Dental Floss: Murder weapon


It’s no secret that prison and jail inmates have the uncanny ability to fashion a deadly weapon from almost any available material, including ink pens, nails, soap, batteries, and even newspaper. And, yes, even something as unassuming as dental floss can be transformed into an instrument of death. Actually, dental floss is a prized item in prisons and jails because of its versatility. For example:

1. In Wisconsin, two inmates braided over 3 miles of dental floss to make the extremely strong ropes they used to help scale the prison walls during an escape. Same thing in West Virginia, where an inmate braided floss to use as a rope. He escaped and was on the run for weeks before being captured.

2. Three Illinois prisoners made a rope ladder from dental floss. Salt and pepper shakers stolen from the dining hall were used as rungs/stirrups.

3. Dental floss can be used to saw through bars. It takes a long time, however, and requires a bit of toothpaste to achieve the goal. You see, toothpaste is a mild abrasive, therefore, when applied to dental floss…presto, an instant hacksaw.

4. Out of sewing thread? Well, dental floss could be your answer. Prisoners have been known to use floss for their sewing needs. For instance, the inmate who used floss to stitch together a dummy he placed on his bed to fool officers during his escape. And let’s not forget to mention the prison escapees who used dental floss to stitch up the gunshot wounds they’d received during their prison break.

5. The plastic case surrounding dental floss is also great material used for making handcuff keys and handles for various types of stabbing-type weapons.

6. Floss is also used to pass and retrieve items from one cell to another. Objects are tied to the floss and then tossed to a fellow inmate along the same tier. Or, the object(s) are lowered to a tier below. The same goal can be achieved through the prison plumbing. An object of desire (anything from drugs and alcolhol to food) is tied to dental floss (wrapped in plastic) and is then flushed down the toilet. The receiving prisoner/inmate also flushes a weighted object tied to floss. The two strings become tangled deep in the plumbing and the object is then easily reeled in.

7. And, of course, dental floss can be used to choke and strangle.

Due to the variety of uses for dental floss in the prison and jail environment, officials in many locations have banned the product from their institutions. Prisoners, though, have already filed a $500 million lawsuit claiming their dental health has been compromised because, as we all know, people who do not floss are subject to more cavities.

Isn’t it heartwarming to hear that these prisoners are so concerned about their oral health? You know, the same guys who ingest stuff they’ve retrieved from a common sewer line.




Close your eyes and imagine you’re in the filthiest public restroom you’ve ever visited. Take a deep breath while conjuring up a stench that lingers in places where only roaches and vermin dare to trod. Combine those odors with the scent of dirty sweat socks, t-shirts and underwear, cooked popcorn, urine, and steaming chicken-flavored Top Ramen noodles.

Picture living or working where every breath is similar to what I’ve described above. Never a single mouthful of fresh air. Could you drink water from a sink that was used to wash the feet of a man who just finished working on a roadside work gang for eight hours in ninety-degree heat—a sink positioned two feet above a toilet that’s used several times a day by three people, but is only capable of being flushed twice in eight hours?

How about sleeping in a six-by-nine room with two other large men who haven’t bathed in several days during the hottest time of the year. There’s no ventilation. No windows to open. How about sleeping on the floor with nothing between you and the grimy concrete surface but an itchy, wool blanket? Roaches, rats, and mice darting from gaps between rusted plumbing and cracked cinder blocks. Dried blood and vomit are the only splashes of color on drab walls. HGTV it ain’t.

What I’ve just described is jailing. Serving time. Marking the calendar. Doing time.

Of course, conditions are better in some facilities than others, but many are just like I’ve described in the paragraphs above. Some are worse. Much worse.

The photos below were taken in one of the cleanest jails I’ve ever seen. It’s also a very well-run operation. The staff is well-trained, and for the most part, the prisoners seemed to be in good spirits considering their circumstances.

A brief tour of a county jail:

Deputy sheriffs  monitor and control inmate activities and movement from inside a master control room. All doors are operated electronically by the officer seated at the control desk.

Inmate Movement Control

Female dormitory

Some prison dormitories house over one-hundred prisoners in a single room. Many times, a single officer is assigned to supervise the activities of one or more dorm rooms. Only non-violent inmates are assigned to dorm-style incarceration. In many federal prisons, dormitory-style housing is quite common, especially in the low-security facilities and prison camps.

