The term contraband is a term used to describe illicit goods and generally refers to items imported or exported illegally. Contra means “against” and bando means “ban,” so in simple terms, contraband means “against a ban.” An example of contraband is a drug carried across the United States border. To explore this concept, consider the following contraband definition.

Definition of Contraband


  1. A term used to describe illicit goods; usually referring to items imported or exported illegally.


Late 16th century   French (Contrabande)

What is Contraband?

The word contraband comes from the medieval French contrebande, which means “a smuggling.” It denotes property that is against the law to possess or transport, as well as to import or export. Contraband may also pertain to lawful goods that the law prohibits based on their nature or the person possessing them.

Take the Anarchist Cookbook, for example. The book, published in 1971, contains instructions for manufacturing explosives and other weapons, along with the manufacturing of illegal drugs. The book in itself is not illegal for citizens to possess. However, if an individual commits a crime involving drugs, guns, or explosive devices, law enforcement can seize the book and use it against them in court.

There are other instances in which legal goods may fall under the category of contraband. This includes items obtained illegally or used in the commission of a crime. For example, items purchased with stolen credit cards classifies as contraband, and are subject to seizure by law enforcement. Correctional facilities use the term to describe any item found in a prison that policy prohibits.

Contraband in Prison

Chapter 87 of Title 18, United States Code, defines and punishes prison offenses. The statutes are as follows:

18 U.S.C. § 1791(a)(1) – prohibits providing or attempting to provide any contraband item to an inmate of a prison.

18 U.S.C. § 1791(a)(2)  – prohibits any inmate of a federal prison from making, possessing, or obtaining any contraband item or attempting to do so.

18 U.S.C. § 1791(b)  – sets forth penalties commensurate with the dangerousness of the contraband item.

Correctional facilities have very strict policies on what prisoners can and cannot possess. This includes illegal items, such as weapons and drugs, as they pose a risk for the prison environment.

Prohibited items may also include legal or seemingly innocent items that prisoners can use inappropriately. For instance, a map may appear harmless enough, but a prisoner can use it to plan an escape. Prison contraband can even include excessive amounts of allowable items since prisoners can use them to barter.

Trade in contraband and prohibited services help some prisoners build power. With the right items and some planning, some prisoners have the potential to turn a small trade business into a prison empire. This provides them easier access to drugs, weapons, and outside connections, which threaten the security of the prison. Prisoners may also use contraband to incite violence against other inmates or guards.

Introduction of Contraband to Prisons

Most commonly, guards and other prison staff introduce contraband in prisons after accepting bribes from prisoners. For example, a former officer with the Bureau of Prisons FCI Talladega pled guilty in November 2012 for charges of smuggling contraband. The officer admitted to accepting thousands of dollars in exchange for bringing tobacco into the prison.

Outside contacts, such as family members and friends, also bring contraband into prisons. In 2012, law enforcement charged Chelsey Marie Camerone with smuggling contraband into the St. Johns County Jail. Camerone mailed envelopes to an inmate containing strips of Suboxone, an opiate used in the treatment of heroin addictions.

Jail officials began the investigation after several female inmates tested positive for the drug. Hana Marie Colson, the inmate that had received the envelopes, faced charges for receiving and distributing contraband.


To prevent contraband from making its way inside prison walls, correctional facilities take security measures. This may include background checks, x-ray scanners, and metal detectors for visitors. Some prisons also employ video visitations to closely monitor visits.

Corrections staff may also have to pass through metal detectors or have their belongings searched. To discover contraband already inside prisons, correctional employees conduct random cell searches.

If an inmate possesses contraband, or an outside party or guard smuggles in contraband, he or she can face criminal charges. The exact criminal charge and punishment varies by state and the type of contraband. If a correctional facility catches visitors smuggling in contraband, they can ban the individual from future visits.

Contraband in the Military

According to international law, contraband refer to goods that the enemy intends on controlling or using in armed conflict. Traditionally, contraband fell into one of two categories, absolute and conditional. Absolute contraband includes materials used to wage war or made into destructive instruments including arms and ammunition.

