By Expert: Captain Sean Stewart

The resource that could actually aide Corrections in reducing contraband and criminal communication in jails and prisons. Many officials believe this to be an inmate E-Mail system; however, that assessment is incorrect.

Electronic Messaging as a Resource

In today’s ever advancing technological world, where new discoveries and advancements are made daily, and where new ways of doing things are being created just as quickly, there is an unexpected tool that could actually aide Corrections in jails and prisons. That resource is Electronic Messaging.

Just a few years back this would not be conceived as a possibility. Mostly, detention centers/jails are meant to keep such advanced technology out of the reach of inmates. The possibility that this technology could be used for continued criminal behavior and involvement has been a clear deterrent.

My career, in Corrections, spans over two decades. In which time, I have been involved in operating within jails in one capacity or another. One constant and major area of concern has always been the smuggling of dangerous contraband into our facilities. Within the scope of my experience, I have ascertained that jail officials can have a substantial influence on staff and prisoner safety by limiting the amount of dangerous contraband flowing into facilities. Most facilities employ as many resources as are available in order to limit contraband. With technology escalating every day, and with faster and better ways of doing things, Corrections must be ready. So, what does “READY” mean? It is meant for Corrections to be on the lookout and prepared to adapt to new resources that can facilitate and aide Corrections. Sometimes those resources may not seem to apply to Corrections. Therefore, we must also be willing to think outside the box. That being said, are there new prospects on this front? There very well may be.

A seeming new option is the use of Electronic Messaging as a device to deter the smuggling of contraband into detention centers/jails. Befuddled yet? At first, you may not fully grasp the possibility and all it implies. However, let me explain further by giving some background details regarding issues of smuggling and contraband in correction facilities.

Jail Mix and Traits

We can all agree that jails typically confine a disparate mix of individuals who are involuntarily confined and criminally minded. Most of these individuals have violated the law, have extensive criminal histories and are effective schemers. I call this the, “Jail Melting Pot.”

These individuals have learned how to effectively deceive, swindle and/or con others prior to serving time. Consequently, by the time these individuals are incarcerated, their constant execution of skills in subtle influence, coercion and manipulation has been honed to a high degree of proficiency. They are willing to take advantage of a host of prospective victims. These victims can include Corrections staff, as well as honest, law abiding, friends and family. The criminal mind rationalizes this behavior in that, “The Ends Justify the Means.”

Inmates have the luxury of too much time on their hands. They make use of this abundant supply by thinking of how to influence and or coerce others, including members of their own family. Usually when referring to “manipulative inmates,” it is more often in the context that Corrections staff are the likely targets. However, anyone in close contact with an inmate is subject to this exploitation. That being said, inmates will victimize any one person that they are able to bend to their will. Yes, staff are possible victims, but more likely it is friends and loved ones of inmates who will fall prey to their schemes.

Circumventing Security Procedures for Personal Gain

The criminal mind is set on accomplishing self-centered goals, with little regard toward any person(s) being exploited to accomplish their objectives. Additionally, these individuals demonstrate tendencies toward circumventing security procedures for personal gain.

An important component of smuggling contraband includes “manipulation”. Managing dangerous contraband and a population of criminal-minded individuals is a daunting task and is extremely difficult to handle. Jail officials can adopt and implement quality policies and procedures and provide comprehensive training; both of which can help to reduce the occurrences of dangerous contraband introduction into our facilities. However, regardless of our best efforts, inmates have the upper hand in this initiative. Inmates are able to decide whether to act once settled and comfortable in their incarcerated surroundings. Once they reach this comfort level, their thoughts turn toward calculating offenses. Their cunning plans include the manner of their offense; how, when, and where to act in an attempt to introduce dangerous contraband. Determined inmates are often shrewd, reticent and deceitful. For these reasons, and many more, prisoners become unpredictable when attempting to smuggle contraband into our facilities.

There is a necessity for awareness, by Corrections personnel, regarding the manipulative tactics utilized by inmates when trying to influence staff in one way or another. Staff should be receptive to indicators of subtle maneuvering or the exerting of control over family members or friends outside of the facility. It is naïve to think that just because a criminal is incarcerated that the prisoner’s hands have been tied and he/she will no longer have a hand in criminal activity. A high majority of prisoners are incredibly intelligent. The criminal mind is savvy and cunning. Criminals will attempt to use their craftiness to observe how far they can reach into the outside world. They grasp for allies to assist them in the furtherance of illicit activities,criminal communication and to smuggle dangerous contraband into our facilities.

Nonetheless, it is not possible to absolutely guarantee that no prisoner or member of the public, for that matter, will ever be able to smuggle contraband into a correctional facility. Despite how aggressively officials work to eliminate dangerous contraband, this is not an assurance that can be made by any correctional facility. Yet, we have a duty to place our best foot forward and make every legal attempt to curtail illicit activities within detention centers/jails.