Correctional officers day

Each inmate is responsible for keeping her personal space clean. Cleaning the overall dormitory is a shared task.

A very happy prisoner. I asked why the big smile. Her reply was, “Things could be worse. At least I’m alive and healthy.”

The silver, metallic cable you see on the right is a telephone cord. This jail features a phone in each dorm. Inmates are allowed to make collect calls during approved times of the day only. The phones are switched off from the control booth during the “off” times.

Jail Library

Books are often donated by local community groups, families of inmates, and even the prisoners themselves.

Jail Library

Cell block

In the photograph below, a deputy sheriff makes his rounds inside a cell block. He’s actually inside a day room that’s normally occupied by several inmates (they were made to go inside their cells while I was inside the day room). The area outside the windows to the left is the common area hallway that’s outside the locked cell areas. The doors to the deputy’s right and straight ahead are inmate cell doors. Each morning those doors are opened, allowing all inmates into the day room where they play cards, watch TV, eat their meals, and socialize. They return to their cells at night.

Inmates are not allowed in their cells during the day. Sleeping or lounging on their beds during the day is not permitted. Having all the inmates in the day room also allows the deputies to see their every movement. The only exception to the rule is when an inmate is sick. However, the illness must be verified by a jail nurse or doctor.

Looking out

An inmate’s view through the window in his cell door out into the hallway. Many dreams and fantasies of life on the outside begin at this very spot. The door across the hall is that of another inmate’s cell. The checkered grate at the top of the picture is the only source of ventilation in the cell. It’s also a means for the jail staff to communicate with the prisoner. Jail doors are heavily insulated to retard fires and noise.

Just as I clicked off this shot, a group of deputies ran past to quell a disturbance in an area I’d just left. The problem—an inmate was having an anxiety attack from being in such tight quarters. He’d become quite violent and was tossing things around. His troubles reminded me of how much I appreciate the little things—trees, flowers, family, home-cooked meals, wine, and flushing my own darn toilet whenever I want.

Inmates who commit violations of jail rules, or exhibit violent behavior, are sometimes placed in segregation/isolation. That section of the jail is often called the SHU (Special Housing Unit) or The Hole.

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

 Overcrowding is a huge problem in jails and prisons. This jail was forced to hang metal beds from the hallway walls when their cells reached capacity—three men in each two-man cell.

Another answer to overcrowding is to convert the jail parking garage to living space. By bringing in shipping containers (like those you see on cargo ships and the backs of tractor-trailers) and converting them to individual housing units, this jail was able to safely increase it’s capacity by 100 inmates. A chain-link fence circles the mini-compound.

Each module is a self-contained unit equipped with air conditioning. A deputy sheriff monitors the parking garage jail from a small booth positioned outside the fence. Cameras are placed throughout the module areas.

Inside, the modules are narrow, but adequate. Bunk beds for ten prisoners, storage lockers, and a shared writing desk made from a single piece of lumber.


The space between two modules serves as the recreation yard. Remember, just a few months before I snapped these photos, this space was a parking garage for the jail staff and visitors.

Visiting Room

Prisoners are brought to these small rooms where they “visit” with family members seated on the opposite side of the window. The family’s room is a mirror image of the inmate’s visiting room. The view below is from the inmate’s side of the glass.

visiting room

*By the way, prison and jail are not synonymous. They’re entirely different animals. But that’s a topic for another blog.

You have been found guilty


So you’ve been tried and convicted for a crime and now you’re ready to do your time. Well, it’s not like you have a say in the matter. But, the day has arrived. The judge found you guilty and sheriff’s deputies (that’s who takes you into custody after court) have already handcuffed you and are now leading you to a section of the courthouse you’ve never seen. Who knew there were jail cells back there?

You sit in a cell with a dozen or so other people of various criminal backgrounds, waiting for someone to transport you to the county jail. Soon, you hear voices and the sound of chains rattling. Deputies call you out one at a time and begin shackling you—handcuffs attached to a chain around your waist, and leg irons.

The transportation officers load each of you into a van and then padlock the door from the outside. Not a good time for your claustrophobia to act up.

