Contraband—Health or Security Issue?

This month the Essentials of Correctional Nursing blog welcomes Gayle F. Burrow RN, BSN, MPH, CCHP-RN, Correctional Health Care Consultant from Portland, OR, to the blogging team. Gayle will share insights from her many years of jail nursing experience in a regular monthly rotation with ECN bloggers Catherine Knox and Lorry Schoenly.

Contraband is found frequently in the corrections literature usually with a focus on preventing objects like cell phones, sharp objects and drugs from coming into the institutions at booking or at visiting times. Inmates and their friends and families can be inventive. Drones are becoming a new threat to security. They are dropping packages and weapons into recreation yards. A jail in Ohio has installed body scanners at intake to identify and remove items found in body cavities of those being booked into jail. The officers report, of the four thousand they book annually, they find something every day.

Correctional nurses must understand what constitutes contraband and the damage it can cause. Contraband can consist of weapons, drugs, food, tobacco and even objects that inmates can use to coerce officers into doing their bidding. Contraband can also include medication or medical items that can be harmful if used incorrectly.

Contraband is a Safety Issue

Learning about contraband begins with orientation to the facility and in health orientation. In these sessions new correctional nurses discover:

  • The definition and examples of contraband at this particular facility.
  • Procedures in place to prevent things entering the facility, such as cell phone detectors, body scanners, strip searches, phone detection dogs, housing sweeps, mail inspections and now drone tracking devices.
  • Procedures in place for health staff such as sign out and shift counts for narcotics.
  • The importance of sharps, needles and scissors control and counts.
  • The practices in place during medication rounds to identify and prevent diversion.

Contraband is a Health Issue

Health staff sometimes feel that contraband is a custody responsibility. Nurses often find out about searches or lock down times when heading out on medication rounds or when evaluating a patient in a housing unit. However, contraband can dramatically and quickly affect a person’s health. Health care staff should know about the health effects of contraband and be alert to this unique area of our practice.

In an intake or receiving facility, one common situation is when the arresting officer or custody witnesses someone swallowing baggies of drugs. Sometimes the inmate will become scared and notify the nurse. With a witnessed contraband incident, plans can be made to send the inmate to the hospital for observation and treatment.  It is the unwitnessed situations where harm can occur, such as the collapse of a patient from a leaking baggy or overdose from swallowing drugs. Sharp items can cause stomach or intestinal perforations.

Contraband Risk Reduction

Contraband prevention and identification can become part of everyday patient care practice. Here are some examples of ways to incorporate contraband awareness into clinical practice.

  • Questions included in the booking screening process to identify that contraband is a health issue.
  • Intake evaluation can include discussion of the health problems of hiding objects in body cavities.
  • An evaluation for abdominal pain or even constipation, can include inquiry as to any object swallowed or placed in the rectum.
  • General education during health encounters can elicit information from patients.

Is Contraband a Health or Security Issue?

With the wide variety of contraband brought into a facility, custody has processes in place to locate items with screenings, searches and equipment. Health staff have responsibility for procedures like counts, medication checks, knowing what is on your carts, and locking up sharps and medications. Some items do not cause any health concerns and others can cause death. Since, the safety of the institution is everyone’s responsibility, reviewing the policies and procedures for the facility and health will give guidance.

Next week we will continue to review this complex topic of contraband from a health perspective. It will be interesting to know how your facility handles contraband. Share your experience in the comment section at the end of this article.

To read more about personnel and patient safety in correctional settings in relationship to contraband and other areas, see Chapter 4 of the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!

Photo Credit: © Africa Studios – Fotolia

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