The Art of Contraband

“The prison wall, that line between the pure and impure, has all the emotional tones of a woman's maidenhead,  says Gresham Sykes in his 1957 classic, The Society of Captives . WALLOne fine summer day, I gazed out of the pod window on the third floor of the South Unit at the New Hampshire State Prison and said aloud, “It sure would be nice to have a cold beer on a day like today."

"What's it worth to you?" a voice behind me asked.

I turned to see Rick emerging from his room across the pod.

"Oh, I don't know," I replied. "Why? Do you have one?" I chuckled.

"Doc," he said, "You been here long enough to know that you can get anything you want for the right price."

Rick had been locked up for fourteen years. I figured he knew what he was talking about.

"You could really get me a beer?" I asked.

"Sure, guys get beers in here. I've seen guys get Dunkin Donuts coffee, Domino's pizza, Chinese take-out, you name it. Hell, the first year I got in general population, some guy was offering to hook guys up with a female employee for a couple of hundred bucks."

Prison is a place of deprivation. Unlike a harsh physical environment where no effort can overcome the stinginess of nature, prison is an environment made harsh by decree. Society doesn't want to coddle inmates. The inmate handbook lists those few items an inmate may possess. Anything else, however innocuous, is contraband. The wall is as much intended to keep these material comforts out as to keep us in.

But the wall, I found out, leaks like a sieve. There are many holes. Every day guards walk in and out of the front gate. Not all these officers resist the temptation. Money is to be made in dealing contraband. A ten-dollar can of Bugler loose tobacco sells for a couple of hundred dollars on the inside. A carton of Marlboros brings even more. A new C.O. got busted for bringing in cell phones to inmates. Their families were sending him money in exchange for these creature comforts.

Another weak spot is the visiting room. Medium custody inmates can have contact visits with friends and family. They get stripped out when leaving visits, but that doesn't prevent the resourceful use of body cavities. I sat in the visiting room one day and watched an inmate pack a bag of contraband the size of a baseball. He reached down his pants and shoved the package into his rectum when the guards weren't looking. I know guys who swallow balloons full of heroin, then search their stools until they pass them. Common items, like sneakers, watches and sunglasses, can be worn in by a visitor and worn out by an inmate.

A novel way of breaching the wall is by launching packages over it from the outside. A favorite spot at the New Hampshire State Prison is behind the North and South Units. A fifty-foot swath of mown grass separates the back of the units from the perimeter fence and the road beyond. The other side of the road is all trees. About every seven minutes, a guard in an SUV passes by on perimeter duty. That leaves plenty of time for making deliveries. Just flinging packages requires a good arm. Slingshots can be effective. Once a package has made it to the grass, it must be fished in with a length of dental floss, a bent paperclip, and good aim. Reeling in a catch can be tricky. It may require many tries. Inmates spend hours trying to hook a package before an observant guard sees it.

Prison industries provide another hole. The prison's auto shop needs vehicles to work on. Guards search vehicles before delivering them to the shop, but things get overlooked. A few years ago the auto shop was the port of entry for the most feared piece of prison contraband, a handgun. It wasn't an intentional thing. Some customer forgot to remove his pistol from the glovebox. When he picked up his car the gun was gone. He notified the prison. There was a massive, but unsuccessful search.

Rick told me the story. "That gun lived for a while triple-bagged at the bottom of a barrel of used motor oil. Then it made its way to a drain in the South Unit. It stayed there for quite a while."

"Was it loaded?" I asked.

"Naw. That's the crazy part. And the hammer was broken on it. It wasn't any good as a gun. It was just the idea of the thing that made guys want to keep it."

"So, did the guards ever find it?"

"They tried." Rick chuckled. "They knew that I was a player back then. So they called me down to the office. They said, 'We don't care what you have to do, just get it to us and we'll make it worth your while. Nobody will get a ticket for having it. If you gotta buy it, we'll pay back whatever it costs.' I never saw them so desperate."

"So, what eventually happened to it?"

"Well, Doc," Rick said gazing past me out the window, "there's some things I just can't talk about. But, it was gotten rid of finally... Speaking of contraband," he continued hastily, "Did you ever hear about the Christmas we smuggled in a video camera and filmed ourselves drinking Jack Daniels and snorting cocaine? We did it just to prove that we could."


"Yea, really." He said. Then, after a pause, "I'm just kidding about the camera, Doc. But, the whiskey and cocaine was true, for sure."