Why corrections officers need to pay extra attention to incoming mail

originally published on CorrectionsOne.com


Contraband smuggling in correctional facilities was already on the rise before the coronavirus pandemic, and would-be smugglers continue to develop new means of concealment. This evolving challenge to safety inside jails and prisons has intensified in the past year, and due to the lockdowns to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus, postal mail has become a favored conduit for contraband drugs.

Synthetic cannabinoids – commonly referred to as “K2” or “Spice” – present one of the biggest problems right now, says Dr. Michael Frunzi, a senior scientist and business development manager with Smiths Detection. Although these are certainly not the only kinds of drugs being smuggled, SCs can be difficult to identify and cause a wide range of unpredictable and often dangerous behaviors in users.

“All of the work-related dangers – be it violence, mental burnout, dealing with inmates with a mental or physical illness – all of those dangers are made worse by contraband narcotics in general, and Spice specifically because of its unpredictable health effects,” said Frunzi. “Also, inmates who are harmed or killed by violence or overdose or suicide put the facility at huge potential liability, so that’s definitely something to be avoided, for ethical as well as legal reasons.”


Synthetic cannabinoids – aka SCs – are a large and varied group of psychoactive chemicals that mimic the effect of THC on the human brain. But these chemicals can trigger a much broader and more severe range of symptoms than actual marijuana.

“Depending on which cannabinoid was used, the effect can be dramatically different. No one really knows what the physiological effects of this illicit substance are going to be until it’s too late,” said Frunzi. “We’ve heard stories where it causes extreme violence, it causes psychopathic behavior, dramatic resistance to pain, paranoia, delusions – just very dangerous behavior.”

Some of these substances have little in common chemically, but SCs are most frequently dissolved in a liquid and sprayed on a carrier material, such as dried leaves or paper, which is then smoked or ingested for a psychoactive effect. SC in a solvent is easy to apply to paper, making it a convenient type of drug to smuggle via mail, says Frunzi. And once that drug-soaked paper gets inside the facility, it can be cut up into small pieces for individual doses, which can sell for hundreds of dollars.


When it comes to identifying tainted mail, says Frunzi, follow your instincts.

“You can buy paper that’s specifically designed and sold as a vector to move drugs through mail,” he said. The paper looks very strange, so anything where the paper itself is unusual-looking, just using your senses, you can suspect that something is up.”

Potential indicators of tainted paper:

  • Fibrous.
  • Brittle.
  • Thick.
  • Off-white/streaky.
  • Heavy for its size.
  • Strange odor, like chemicals or solvent.
  • Blurred ink.

Unusual activity or volume is also cause for scrutiny, says Frunzi. Because inmates are legally entitled to correspondence with their attorneys in most cases, legal mail – or mail that looks like it comes from law offices – is a common ruse.

“Anything that looks like a legal document, many inmates have the right to have access to at all times,” he said, “so those are big conveyances.”

Often these attempts to make things look legitimate don’t hold up under much scrutiny, he adds. Look out for large amounts of “legal” documents, repetitive documents, the same page over and over again, or incomplete or nonsensical forms – for example, a piece of mail that says “page 3 of 20” with only two pieces of paper in the envelope.

If the laws governing your jurisdiction prohibit anyone other than the inmate opening legal correspondence, trace detection technology can help COs determine whether a piece of mail is tainted without opening anything. This method also increases officer safety.

“It is possible that the envelope itself has narcotic residue on it, so you could use the IONSCAN 600 to swab the stamp and the closure of the envelope,” said Frunzi. “The person who is filling that envelope with these materials, it’s likely that their hands, even if their hands are gloved, are contaminated with those narcotics, and then they’re pressing all over this envelope and potentially leaving residue behind.”

Simply wipe the suspect envelope with the disposable swab and place it in the IONSCAN 600 for definitive detection and identification of any narcotics present in less than 12 seconds.


Mail may be the most prevalent route for attempted drug smuggling, but it’s hardly the only strategy for getting contraband behind bars.

“There’s a lot of very creative vectors out there,” said Frunzi. “We see a lot of crazy stuff on the news: Drones, paintball pellets, dead rats – all manner of really outlandish ways to get things over the wall.”

But pay close attention to the essential items that travel in or around your facility every day, he says.

“Any objects that are protected, permitted or enjoy some sort of special status, those are the ones that are going to be taken advantage of,” said Frunzi,” Those things must remain available, so it’s just a matter of making sure that they’re safe.”

For instance, books. To take advantage of the availability of books, inmates will hollow them out or hide Suboxone in the spine. Art supplies like pens, markers or jars of paint are also targets for extra scrutiny.

“Those things can be hollowed out and have pills or tiny baggies stuffed into them,” said Frunzi. “COs don’t necessarily have time to scrutinize every last object that is permitted. You can’t look through a hundred pens or markers, scrutinizing each one for something inside.”


When looking for the right tools to help stop smugglers, first identify the biggest issue in your facility and choose a tool designed to address that activity, advises Frunzi. Smiths Detection offers a suite of tools that can help COs screen these high-volume objects quickly, safely and effectively:

  • Use the IONSCAN 600 to detect narcotic residue on potentially contaminated objects, like envelopes or boxes.
  • conventional X-ray machine can be used to detect items hidden inside of books, like pills or Suboxone strips in the spine.
  • To spot illicit items hidden in or on the body, scan inmates with a B-SCAN full-body X-ray scanner.

“If you know that you have a huge problem with the mail, start with an IONSCAN 600. If you know that you keep finding books and art supplies that have been used, maybe look at X-ray first,” he said. “If you suspect people are using their body cavities to move objects, even if it’s a small facility, the B-SCAN might be the thing to use. Analyze what you’re seeing on a daily basis, and then build out your solution from there.”

For more information, visit Smiths Detection. Register to view their on-demand webinar about intercepting contraband drugs using trace detection and X-ray technology here.