How Do Drugs Get Into Prison?

Getting prohibited items inside a prison is more than a game, it’s business. Every so often, a naive junior legislator will leave a fundraising lunch long enough to pop their head into a committee hearing and express their handwringing shock and dismay over drugs and other contraband appearing inside prison walls.

Contraband is any item prohibited by law or regulation and runs the gamut from weapons, to drugs to unauthorized communications. When the first prisoner landed behind bars centuries ago, the plotting began on how to get contraband inside. The methods adapt to security measures and exploit gaps in coverage, trying to stay a step ahead of the correctional staff.

image by thomas hawk via flickr creative commons

image by thomas hawk via flickr creative commons

The junior legislator can’t get his head around the fact that inmates would knowingly break the rules to obtain prohibited items. Let’s face it, they didn’t get sent to prison for being exemplary citizens. Historically, there are four ways contraband is brought in behind the walls.

  • Visiting.  Inmates are entitled to visits with family and other approved persons. Contact with family is often cited as a connection to the outside world for rehabilitation. This same contact is exploited by some to serve as a conduit for contraband. Children’s diapers have been found packed with heroin. Visitors had drugs, or other contraband, hidden on (or in) their person to hand off to the prisoner in the visiting room.  Attorney visits are shielded by attorney-client privilege and have been abused to bring prohibited items inside the prison walls. It has long been suspected that an attorney visiting George Jackson in August of 1971 brought in a weapon used in a bloody escape attempt from San Quentin.


  • Mail.  Communication with the outside world is important to retain someone’s family ties, yet it offers another opportunity for smuggling contraband inside the walls. Those who abuse this privilege talk, or coerce, family members into sending drug laced birthday cards, money hidden in backing of a photo, or gang information hidden under a stamp. When families were able to send in quarterly packages, all sorts of “extra” items would be hidden inside. Now, even “approved vendor” packages have been tampered with and drugs and cell phones have been found sealed inside bags of chips, or cereal.


  • Inmate Movement. Anytime an inmate is allowed movement from one area of the prison to another, the opportunity to smuggle contraband into the secure area increases. Inmate work assignments in metal fabrication factories, kitchens, plumbing shops, yard crews present the chance for an inmate to smuggle metal stock for weapons, band saw blades for cutting cell bars, drugs and cell phones into the housing units. Inmates with access to the yard are able to retrieve contraband and hide it for later use in a planned gang attack.



  • Staff. While relatively rare, staff have been compromised by manipulative inmates and convinced to bring in cell phones, drugs and tobacco products. This is a line that once crossed, there is no salvation for the corrupted staff member. This action puts their fellow correctional staff and public safety at risk.


With nothing but time on their hands, convicts get creative on the way contraband is smuggled and hidden. At one Southern California Prison, the main exercise yard was visible from a frontage road. Cars would drive by and toss handballs onto the yard. The handballs would be gathered up quickly by the inmates and hidden in with the balls they were using. The contraband handballs were found stuffed with drugs.

A favorite hiding spot for contraband is in a tightly wrapped plastic bindle in the bottom of an unflushed dirty toilet. The inmate counts on a staff member’s reluctance to dig through the sewage during a search.

Cell phones have been used to harass victims from behind bars and carry out prison gang business on the street. Dogs have been trained to detect cell phones, so the convict will try to find another way to obtain and hide the contraband. Bird, with phones taped to their bodies have been released near prisons. Now, with the proliferation of hobby drones, a new high-tech threat to the prison’s security is on the horizon. Combined with cell phones to coordinate drops, the drones create a nightmare scenario. Bring in the cell phone jammers.


Correctional staff have a tough job preventing contraband from entering and they don’t get enough credit for the work they do. The next time you drive by a prison, think for moment about the cat and mouse game being played out behind those walls. It’s a high stakes game.



  1. As a CASA working with foster kids whose parents were in prison – I was shocked by all the rights that prisoners and parolees have and how they abuse the privilege. T’is a broken system.

    1. Kids with parents in prison or jail are in a tough situation. They aren’t the ones being punished, but it sure seems that way at times. In California the courts have given way too many privileges (IMHO) that are abused. I agree the system needs a fix.

      1. I hate to say this but the lawyers also use those rights often to the detriment of the kids. I’ve had to wait for hours in a courtroom for a prisoner to be escorted from jail because his lawyer forgot to file the proper paperwork. Frustrating as the kid’s father had been in and out of jail since his birth and was hardly a father but when given the chance to assert his rights, boy did he.

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