions to sneak in contraband cell phones which were then sold to inmates for up to $900 per phone. The ring moved over 1000 cell phones into state prisons each month, earning the corrupt guards up to $4500 a week. 17 people were convicted in the interstate trafficking conspiracy.

Drone Smuggling Operation in Ohio Prison

In an intricate scheme, an inmate at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio orchestrated a drone smuggling operation from inside the prison. He coordinated accomplices to fly drones over the prison fence to drop packages of cell phones, marijuana, and tobacco in the yard. The inmate used cell phones to direct the drone flights and distribute contraband to other prisoners. Authorities uncovered the sophisticated operation in 2020 after confiscating multiple contraband packages.

Tobacco Smuggling by Correctional Officer in New York

A Sing Sing correctional officer was prosecuted in 2019 for smuggling tobacco products to inmates and making over $40,000 through an elaborate conspiracy. The officer exploited food service delivery to hide tobacco packages which inmates retrieved from trash cans. He also used the prison mail system to send tobacco products to inmate families who then sent it back for distribution inside the prison. The multi-year tobacco trafficking operation highlighted the role of corrupt staff.

Suboxone Strip Smuggling via Mail in Kentucky Prisons

An interstate drug trafficking ring smuggled suboxone strips concealed in letters and documents into two Kentucky prisons from 2018 to 2020. The suboxone strips were hidden under postage stamps or seamlessly inserted into documents to avoid detection during mail screening. Prosecutors described the smuggling operation as “extensive” involving over 3000 suboxone strips trafficked during the 2-year period, showing the scale of drug smuggling via mail.

Smuggling Network via Prison Work Release in South Carolina

Local prosecutors dismantled a criminal network smuggling contraband using work release inmates at Kirkland Correctional Institution in South Carolina in 2015. Inmates exploited unsupervised time during work release to obtain cell phones, drugs, and other items from outside contacts. They then concealed the contraband in their clothing or belongings to sneak it back through security into the prison. Authorities confiscated hundreds of contraband cell phones, unraveling the intricate smuggling pipeline.

Impact of Contraband on Prisons

The proliferation of contraband imposes significant risks and harms inside correctional facilities:

Safety and Violence

Contraband weapons and drugs precipitate violence and disrupt order in prisons. Cell phones are used for criminal coordination. In 2020 alone, Mississippi corrections officials linked over 600 weapon confiscations to at least 10 inmate homicides and assaults. Contraband fuels the violence and gang activity in prisons.

Corruption and Extortion

The smuggling and trafficking of contraband contributes to an underground prison economy and systemic corruption. Inmates extort each other with threats of violence to acquire contraband like cell phones. Prison staff become corrupted by bribery and kickbacks. This undermines foundations of security.

Outside Criminal Activity

Cell phones allow inmates to engage in external criminal conspiracies involving drug trafficking, identity theft, and fraud. Authorities have linked contraband cell phones to the coordination of violent assaults on witnesses, law enforcement, and the public. They thus pose dangers beyond just internal prison security.

Public Safety Risks

The use of drones to smuggle contraband poses risks to public safety. Drones not only airdrop illegal payload over prisons, but can surveil facilities, crash into crowds, or disrupt aviation. Their potential adoption by terrorists groups further heightens risks.

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Contraband undercuts rehabilitation efforts, fuels criminal activity, and heightens risks – both within facilities and the wider community. Curbing smuggling and keeping contraband out of inmate hands is critical for safety of correctional institutions.

Table of Major Prison Contraband Smuggling Cases

Contraband SchemeLocationTimeframeScopeKey Details
Cell phone smuggling ring operated by corrupt prison guardsGeorgia state prisons2016Over 1000 phones smuggled per monthRing smuggled phones which were sold to inmates for up to $900 each. 17 people convicted in interstate conspiracy. Highlighted threat of corrupt staff.
Drone smuggling operation coordinated by inmateMansfield Correctional Institution, OH2020Multiple drone flights and contraband packagesInmate used cell phones to direct drone flights over prison fence to drop marijuana, tobacco, phones in yard. Sophisticated scheme.
Tobacco smuggling operation by Sing Sing guardSing Sing Correctional Facility, NY2013 – 2019Over $40,000 in proceedsGuard smuggled tobacco to inmates through food service and mail distribution. Made tens of thousands in multi-year scheme.
Suboxone strip smuggling via mailKentucky prisons2018 – 20203000+ suboxone stripsRing smuggled suboxone concealed in letters and documents mailed to inmates. Extensive interstate distribution operation.
Smuggling network exploiting work releaseKirkland Correctional Institution, SC2015Hundreds of phones, drugsInmates used unsupervised work release time to obtain contraband from outside contacts to bring back into facility.

Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Contraband

What are the most common types of contraband found in prisons?

The most prevalent contraband items found in US prisons are cell phones, cigarettes/tobacco, marijuana, suboxone/illicit drugs, and handmade weapons. Portable electronics like cell phones and e-cigarettes are among the highest demand contraband for their utility and black-market value inside prisons.

What are some creative ways inmates smuggle contraband into jails and prisons?

Inmates have used ingenious concealment methods to sneak contraband past security like hiding items in food, hollowed out books, false bottoms of shoes, prosthetic limbs, body cavities, underwear, legal mail, and disguising contraband as authorized items. Drones, corrupt staff, and manipulated visitation policies also enable more brazen trafficking.

How much do banned cell phones sell for inside prisons?

Contraband cell phones have significant black market value in prisons, selling for between $200 to $1000 inside facilities according to most estimates. Higher demand devices like iPhones can fetch amounts at the top of this range. The high value provides strong incentives for smuggling and illegal trade inside prisons.

Are most contraband items smuggled in by staff or visitors?

Statistics indicate the majority of contraband originates from facility staff. A Department of Justice report estimated correctional staff were responsible for 80% of cell phone trafficking incidents in California prisons. Guards and other employees have critical access and oversight gaps that many leverage for smuggling.

What technologies do prisons use to detect contraband and prevent smuggling?

Prisons use x-ray body scanners, millimeter wave scanners, ion mobility spectrometry devices, cell-phone detection technologies, drug-sniffing dogs, low-dose radiography scanners for mail, drones, and surveillance cameras. But detection rates remains low, below 15% for many facilities, due to challenges in scanning all personnel, visitors, and items.


Contraband remains a critical security challenge facing prisons and jails across the United States. Cell phones, drugs, weapons, and other prohibited items flow into correctional facilities through a variety of channels that are difficult to fully shut off. Contraband undermines safety, enables criminal activity, fuels corruption, and poses public risks.

While facilities deploy an array of security measures, the volume of contraband successfully smuggled into prisons remains substantial according to confiscation data and expert estimates. More research is needed to improve quantification and tracking of contraband trafficking trends. But it is clear that sophisticated smuggling tactics continue to bring significant volumes of prohibited items past prison security into inmate hands.

Addressing this requires continuous improvements to interdiction measures, screening technologies, and searches targeting evolving trafficking techniques. But the creativity and commitment of smugglers to satiate inmate demand also necessitates reducing markets for contraband inside prisons.

Enhanced educational opportunities, rehabilitation programs, and mental health treatment for prisoners can help minimize reliance on contraband like illicit drugs as a coping mechanism. Balancing expanded contraband interdiction with improved conditions and opportunities for incarcerated populations remains vital for strengthening the security and rehabilitative missions of correctional systems.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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