Conditional contraband includes provisions such as food and other supplies. These goods constituted contraband if one nation believes their enemy’s military will use them. In modern times, nations engaged in war consider almost all commodities absolute contraband.

Contraband in the military may also refer to items allowed in basic training, or in barracks. The prohibition of specific items help keeps military personnel safe and focused on training. When discovered, the authorities confiscate contraband immediately, and certain items are cause for immediate dismissal from the military.

Contraband Items

Contraband varies based on the situation or institution. For example, contraband in prison may differ from contraband in the military. Contraband may even vary for minimum- and maximum-security prisons. However, items considered contraband in all prisons include:

  • Aerosol spray cans
  • Alcohol
  • Equipment that may help with an escape
  • Explosive devices
  • Explosive substances
  • Flammable liquids
  • Illegal drugs
  • Legal drugs
  • Tattooing equipment
  • Tobacco
  • Tobacco smoking accessories
  • USB storage devices
  • Weapons

Contraband items in basic military training includes:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Food
  • Glass containers
  • Illegal drugs
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Pornographic materials
  • Tobacco and associated items
  • Weapons

Contraband Example Involving a Correctional Facility

In April 2000, Audra Watson entered the Pratt County jail. A sheriff’s deputy in the dispatch office saw the reflection of someone kneeling near the jailer’s door. The deputy entered the jailer’s office where Watson was still kneeling, and he asked what she was doing. Watson ignored the deputy’s question, stood up and walked into the visitation room and began conversing with an inmate.

The deputy instructed the jailer to open the door where Watson had knelt. In that spot, they discovered an envelope containing 10 cigarettes. When confronted, Watson stated that she slid the cigarettes under the door because someone had asked her to. She refused to give any more information and the deputy placed her under arrest. The complaint charged Watson with introducing or attempting to introduce contraband into a correctional facility.

Proper Notification

Upon entering the jail, inmates receive a written policy explaining a ban on tobacco products. Visitors do not receive a written explanation of the no tobacco policy.  However, a sign posted outside the law enforcement center reads:

“Items allowed to be given to inmates: money, socks, underwear, religious articles, needed medications – no exceptions.”

According to jail policy, visitors give jailers items to give to inmates so the jailers can check for contraband.

On December 4, 2000, a judge found Watson guilty of trafficking contraband in a correctional facility in violation of K.S.A. 21-3826. The judge found that the presence of a large “No Smoking” sign at the public entrance, paired with the sign listing of acceptable items clearly communicated “the prohibition on tobacco.” The court sentenced Watson to probation. Watson filed an appeal the next month.


On appeal, Watson disputed the constitutionality of K.S.A. 21-3826, contending that the broad definition of contraband is unconstitutionally vague in violation of due process of law.

K.S.A.2001 Supp. 21-3826 states in pertinent part:

“(a) Traffic in contraband in a correctional institution is introducing or attempting to introduce into or upon the grounds of any correctional institution or taking, sending, attempting to take, or attempting to send from any correctional institution or any unauthorized possession while in any correctional institution or distributing within any correctional institution, any item without the consent of the administrator of the correctional institution.

(b) For purposes of this section, ‘correctional institution’ means any state correctional institution or facility, conservation camp, state security hospital, juvenile correctional facility, community correction center or facility for detention or confinement, juvenile detention facility or jail.

(c)(1) Traffic in contraband in a correctional institution of firearms, ammunition, explosives or a controlled substance which is defined in subsection (e) of K.S.A. 65-4101, and amendments thereto, is a severity level 5, nonperson felony.

(2) Traffic in any contraband, as defined by rules and regulations adopted by the secretary, in a correctional institution by an employee of a correctional institution is a severity level 5, nonperson felony.

(d) Except as provided in subsection (c), traffic in contraband in a correctional institution is a severity level 6, nonperson felony.”

The court of appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision. It held that administrators of correctional facilities must provide adequate warnings about contraband items, and K.S.A 2000, Supp. 21-826 did just that.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Defendant – A party who is the target of a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Respondent – The individual against whom a petition is filed, also referred to as “defendant” in some cases.
  • Statute – A written law passed by a legislature on the state or federal level.