BEMIDJI—Things aren't always what they appear in the Beltrami County Jail.
A paperback book might be a way to smuggle drugs. Strands of toilet paper might be woven together into a long, surprisingly sturdy rope. A disposable fork might be ground down to form a makeshift weapon.
Although most of its inmates don't serve long sentences, the local jail sees its own share of contraband materials, hidden and smuggled in more ways than the average mind could imagine. The constant inflow requires jailers to be continually observant of even the most mundane details.
Jail facilities throughout state may soon have a little help from the Legislature in their effort to fight the inflow of contraband. A bill is working its way through both the House and Senate that would allow facilities to use full-body scanners on inmates, which is essentially the same device TSA agents use at airports to scan passengers.
"It would be a game changer," said Calandra Allen, administrator of the Beltrami County Jail.
Aside from being more efficient than manual searches, the scanners could prove beneficial for inmates, as well. For example, the publication Prison Legal News argues that the scanning system would be less traumatic for inmates who have been victims of sexual assault.
Currently, though, the jail's staff simply has to rely on their own observational abilities to notice anything that looks just a little bit off—anything that sounds not quite right. The staff performs strip searches on inmates when first booking them into the jail. If they have reason to believe an inmate is smuggling contraband in their body cavities, they can get a warrant to search those areas, as well.
Allen remembers hearing the sound of plastic one time when they were searching an inmate. After securing a warrant, they found five baggies of methamphetamine in her body cavities.
Jailers don't just find contraband during the booking process, though. Periodically, correctional officers conduct a "shakedown," which is where they search the cells throughout the facility. The Beltrami County Jail can hold up to 140 inmates at capacity.
Allen said the jail comes across contraband in one form or another about 10 to 15 times a month. The jail keeps contraband items for a few months at a time in case the county prosecutor would need them for evidentiary purposes. They also keep some of the items for training purposes.
Depending on the situation, an inmate could get an additional criminal charge for contraband. Or, they may just receive a certain number of days in lockdown.
While the contraband items may be outlawed within the walls of the jail, they often represent the full range of ingenuity.
"They're so intelligent," Allen said of the inmates. "The creativity's just crazy."
Even with a simple envelope in the mail, there might be more than just what meets the eye. In one case, correctional officers removed the stamp from an envelope to reveal a Suboxone strip, which is a drug meant to stem certain cravings.
A tube from the inside of a pen might be used to snort drugs.
Sometimes, it's not just about hiding contraband, but rather the evidence thereof. During a recent search, jailers confiscated a contraption meant to help an inmate pass a drug test by substituting their own urine for some other fluid.
For as benign as they may normally seem, books present a number of challenges. Find the right size of paper, and they may be used as a cigarette wraps.
They're also used for storage. Allen opened a paperback book to show how a section was cut out of the center of the pages, creating a pocket to hide contraband.
Hardback books aren't allowed at all since contraband can be hidden in the spine. Also, the compressed cardboard is often hard enough that it can be filed down to a point and be used as a weapon.
For that matter, though, many things can be filed down, including a domino.
Torn bed sheets can be used as a grip on makeshift weapons, or on the other hand, as makeshift hair ties.
"There are things that do still surprise me," Allen said about the contraband items correctional officers find. "The length that they go to—I think that's the most surprising thing. Because, if they would take half of this talent and put it into something constructive, most of them would be running our communities."