You arrive at the jail where you’re herded into a large room. Then you’re strip searched, issued jail clothing, which you quickly put on, and then herded back into another large room. It’s now time to learn the rules and regulations of the jail. It’s orientation time, and you’d better pay attention. The rules you’re about to hear are important. They’re for your safety. By the way, if you don’t follow the rules you’ll find yourself staying behind bars a little longer than you’d expected.

Now, please sit quietly and watch your orientation video, courtesy of the Chatham County Georgia Sheriff’s Department.

Party at the prison


There’s a party tonight and it’s the hottest event of the year. There’ll be Reggae music for dancing in the private club, pot smoking, swimming pools filled with women in bikinis, all the seafood you can eat, a pool hall, and for those who like to gamble…non-stop cockfighting. Yep, this is prison life in Venezuela. Sounds tough, huh?

Sure, gun-toting officers stand guard around the perimeter of the facility, and they even search visitors before they enter. But once those visitors make it inside…It’s Party Time!

Prisoners control everything inside the San Antonio prison on Margarita Island. In fact, many of the inmates are armed, carrying automatic weapons as a means of keeping the peace. Of course, those firearms are also used to guard the boss of the prisoner’s operation, Teofilo Rodriguez, a convicted drug trafficker. And it’s no coincidence that drugs, lots of them, are sold directly from inside the prison. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to come to the prison to pick up their “product.” After all, the soldiers standing guard over the place only search people entering the prison, not leaving.

Rodriguez, aka “The Rabbit”, definitely rules the roost. There’s a mural of him on a prison wall, several Playboy Bunny-type logos (“The Rabbit”) adorn other walls, and he even employs a personal security team. He’s living the good life.

Children enjoy one of the prison’s four pools

The non-stop prison party often includes inviting rap groups from the outside to perform for the prisoners and their guests. There’s a food stand that sells snacks, four swimming pools—children of the inmates often spend their time in the pool while parents barbeque meat poolside while drinking liquor—conjugal visits, satellite TV, and more.

The perks of this prison are not paid for by the government. Instead, inmates have paid for everything. With drug money, no doubt.

Yes, this prison has everything. Well, almost everything. The one thing they don’t have is escapes. Who’d want to leave?

*NY Times photos


Please pass the peas


While many police and sheriff’s departments face layoffs and budget cuts, Ellis County, Texas Sheriff Johnny Brown has decided to be creative when it comes to feeding the inmates housed in his jail.

Sheriff Johnny Brown (on right) and Sgt. Bobby Cooper

No more canned peas, corn, or store-bought onions for his prisoners. No sir. It’s fresh vegetables or nothing. That’s right, Sheriff Brown decided to break ground on the back forty (actually, it’s more like three acres at the old jail farm) using inmate labor for the tilling, planting, and harvesting.

Sgt. Cooper is in charge of overseeing the farm operation

Each morning, a group of non-violent inmates stand in line to be shackled and transported the three miles to the farm where they put in a full day working the 188 rows of vegetables. Sheriff Brown hopes to save the taxpayers of his jurisdiction a lot of money by growing the crops. And, as a bonus, the inmates learn as they work. They’re also tired at the end of the day (less trouble), and the food they’ll consume after harvest will be much better for them than canned produce. Let’s face it, jail food is usually horrible.

An inmate examines English peas prior to planting

Planting peas

To further save money, Sheriff Brown even collects rainwater runoff from the roof at the jail.

The water is funneled into barrels and is then transported to the farm to water the gardens.

WFAA TV photos

Sheriff B.J. Barnes

*Jail farms are not a new concept. In fact, Guilford County N.C. Sheriff B.J. Barnes operates a massive prison farm—the only one in the state of North Carolina—consisting of 806 acres that’s manned by 134 inmates. Inmates even built the original dormitory at the farm using rocks found on the grounds.

Those of you who attended the 2010 Writers’ Police Academy will remember Sheriff Barnes from the Sunday debriefing panel. He was also responsible for most of the police equipment you toured and visited on Friday.

And, it was Sheriff Barnes’ team who provided the live demonstration of the school shooting/hostage situation.

This year, Sheriff Barnes has graciously offered to allow attendees of the 2011 Writers’ Police Academy an opportunity to tour the county jail. Ride-a-long’s with Guilford County deputies will also be offered as part of the WPA program.

