The Hiding Area Depends on What is Being Hidden

What type of items do inmates try to hide? How difficult is it to find contraband? What’s the difference between soft contraband and hard contraband? What happens after an inmate is caught red-handed with contraband?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Steve Maynard | Strategic Account Executive
Chris Riedmueller | Product Trainer

In legal terms, contraband is known to be items that are illegal to have in one’s possession.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? The fact that some inmates do illegal things in jail, even after going to jail for doing something illegal? It’s a silly nonconformity, especially when they’re caught and the consequences further damage their sentencing. This blog will discuss why inmates hide contraband, the different types of contraband, how officers can cleverly search and find the contraband, and the consequences after locating the contraband.

As a reader, you may be thinking this topic is common sense: you hide contraband = you get into trouble. Although this may be the sound way of thinking, it, unfortunately, isn’t that simple when you’re living behind bars. When you’re serving time, fellow inmates will ask to borrow your personal things. Some will offer a trade. Others will simply steal. This is why the practice of “hiding” your belongings is a way of life in jail and prison. Note that “belongings” doesn’t necessarily correlate to “contraband.” Any item that is worth of value to the inmate, the inmate will protect at all costs. And the hiding area depends on what’s being hidden. Needless to say, most correctional officers can say that they have found things in “interesting” places, to say the least.   

It’s important to note that there are two types of contraband: soft and hard (we aren’t talking about physical textures, either!). Although you may be thinking of a soft velvety blanket versus a hard metal shank, we are talking about the “hardness” of the consequence instead of the physical texture of the contraband item. Soft contraband is known to be a non-dangerous item, but still illegal to have possession of. Stolen food or excessive amounts of property would be considered soft contraband because it isn’t life-threatening. For instance, possessing too many packets of mackerel over the facility’s authorized limit constitutes contraband. For scenarios like too many packets of mackerel, or whenever soft contraband is found, officers will likely just ask the inmate to throw it away or take it away themselves. Worst-case scenario, the inmate would be punished with 30-90 days loss of privileges (email, commissary, telephone, etc.). On the other hand, hard contraband consists of items like weapons, drugs, and alcohol. When items like these are confiscated, consequences are bound to happen. If found guilty, punishments can result in a disciplinary transfer to a higher security prison, solitary confinement, loss of good conduct time, and many months of lost privileges (Zoukis, 2021).

However as previously mentioned, whether or not the contraband is soft or hard, anything that an inmate sees value in will be protected and hidden. For instance, anything purchased from the commissary is usually considered a “hot ticket item” and is worth hiding (especially from inmates who don’t have enough money to buy from the commissary) inmates will use sneaky hiding tactics to stash them away. Although hiding your Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from your bunkmate’s paws is important, it’s the more obscure and dangerous items that inmates worry about being pulled from their hiding place. For example, cigarettes, smartphones, drugs, and other hard contraband items are highly valued and most inmates want to get their hands on them. Highly valuable items are typically kept very close to the inmate, such as in the personal confines of their cell, or even on their body if they are out of arm's reach of the item.

Correctional officers are more likely to find contraband when inmates don’t know a search is approaching and don’t have time to hide their items. Therefore, searches should always be random and unannounced. When a contraband search takes place in the housing unit, it should utilize as many staff members as possible so the search can be conducted quickly and thoroughly. While officers know that every corner and crevice of a cell should be thoroughly examined, it’s important for them to remember to never stick a hand where they can’t see. Luckily, a proper search kit has a mirror that can prevent the officer from being poked by a sharp object they didn’t initially see. Although the search process may sound obvious, contraband is typically hidden in the not-so-obvious hiding places. A cell, for example, is abundant with hiding places such as the seams of a mattress or pages of a book. The amount of small detail throughout a cell is abundant with hiding opportunities. Clothing, whether it’s on the inmate’s body or in their laundry bag, is another popular hiding spot as most clothing has pockets, layers, and seams. The waistband of an inmate uniform, for example, can be stretched to create a bag-like pouch, to hide smaller items, like pills. The same method can be used when inmates roll up their pants and create a cuff around their ankles.

Of course, there are the “other” places where inmates try to hide contraband, such as inside their body cavities (you get the picture). Hiding something in a body cavity can easily pass a simple standard pat down search but will fail a manual body cavity search as it’s required to be conducted by a physician or with specific instruments in a medical examination room, or another private area. These types of searches take place when either foreign objects are physically present during a visual strip search, or when the inmate is expressing behavior leading to the deputy to have a reasonable claim (such as signs of discomfort while walking or sitting, unusual posture, etc.). Same-sex searches should be conducted to allow sensitive areas to be searched thoroughly. Although it’s an uncomfortable process as the search is intrusive with insertion and probing into more secluded areas (you get the picture), it’s a necessary procedure to confiscate any illegal substance, as well as ensure staff and inmate safety.

We’ve covered where inmates typically hide their highly valued items, but what about the items that are less in demand? These items are typically hidden in common areas such as the recreation room, kitchen, laundry room, or library. These areas are hiding place hot spots for a couple of reasons. First, if contraband is found, there usually isn’t a trail to match who the item belongs to (if a CO were to find contraband in a cell, then that specific inmate would be written up). Second, it’s a fast-paced movement area where several people can hide, take, or “trade” items. The kitchen, for example, hands out meal trays to inmates. Contraband can easily be disguised when it’s been transferred in facility property and is commonly seen by facility staff.

The more uncomfortable a place is to search on the body, the more likely contraband can be found. I have found pills taped to scrotums, makeshift cuff keys under tongues, and so on. It’s important to carefully search seams and folds of clothing, in the hair, in and behind the ears, around the mouth, under the tongue, inside the cheeks, everywhere.
Chris Riedmueller
Product Trainer at GUARDIAN RFID

Throughout the 14 years of corrections experience that Chris Riedmueller has under his belt, one of the most impactful messages he has ever read was on a sign in a facility’s search area that simply said, “A good search takes 5 minutes. A bad search can take the rest of your life.” Hopefully, this blog gives an insightful perspective as to why inmates hide their belongings and can help COs cleverly find both the soft and hard forms of contraband. Knowing these tips can make a difference in your facility’s contraband searches. You can never be “too vigilant” or “too safe” when protecting America’s Thin Gray Line. Get your team home safe. 


Gilchrist, Todd (2014). Did you check the…? Common contraband hiding places
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Kent, Jessica (2020). 10 PLACES INMATES HIDE THINGS | YouTube
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Zoukis Consulting Group (2021). Searches, Shakedown, and Contraband in Prison
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