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Inmate Cell Search Procedures

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Inmate Cell Search Procedures

To ensure the safety and security of inmates and staff, and to effectively control contraband, inmate cells will be searched as needed. If there is reason to believe that security has been compromised, a search can be ordered by jail administration. Contraband is usually introduced through inmate smuggling, but there will be times that contraband was introduced knowingly by correctional officers. This makes it even more important to find any illegal items and gather evidence to prosecute the staff responsible. The procedure for conducting a proper cell search is labor intensive and requires attention to detail, but the results of doing the job well will be apparent.

Reasons to Search

The main purpose of calling a cell search is to control the amount of contraband coming into the cells. Anything an inmate has that was not given to them by jail staff is considered illegal contraband. Any time an officer suspects inmates are concealing something or acting suspicious, the jail administration can order a cell search. Doing random searches is also typical in order to keep the level of contraband down.

Finding and confiscating contraband weapons is not only for the safety of the staff, but also for the other inmates. Expect prisoners to be crafty and stealthy — you would be surprised what can be used to make an improvised weapon.

Experienced corrections officers can use cell searches as an excellent training tool for new staff. Part of the field training program should include using an empty cell as a teaching tool. Senior officers should hide items around the cell and new staff must find as many of them as possible. Showing the rookie officers all the things they missed is a perfect way to change their mindset and to get them to contemplate hiding spots that did not initially occur to them.

Tools Needed for a Search

Any detention facility should have, at a minimum, one cell search kit put together and kept in a secure area. This can be a larger sized toolbox or case that is clearly marked "cell search kit." These tools should only be used during a search so that they don't get misplaced.

The main tools in a cell search kit are reusable, such as flashlights of differing sizes and strengths. These allow the correctional officers to see in poorly lit areas as well as in cracks and crevices. Having several small flashlights for each officer conducting the search makes the job easier and helps officers to complete the task in a timely manner. Having one larger flashlight is also recommended. Shop flashlights

The kit should also include a few different types of mirrors. The largest is called an inspection mirror. This is a round mirror on a long handle. It has a curved end and clips near the handle to hold a large flashlight. Some inspection mirrors have wheels on the bottom so they can be rolled underneath objects. Having small mirrors on arms that extend are also useful when trying to get into tight areas.

It is also helpful to have different types of magnets. These can be tied on the end of a string or on an extending arm. Stick or drop them in hard-to-reach areas to see if you can attract anything metallic, like a shank or home-made tattoo gun. They can also be used to see if a part of the furniture or lighting is loose and has something hidden in it.

Having sets of metal picks is helpful to scratch or scrape walls and seams to see if anything was broken and subsequently repaired and disguised by the inmates. A rubber mallet is also useful to tap on objects to see if they are soundly metal or if they have been damaged in some way.

The cell search kit should contain a few disposable items that will need to be refilled. A few boxes of latex or nitrile gloves in different sizes protect officers while they search. Small, sealable plastic bags are good for securing contraband and can be written on to document where the item was found. Notepads and pens are good to have to document items for incident reports or for repair orders.

Steps Before Starting a Search

Before any cell search, it's best to get the inmates out of the way. It is never advisable to have a prisoner watching you conduct a search. This precaution avoids the inmate noting any area you may have missed, giving them ideas for future hiding places. There is also a possibility that if you get close to finding something they don't want to lose, they could lash out and attack an officer.

Don't give inmates any warning of the impending cell search. That only gives them time to throw away or destroy contraband. Have all the participating officers ready to go into the cell immediately. Observe any prisoner acting strangely or rushing to hide their property. Gather all inmates together in the common area of the cell and station one officer at an unused, open cell out of sight. The officers will begin doing pat searches of each inmate one at a time. Any contraband found on an inmate will be taken and logged. That inmate will then be escorted to the open cell and secured.

Next, correctional officers should put gloves on and take a quick look around the cell, observing anything that is obviously out of place or damaged. Examine that area immediately and take note of any illegal items found or damage that needs to be repaired. Once all apparent problems have been noted and addressed, begin the more detailed search of the cell.

Detailed Searches

Detailed Searches

Begin in the common areas of the jail cell. Check the doors for damage to the hinges, tray doors or windows. Look at the locking mechanisms and ensure they function properly and do not have anything that would obstruct the door being closed and locked. Make sure the paint is not scratched off or has food or dirt smeared on it. Look at the door jamb and make sure it isn't damaged in a way that allows inmates to pass items between cells. Remove any newspapers that have been placed in the door windows that block out light or the view to the sleeping area.

Check the tables and make sure they are still firmly attached to the floor. Go through any reading materials on the table, throw away old newspapers and take excess paperbacks out of the cell. Examine the gaming materials and open every box and look inside. Check the paint on the table for damage. Look at the underside of the table and seats for anything taped or glued underneath.