Registration for the 2011 Writers’ Police Academy is open. Reserve your spot today. Space is limited!






Prisoner Face Smashing: A New, Fun Sport For Guards?


Sure, prison inmates have done wrong. They’ve chosen to break the law and to go against the grain of society. Many of them have done things that are simply too reprehensible for words. There’s no doubt that each of them should be punished. But there are men and women in prisons and jails throughout the country who, while serving their time (which is the prescribed punishment for their crimes), claim abuse at the hands of the officers who stand watch over them.

Prison is not a nice place, not by any means. It’s a dangerous place in a world all its own. That world behind the bars, the looping miles of razor wire, and thick concrete is reminiscent of the Mad Max  movies where society has been stripped of all things civil, leaving citizens to fend for themselves using whatever means is available. In fact, some prison life brings to mind the old film Escape From New York where an entire geographical section of New York (Manhattan) is walled off for use as a prison, the most dangerous prison in the world. There are no guards. Food is air dropped in every so often, and the prisoners there, too, exist through whatever means available. It’s all very primitive, and abuse is rampant. But could a place like that exist in our present-day culture?

Well, according to an article in the Omaha World Herald, prison guards at the Nebraska State Prison have been making a sport of beating up inmates and then posting details of their deeds on Facebook. Corrections Officer Caleb Bartels wrote on his FB page, “”When you work in a prison a good day is getting to smash an inmate’s face into the ground. … for me today was a VERY good day,” Derek Dickey, one of Bartels coworkers replied, “”very satisfying isnt it!!!”

While abusing people is definitely not the policy of any corrections facility or law enforcement agency anywhere, it’s obvious this type behavior does occur. The question is why? What do people get out of physically abusing and torturing another human being, even if that person is an inmate in a prison? Does that make it right?

Many of the inmates in jails and prisons are the same people who once lived in normal neighborhoods alongside normal, everyday people. They worked in the same jobs, their kids went to the same schools, and they went to the same meetings and shopped in the same stores as everyone else in the community. The difference between the arrested lawbreakers and many other people – they got caught cheating on their taxes, or smoking marijuana. Of course, I’m not speaking of violent criminals. They’re not the normal neighbors by any means. But what about the criminals who had a substance abuse or other mental health issue that totally clouded their judgment. Again, sure they did wrong, but does that give prison guards the right to beat them and abuse them for entertainment? And what does it say about the abusers who enjoy this behavior so much that they shout it to the world? What’s fun about beating people and slamming their faces into the ground?

What are your thoughts? Should the corrections officers involved in the Facebook posting be disciplined? Fired? Hailed as heroes for giving the lowlifes what they deserve?

The local paper reports that the three officers involved were suspended pending an investigations. However, prison officials caution the public about the possibility of counterfeit posting on sites such as Facebook. They’re sort of standing by the guards for now, it seems.

– Last year, a Nebraska State Trooper was dismissed after it was learned he was a member of the KKK and had shared his support for the group’s beliefs on the Ku Klux Klan website. The state Supreme Court upheld the trooper’s dismissal.

Inmate commissaries


Prison and jail inmates earn cold, hard cash (a few cents per hour) for the work they perform during their incarceration. They’re also allowed to receive money from family and friends.

However, prisoners are never allowed to touch even a single coin, so all cash received is placed into a special account. In fact, it is a violation for an inmate to possess currency of any type. Punishment for currency possession could lead to time in isolation.

And, since inmates are not permitted to wander outside the gates for a night on the town, they’re allowed to shop, normally once each week, at the prison or jail commissary. There are a variety of items available at these mini supermarkets for prisoners, ranging from candy bars and soup to tennis shoes and underwear.

Inmates fill out a commissary slip (see below) checking off all the items they’d like to purchase, and then present the document to the commissary clerk.

The store is usually staffed by corrections employees and inmate laborers who fill the orders.

Since the risk of shoplifting and robbery is a little on the high side, the stores are not open to the general inmate population. All transactions are conducted through a tiny window.

The customers hand over their slips and bank-card-type ID cards to the clerk who first swipes the card to see if the inmate has enough money in his account to purchase the desired items. If the funds are in place the clerk then fills the order.



