They come in the night or when you least expect it. Highly trained operatives with the latest technology and tactics. Guaranteed to uncover 100% of the illegal contraband in whatever unit lands in their crosshairs. Appearing out of nowhere, they rid the compound of drugs, cellphones, weapons, and any other contraband that makes prison unsafe for officers and inmates. This is sort of how I imagined it before my first big shakedown. I’ve covered the amount of contraband in the units in a prior essay, so you might think that the process of eliminating even some of it, given the long history of the BOP, would be well-established and, at least marginally effective. Let me begin this description by saying they found almost nothing, stopped no one, and stole half a jar of peanut butter from me personally. I can’t eliminate the possibility that my peanut butter attacked them, but they also took a jar of chocolate candy from my celly’s locker so we have a theory regarding why the confiscations occurred.
I’ll start from the beginning. First, at least locally, they don’t come at night and almost never utilize the element of surprise. In general, everyone in the unit knows the shakedown is coming at least thirty minutes before it begins; some units are even tipped off by guards the night before. We hypothesize that this is to make it more sporting, since anyone with real contraband (phones, drugs, hooch, weapons, etc.) has plenty of time to hide or get rid of it. It is equally plausible that they don’t really want to find anything, especially given that some of the contraband is brought in by them in the first place. Since they almost never find anything, as evidenced by the number of guys FaceTiming home or getting high as soon as it’s over, the second theory is more plausible.
They do not use any technology, or even drug sniffing dogs. Basically, a group of a dozen or so officers and staff congregate in the center of the compound. This is the signal for all holders of real contraband to hide, use (it’s amazing that more don’t OD, and a little disappointing, frankly), or otherwise dispose of their illicit materials. Each unit becomes a beehive of activity.
The targeted unit is then informed of the forthcoming examination and asked to exit the building. Each person is frisked on the way out and then, sometimes, taken to R & D where they are x-rayed. Again, the BOP is obsessed with inmates hiding things up their butts – a practice called suitcasing, oddly enough. Once cleared of all anal objects, the group of 150 men is sent to rec yard to wait out the search. The search is executed in the same manner as all BOP activities. In other words, it’s randomly incompetent, passive aggressive, and vindictive. A handful of officers go through the unit with no specific targets or prior intel (though watching the live video of a unit while the staff is congregating would provide tons). They seem to just randomly pick cubicles and rummage around. My celly and I both had our lockers searched while inmates who must have looked like worker bees trying to save the queen in the video, were skipped entirely.
Post-search analysis showed the number one most confiscated item was clear plastic peanut butter jars. These jars, when empty, make great storage containers and prevent our tiny storage lockers from becoming a mess of random, small items. They are, however, against the rules because of the threat they pose to “safety and security.” No one here can determine what this threat is or how exactly a lightweight, clear plastic jar filled with buttons, salt packets, rubber bands, or any of a dozen other random items could be a tremendous risk, but apparently they are. The officers seem to appreciate this rule, since it gives them the chance to indiscriminately throw away what is stored in the jars, whether those items are illicit or not.
The second most confiscated item was extra blankets. Though assigned two, most inmates collect three or four blankets due to the fact that the housing units are kept at around 58 degrees during the winter months. The theory is that the cold temperature prevents mold growth and decreases the transmission of germs, but the outcome is that we’re all freezing a good deal of the time during six months of the year.
Beyond these two dangerous items, the contraband confiscation list quickly degrades into idiosyncratic items based on the focus and vindictiveness of the particular officer. Some inmates lost books and magazines, some lost markers and art supplies, and many lost extra shelves they had built out of cardboard to better utilize the 2 foot by 4 foot by 18 inch locker that all their possessions must be stored in for the next 5 to 20 years.
In the end, the shakedown failed to find even one of the well over a dozen cellphones in our unit. The distillery lost their fermentation bag (I have no idea what that is but it was hidden in the shower), but none of the people involved were caught and they had a new batch of potato vodka ready a week later. The amount of tobacco and spice being smoked seems to have actually increased since the search, which is crazy given that we had a guy die from bad spice just prior to the shakedown. The guy who died was not in the same unit that I’m in, but rumor has it that the dealers were back in business the very next day. “Spice” is supposedly a liquid that the dealers through the mail via magazines soaked in the stuff and then dried out. The BOP apparently has no way of detecting it and it’s a testament to how desperate many inmates are to get high that death didn’t slow the usage down much either.
So the only real impact of the shakedown was to annoy inmates, throw out some plastic containers, confiscate some blankets (which we all replaced within days), and steal my peanut butter!
— Eric S.