Criminal Communication

With that said steps can be taken to prevent individuals in our community from being manipulated and/or forced to assist in criminal activities. These unlawful acts can include the smuggling of contraband to an inmate utilizing the traditional mail system. Other “Criminal Communication” acts can refer to gang members communicating hit lists, establishing by-laws, money-making schemes, etc. Another area of concern is with inmates who are career criminals. They will engage in witness tampering, judicial interference, and hindering of investigations. It is a duty for Corrections to make every attempt to prevent this sort of criminal communication. Electronic Messaging is a viable tool for reducing dangerous contraband and criminal communication.

Electronic Messaging: The Alternate Option and How it Works

By giving the public another option to communicate with incarcerated individuals, we can attempt to prevent criminal communication and contraband to a higher degree. The tool I am referring to is Electronic Messaging. Correction facilities are being forced to change their mission. The old days of “book them and forget about them” are over. The inmates of this era are not sitting idle in their cells waiting for trial. They are trying to smuggle dangerous contraband into our facilities and are engaged in criminal communication.

Here is How Electronic Messaging Operates

  • A secure website is set up by a provider.
  • A member of the public will be directed to the secured website.
  • The person creates an account on the secured website.
  • The person proceeds to write a letter or message.
  • The letter/message is sent.
  • The letter/message remains on hold in the system until an authorized person in the holding facility gives approval for release and delivery.
  • The letter/message is delivered to the inmate either electronically or printed hardcopy.

An automated word search engine should be provided with the service. This will be utilized to search for key words or phrases that can be identified in electronic messages. Make certain the search engine will allow for the facility security staff to make entries based on the changing lingo or codes used by inmates. This will flag specific messages for security staff to review. An assigned staff member then scans and approves all messages to be delivered. Messages can be delivered electronically or printed. Whichever way is used, security staff controls what comes in and is ultimately delivered to the inmate. Moreover, there is no dangerous contraband (narcotics) contained in the message delivered. This statement could not be made with traditional mail.

Requests can be made to the provider that all incoming electronic messages be translated into English for security staff. This way,there will be no need to find a translator to interpret the message or to confirm it does not contain correspondence considered a threat to the safety and security of the facility.

By utilizing an Electronic Messaging system,all messages can be retained for a time frame that is determined by the agency. The ability to retain and retrieve electronic messages by security staff will benefit the agency. For example, an incident transpires in your facility. Security staff are aware that communication was involved and in some way instrumental in the event. The security staff has reviewed phone calls and video visitation. No evidence indicates that the message was delivered via these two communication routes. Security staff then assumes there were other means of communication utilized. Security conducts a shakedown of the inmate’s cell and nothing is found. Most likely, the inmate flushed the letter containing the pertinent information down the toilet. The ability of your staff to find additional information is no longer available. Flowing through sewage pipelines is pertinent information regarding possible suspects, the reason as to “why” the incident transpired and possibly information on future disturbances. Had the letter been retrieved, it would have provided criminal evidence. If Electronic Messaging was being utilized it would have allowed staff to retrieve the message from the server and access the intelligence needed to answer those questions. The information would have assisted in maintaining the safety and security of your institution.

Another example of how Electronic Messaging can be used,is in breaking coded messages. The ability of your security staff to retain and retrieve the electronic messages between individuals will assist greatly if gang members are communicating in code. Security staff can now work on breaking the codes being used. Security staff can obtain outside communication with multiple inmates in your facility with a quick search on the Electronic Messaging system.

Electronic Messaging is an excellent tool that correctional facilities can make use of in maintaining a safe and secure facility. Electronic Messaging must not be confused as being an Inmate E-Mail system, it is not. Unlike traditional mail, the facility has complete control over what communication comes in and goes out.

By no means is this advocating that Electronic Messaging should replace traditional mail. However, Electronic Messaging is an asset in the correctional environment and should be entertained as a worthy option to go hand in hand with traditional mail. Over time, you will find more and more inmates and members of the public utilizing it. Inmates and the public will recognize that Electronic Messaging is faster than and not as costly as traditional mail; depending on your agency and provider. In addition, greater use of Electronic Messaging services will decrease the amount of traditional mail in your mailroom. This in turn, will decrease many hours and allow staff to be reallocated elsewhere in your facility.

Overall, this has been a brief insight as to how Electronic Messaging can be applied in correctional facilities. Electronic Messaging has the resources to allow for better control of ingoing and outgoing communication from the facility. It also has the ability to aid in stopping criminal activity from occurring and to aid in investigations of criminal activity. It is one step forward into the rising use of technological advancements that can only aide Corrections in the duty to protect the facility, the inmates and the public from harm.


Sean Stewart is a Captain at the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, AZ, and has over 20 years of experience. He is the Division Commander of Housing Operations and has overseen multiple management and tactical operations in his career. Sean is a NSA (CJE) Certified Jail Executive and instructs on a national basis. He currently serves on the NIJO Jail Advisory Committee. Sean provides continuous assistance to outside law enforcement agencies and also provides expert defense services in defending jails against prisoner litigation.



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