Frackville Pennsylvania prison commissary slip

Prisons do not allow products to be sold in metal, hard plastic, or glass containers, therefore all items are packaged in jail-friendly cartons, such as these Rip-N-Ready foil packets sold by companies that deal exclusively with jails and prisons. Inmates open the packages by tearing the top of the containers.



Other products are packaged in paper, light plastic, thin foil, or cardboard.


Hygiene products, clothing, and some electronic entertainment devices are also available for purchase.



Normally, clothing items must all be of one designated type. No colors or markings.


Electronic devices must be made of see-through plastic to allow staff easy viewing of the internal areas.

*Microwaves, instant hot water devices, and ice machines are normally available for inmate use.

*Villa and RTD images

Life in prison:


Emergency Response Teams, or ERTs, have the duty of responding to, and quelling, dangerous situations, such as riots and incidents involving disruptive and/or violent inmates, within prison and jail facilities.

These highly trained corrections officers almost always volunteer to be members of these elite squads. There is no extra pay unless they happen to be working overtime. And, they must be ready to respond to any given emergency within a short period of time, usually ten minutes, or so.

ERT teams, also known as CERTs (Corrections Emergency Response Teams), or PERTs (Prison Emergency Response Teams), are normally comprised of at least six members. Each of those team members is assigned to a special job.

For example:

Team member number one is the leader and coordinates and plans the team’s movements. This person must also be able to give commands under duress.

Team member number two is the team member in charge of videotaping the critical incident.

Team member number three is the officer who enters the area first to handle the unruly prisoner. This officer is normally the largest, strongest, and best trained individual in the group. They also wear full protective gear, such as flak jacket, head gear, and tactical gloves. Officer number three should also be one of the most experienced officers on the team.

(From the US Military Dictionary : Flak jacket – A sleeveless jacket made of heavy fabric reinforced with metal or kevlar, worn as protection against bullets and shrapnel).

Team member number four is back up to member number three and is outfitted accordingly.

Team member number five is outfitted with minimal protective gear for flexibility, which allows this officer to apply restraints, if necessary.

Team member number six is back up for member five.


Before an officer can be accepted as an ERT team member, they must pass a physical agility test (PAT). A sample PAT is as follows:

1.1.5 mile run in less than 16mins. and 28sec.
2. 300 meter run in less than 71sec.
3. 25 push ups 1-min. 29 sit ups 1-min.
4. vertical jump of at least 16 inches high.
5. bench press

Upon successful completion of the P. A. T., the applicant is then scheduled for an oral board.

Team members are normally required to serve for a period of at least one year.

Note – The above information may vary for individual facilities.

Jail Cell


Yesterday, the handcuff topic led to some new questions. Beth asked, “How do you safely remove the handcuffs?”

My answer to her was, “Officers have the suspect step inside a holding cell and then close and lock the door behind them. The prisoner then places his cuffed hands through or close to an opening in the cell door. This allows officers to safely unlock the cuffs. That opening in the cell door is also used to pass prisoners their food trays.

When officers bring a suspect to an interview room they’ll normally leave the cuffs on their prisoner. If officers are removing cuffs from a prisoner outside a cell they’ll apply a wrist lock technique for control before unlocking the restraints. Two or more officers should be present anytime they’re removing cuffs in an unsecure area.

The picture above is of a typical holding cell. The platform to the right is the bed. In the rear of the cell is a stainless steel toilet/sink combination. A polished steel mirror hangs above the sink. The heavily scratched and dented mirror is held to the wall with bolts that can’t be backed out without a special tool. The thick steel door is equipped with a tray slot and peep hole. You can also see a round piece of stainless steel on the upper door. This is actually a receiver for a computerized device called “The Pipe.”

Jail officers carry the pipe with them as they make their rounds, touching the end of the apparatus to each receiver throughout the jail or prison. The receiver uploads the time and date into the pipe. At the end of the officer’s shift he/she inserts the pipe into a terminal inside the jail’s master control room. The computer then records every movement the officer made during the day. There are also many, many security cameras throughout the institutions. Talk about electronic micro-managing.

* Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Patry Francis’s book THE LIAR”S DIARY. Patry has been dignosed with an aggressive form of cancer and is unable to promote the book. Visit her website at for more information.