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Specially equipped search teams formed to scour units for contraband

Correctional officer using flashlight to search in mesh on door
CO IV William Webb uses a flashlight to see past mesh covering an air vent inside a death row cell.

Photos by David Nunnelee

Searching TDCJ facilities for contraband has always been a team effort. But never before has the agency formed and specially equipped teams of security officers for that sole purpose.

Eight correctional officers and a sergeant were selected in January to serve as the agency’s first-ever contraband search team within Region I. A second team started operating within Region III in March.

Under the supervision of regional directors Robert Treon and Brian Rooden, the teams’ sole mission is to seek out and confiscate illegal items hidden in facilities within their regions. Formation of the teams followed the finding of a number of contraband items, including cell phones, during a recent shakedown of units across the state. Enhanced search and contraband procedures for all persons entering a TDCJ facility were put in place soon thereafter.

“Because of the heightened security concerns we have with contraband, I wanted to get specialized groups of senior correctional officers together and have them conduct detailed searches of units on a random basis,” said Correctional Institutions Division Director Nathaniel Quarterman in announcing the formation of the teams. “I hope they find anything that is contraband, from drugs to weapons to cell phones. That’s their job. I want them constantly focusing on how we get beat. Going out and finding areas where people can hide things, and then coming back and sharing that information with unit staff can only make us better.”

Quarterman noted that the new search teams are far different from the bygone teams of security officers known as SORT (Special Operations Response Team) that responded to emergency situations.

“SORT was more of a physical team that actually controlled the offender,” Quarterman said. “They came in when there was a hostage situation or a riot situation. These are strictly search teams. Their job is to search for contraband, all kinds of contraband. In most cases, they won’t even see the offender because he will have been removed from the cell beforehand.”

To do their job effectively, search team members have been equipped with high-tech metal detectors and video camera scopes that can be snaked through small openings. Team members also carry flashlights, screwdrivers and small wrenches that can be used for the dismantling of offender property if unit officials believe it contains contraband. The teams will also sometimes work in tandem with dogs trained to sniff out contraband.

“We want them to have everything they need to do a really good job in a cell,” Quarterman said. “They’ll be able to go into places where a regular officer would not have the tools. They’ll be very well equipped with the tools necessary to search a cell.”

correctional officer searching through inmate's belongings
Officers Sherry Cormier and Edmond Hagans sift through papers while searching for contraband inside a death row cell at the Polunsky Unit near Livingston.
While individual cell searches are conducted by unit staff on a daily basis throughout the system, Quarterman noted that other job responsibilities don’t afford them as much time as the search teams will have to conduct thorough inspections.

“They’re going to have time to do it,” Quarterman said. “The whole 10 hours they’re working they’re going to be focusing on searching that cell or searching that particular area of concern. They will have all the time they need to do that.”

Quarterman said the teams will typically target individuals who have a history of possessing contraband. He added that while formation of the teams will not stop offenders from attempting to smuggle in illegal items, their presence will serve as a warning.

“As long as you have individuals locked up they’re going to try to get something that they shouldn’t have,” he said. “But I think that you have to have a means of policing yourself by going in and trying to find those items that are getting in illegally. These teams are strictly designed to go in and look in areas where a normal correctional officer doesn’t have the time or the equipment to look.”

Quarterman said the search teams could be expanded if they prove effective.

“We’ll evaluate things as we go down the road,” he said. “If it works really well, we may expand it to other regions.”

Selection for the search teams was based on years of experience and recommendations from wardens.

“I’m delighted that we had many experienced officers apply for this assignment,” Quarterman said. “It tells me that they know it’s worth the effort and I thank them for that.”

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