Examine the television for structural damage. Make sure all cables are functioning properly. Remove anything the inmates have attached to the TV stand. If there is a remote, locate it and check the battery compartment. Most prisoners will leave the television alone because it is their main source of entertainment and do not want to lose it.

Inspect all the walls in the common areas. Look for damage along the seams and anywhere there is grout. Remove any drawings or pictures that the inmates have attached to the walls. Make sure there is no major paint damage. Check any windows for damage and clear any obstructions away. Finally, check all the vents to make sure they are secure and the screws are still attached. Look into the vents to check for anything that might be hidden in there.

After the common area is cleared, go into the sleeping areas and survey walls, vents and windows while repeating the steps taken earlier. Examine any shelves and look at every item on them. Ensure the shelf is still solidly bolted to the wall. Make sure the collapsible clothes hooks have not been tampered with.

Scan every piece of personal clothing and check to see if anything has been stashed inside them. Rolled up socks are one of the main hiding places because inmates do not think officers will unroll each sock. If any underwear or t-shirt has been damaged and is not wearable, it should be thrown away. There shouldn't be extra uniforms in cells, so they should be removed and taken to the laundry. Be sure to check the seams of the inmate's pants — that is a common place to hide needles or medications.

Next, inspect the bunks. Like with any jail furniture, make sure it's still properly bolted to the floor and wall. Ensure all the bolts are tight and present. Use mirrors to look at the bottom of the bunks for anything tacked up underneath. Check each item in the cubbies; another common tactic is for inmates to cram so much inside that it would be easy to miss a stashed item.

Go through each individual hygiene item like shampoo, soap and toothpaste. You would be surprised the lengths prisoners will go to in order to hide things they should not have. If the inmates have extraneous hygiene items, take them out of the cell. If it was a jail issued item, dispose of it. If it was purchased from the commissary, then place it in the inmate's property locker.

Detailed Searches

You should then check the mattresses for obvious damage. It's likely an inmate will use a homemade tool to tamper with the seams on the mattress so they can hide items in them. If you find a mattress with holes, take it out of the cell and replace with an intact one. Look at the sheets and blankets — if they are damaged or have graffiti on them, replace them as well.

Any personal items like mail and pictures have to be kept neat and organized. If your facility has a policy that pictures cannot be hung on the walls, take them down and inform the inmate it's not allowed. If they do it again, the pictures should be taken and stored in their locker until they are released. Mail should not be allowed to build up, and older mail will be moved to the lockers as well.

Each fixture in the bathroom should be inspected. Use the tools in the cell search kit to look above and below the toilets and sinks. If the wash basin has holes on the underside, poke around in them: that is the prime area to hide lighters and drugs. Check the showers for damage and extra hygiene items. Dispose of them before leaving.

If any contraband was discovered, note the location and in whose property it was found. On the chance that the item was found in the common area and cannot be attached to one particular inmate, note it as such. Further investigation can be done if needed.

It is important that officers work their way around the room, starting in the same area and going in opposite directions until they meet at the beginning again. Having two sets of eyes checking everything will ensure that nothing is missed. Each correctional officer has different strengths and weaknesses, so something that is obvious to one officer may be missed by another. It is a form of double-checking for the protection and integrity of all jail staff.

The last thing all the officers will do before finishing is straighten up and put things back where they were. If you want the inmates to respect a neat cell, keep it in order when you are done.



Once the cell search is complete, gather all the contraband found together. Each officer who conducted the cell search will write an incident report, using their notes as reference. If an item was found that requires referral to the police department, the officer who found it will write that particular report. Secure all the contraband in a large plastic bag and place it in the control room. Suspected drugs will be turned over to the police department.



The shift supervisor on duty will document the cell search in the daily activity log. Information will include which cells were searched, the time of the search and who was involved. When complete, the supervisor will log the search and a short list of what was found, specifically mentioning anything illegal.

When writing your incident report, document all pertinent information like the date, time, cell number and any contraband found. These reports will be kept for future reference by jail administration. The jail officer who specifically found the illegal article will document, in detail, where they found the item and in whose sleeping area or bunk it was located. If the contraband was found in a common area, they will detail where so surveillance footage can be checked for inmate activity in the area.

Once the report is finished, a copy will be made. The report, along with the illegal item, will be turned over to the police department for possible referral of criminal charges.

Although some may consider cell searches an unfavorable part of being a correctional officer, it's an integral part of the job. Messy cells are a potential sign of a jail staff that is not invested in a safe working environment. Allowing clutter to build up shows the inmates that officers are apathetic and contraband will quickly flourish. As a correctional officer, being consistent and impartial in cell searches is another way of displaying pride in your job, and it will not go unnoticed.

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