What Happens If You Get Caught With Contraband in Prison?

Both inmates and visitors can face criminal charges and other sanctions for possessing or bringing contraband to a jail or prison.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated June 09, 2023

If you have a family member or friend who's incarcerated, it might seem like a nice idea to bring them food, money, or gifts when you visit them in jail or prison. However, prisons have very strict rules about what items can and cannot be brought into, or even mailed to, the prison. Prisoners and visitors who violate these rules can get into serious trouble, including being charged with a crime. Before bringing or sending anything to a prison, check prison rules or with the prison authorities to make sure it's permitted.

What Is Contraband?

Contraband refers to anything that is illegal to possess or make under state or federal law, such as illegal drugs or counterfeit money.

Prison Contraband

The definition of contraband, however, is much broader in prisons, jails, and other types of correctional facilities. Prison rules generally prohibit inmates from possessing weapons, alcohol, paper or coin money, cell phones, and other items not prohibited to the general public. These rules also prohibit the public from introducing certain items to a prison. For example, prison rules might prohibit a visitor from bringing food, clothing, or SIM cards into prison. Mailing such items or otherwise trying to get them into a prison facility is also a crime. In most states, prison contraband crimes carry the same penalties regardless of who committed the offense—an inmate, visitor, family, friend, or another person.

Dangerous Contraband

Some states' laws distinguish between "dangerous contraband" and other prohibited items. Dangerous contraband generally refers to anything that could be used to endanger the safety or security of the prison or anyone in the prison. For example, a state might define dangerous contraband as any item that can be used to cause death or serious injury or help a prisoner escape, or that poses a threat to the prison's security. Examples of dangerous contraband include weapons, objects that could be used as a weapon (such as a sharpened piece of plastic), architectural drawings of a prison, and large amounts of drugs that are intended to be sold inside the prison.

Federal Laws and Penalties for Contraband in Prison

Federal law makes it a crime to:

  • possess contraband in federal prison, or
  • bring or introduce contraband into a federal prison or attempt to do so.

The penalties vary depending on the type of contraband involved.

Penalties. Felony penalties of up to 5, 10, or 20 years in prison apply when the contraband includes certain illegal drugs, firearms, weapons, ammunition, or items intended for use as a weapon or to aid an escape. When the contraband is alcohol, currency, or a cell phone with service, the crime carries a penalty of up to one year in prison. For other "prohibited items," a person faces up to six months' incarceration. Prohibited items include objects that threaten order or security in the prison or the safety of an individual, as well as items not approved by the prison warden.

Consecutive sentences. When sentencing an inmate for illegal possession of contraband, the judge must tack on the sentence to the one that the inmate is currently serving. And for any convictions involving drugs, a person faces consecutive sentences, as well, for the contraband conviction and the drug conviction. Consecutive sentences are served one after another, instead of at the same time.

(18 U.S.C. § 1791 (2023).)

State Laws and Penalties for Contraband in Prison

States also prohibit possessing or introducing contraband into a prison, jail, or correctional facility. Common items defined as contraband include weapons, drugs, alcohol, cell phones, prison maps, ammunition, electronic devices, and hard currency. Some other examples of contraband items include unapproved food, clothing and personal items, tattooing equipment, syringes, cameras, batteries, and tools.

Like the federal law, many states impose penalties based on the type of contraband and its potential for harm. Dangerous contraband items, like firearms, weapons, and combustibles, tend to carry the stiffest penalties. A person might face 10 or more years behind bars for introducing dangerous items to a prison. Other serious offenses include introducing drugs, alcohol, or any item intended to aid in an escape.

Some states impose felony penalties for all prison-contraband-related crimes. Illinois law, for instance, makes it a Class X, 1, 2, 3, or 4 felony to bring or possess contraband in a prison. (720 ILCS 5/31A-1.1 (2023).) Other states penalize introducing non-dangerous contraband as misdemeanors and dangerous items as felonies. New York law makes it a class D felony to introduce or possess dangerous contraband items into a prison and a class A misdemeanor for other items. (N.Y. Penal Law §§ 205.00, 205.20, 205.25 (2023).)

Consequences for Bringing or Possessing Contraband in Prison

Inmates convicted of possessing contraband will typically serve any criminal sentence for the contraband offense after serving their current sentence (called a consecutive sentence). This consequence can add years to an inmate's sentence. In addition, prisoners who are found with contraband can lose certain privileges, including visitation, canteen and phone privileges, face administrative segregation (a housing sanction), and be subject to other disciplinary actions. Prison-rule violations can also impact a person's chances of being paroled or released early.

Visitors caught with weapons, drugs, or other contraband can have their visiting privileges suspended, temporarily or permanently. Like inmates, they may also face a criminal conviction and prison time.

When Visiting an Inmate in Prison

Prisons have strict visitation guidelines. On top of what a visitor can bring into a prison, these guidelines will cover when and who can visit, the length of the visit, what the visitor can wear, and whether physical contact with the inmate is allowed. It's important to check out the rules before visiting and to follow them to avoid sanctions or being denied visitation.

To prevent visitors from smuggling contraband into a prison or passing it to a prisoner, most prisons require visitors to undergo searches—such as metal detectors, handheld wands, K9s, or full-body scanners. Visitors are not allowed to bring in personal items into a visiting room and may be prohibited from having physical contact with an inmate.

You can find information on visiting an inmate in federal prison on the Federal Bureau of Prisons' website. For state and local correctional facilities, check out the rules of the facility where the inmate is located.

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