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The tin cup pictured above is an actual drinking vessel that was originally part of the fabulous dining experience for prisoners housed inside a small county jail. The lockup itself was every bit as peachy as the cup, and both the building and the stainless steel mug were well past their expiration dates when the county finally gave in and demolished the old place.

As they say, “if those walls could’ve talked” we’d have heard tales of jailhouse coffee potent enough to dissolve steel beams. A cook who somehow transformed liver and onions into a dish that even the pickiest of inmate diners enjoyed. We’d have heard about the two graveyard shift jailers who discovered two whole baked turkeys in the refrigerator and consumed most of the pair of browned birds during the course of their December 24th overnight shift. The turkeys were designated for the prisoners’ Christmas dinner.

The prisoners were still there, locked up when New Years Day rolled around. The jailers were not, courtesy of a very angry sheriff who, at the last minute, had to hire a caterer to prepare additional turkeys for the prisoners.

The old red-brick jail building, if it were able to speak before its demise, might’ve told us about the prisoner who managed to smuggle a gun inside and then dared officers to “come and get it.” Certainly we’d have heard about the roaches and mice and the general funky stench of a place with little ventilation (no air movement at all in some corners of the facility).

The jailhouse could’ve gone into detail about how prisoners were allowed a couple hours of recreation once or twice each month, and that was limited to stepping outside onto a square of concrete for a game of basketball, if the ball was inflated and that was a rarity. The others who didn’t play ball simply sat down or paced back and forth on a small patch of grass next to the court.

It might’ve spoken of the dangers facing deputies (they were called jailers at this department). Blind corners and stairwells. Hallways so narrow that the jailers were forced to walk next to the bars.

No cameras “in the back” Therefore, when jailers opened the door to enter the lockup area they had no idea what waited for them on the other side. Had inmates escaped their cells, which had happened a couple of times, deputies were sitting ducks for an ambush.

So buckle up and join me for the only peek available inside this small facility. Believe it or not, this place was located in a county within the U.S., not in a third world country. And, it was in use not so long ago.

Follow me, but don’t touch anything, including those top two strands of wire. They’re electrified. A bug zapper for humans!

As we pass through the front gate, after being “buzzed” inside, please look to your right and you’ll see the recreation yard in its entirety, a simple square of concrete with an adjoining and similarly sized patch of grass. Inmates were allowed outside once or twice per month. Since there are no day rooms inside, it was a rare treat to see and do anything that wasn’t inside a dark, damp, and smelly 6×9 concrete cell.

During recreation time two patrol deputies were called in off the road to stand guard outside the fence. They were required to watch over the activities, armed with Remington 870 Wingmaster shotguns. The 870 Wingmaster is often a go-to weapons when in the business of law enforcement.

This, the sheriff’s order to have patrol deputies oversee recreation time, left the county less safe due to having two less deputies available to respond to calls. If an emergency arose the inmates were immediately herded back to their cells. Once they were safely tucked away the two patrol deputies left the jail with sirens yelping, lights flashing, and tires squealing.

Recreation yard

Upon entering this county jail, we first set foot inside a tiny lobby. This was where citizens stood at counter to sign documents, speak with deputies and/or dispatchers, hand over money orders for inmate commissary accounts, file criminal complaints, and report crimes, etc.

The lobby  also served as the visiting room. It was where family and friends stood facing one of two small windows that were equipped with sound holes so that inmates and visitors could hear the other speak. No phones and no contact. FYI – should officers arrest and deliver a suspect to the jail they brought them through this lobby area. Therefore, visitors would be made to move behind the business counter, or other nearby area, until the prisoner and officer passed through. Super safe, right?

Visitation and lobby area. This photo was taken from behind the counter where citizens filed reports, etc. The space was quite small.

On visitation day (Sunday afternoon only), inmates were brought two at a time to a small cell where they were locked inside. The cell was on the opposite side of the wall, directly behind the two green chairs in the above image.

Inmate visitation cell.

The two small windows in the visitation cell are the reverse sides of the ones in the previous photo. Until visitations, a piece of cardboard was positioned over the windows to prevent prisoners, the trustees who cleaned the jail and were allowed to roam about freely, from seeing out into the office area/lobby.

Stepping through the doorway leading to the cellblock area (to the right of the green lobby chairs in the photo) we first pass the trustee cells. The door to these cells remained unlocked during daylight hours to allow those prisoners to complete their chores—cleaning, mopping, delivering meals, etc. Trustees were required to be inside their cells by 9 p.m. each evening, where they’d remain locked inside until 5:30 a.m. in preparation for breakfast service.

Looking out from inside the trustee cells.

Hallways and corridors were extremely narrow, which was dangerous for the jailers who worked there. The facility was heated by old and clunky boilers that needed constant service and repairs. Radiators were there, inside the corridors, but were scarce. There was no heat inside the cells. And, there was no air conditioning whatsoever.

The only airflow came through small widows. In the next image you can see one of those windows (top left corner), open and tilted in toward the cells. A portable TV sat on a wonky, wall-mounted shelf next to the window.

Narrow corridors are dangerous!

Inmates were not allowed access to the TV controls, and reception was quite poor and was achieved with “rabbits ear” and Loop” antennas. Jailers changed channels when requested, during their rounds. But prisoners will be prisoners, so they manufactured makeshift antenna controls fashioned from string or wires, using the “remote controls” to swivel the antenna to dial in stations. Not allowed but, as I said, prisoners will be prisoners.

Of course, jailers often confiscated the strings and wires, and tightly rolled up newspapers used for reaching across the hallway to change a channel. Those items are considered as contraband in lockup facilities because they can be used to strangle, commit suicide, or attack officers. Newspapers and magazine pages can be rolled and formed in ways that make them nearly as hard as wood and are often found with sharpened objects inserted into the pointed ends. Doing so makes them as lethal as any spear or other stabbing type of weapon. Very deadly.

Wires to rotate rabbit-ear antennas from side to side to help receive a better picture. No cable!

To show just how dangerous this place was for deputies, notice how close the jailer below was to the bars. He had no choice due to the swing direction of the door.

Notice the pieces of white paper poking through the bars. They’re actually envelops placed there by prisoners. This was their version of postal letter boxes. Each morning a jailer collected the envelopes and carried them back to the office where he’d place stamps on each one, if the prisoners had enough money in their account to cover the costs. Afterward, a USPS letter carrier stopped by the jail to pick up outgoing mail and drop off incoming mail.

Jailer enters corridor. Danger!

There were no light fixtures inside the cells. Instead, floodlights mounted to the corridor ceilings illuminated each block of four cells. The fixture below hangs above one of the few windows in the block. Lighting was poor to say the least.

Floodlights gave the impression of peering in at zoo animals on display.

Prisoners received their meals through horizontal slotted openings in the bars. Trustees delivered the trays.

Tray slot

Meals were prepared in the jail kitchen. Trustees received meal trays from the cooks through a pass-through window leading from the kitchen to the jail corridor. Coffee was always available for deputies, 24 hours a day. Inmates were given coffee with their breakfast. One of the perks of being a trustee was to have coffee whenever they wanted, during daylight hours. Deputies and prisoners drank coffee from the same pot, the one pictured on the countertop below.

Jail kitchen

There were no showers inside the cell blocks. Instead, deputies escorted prisoners to showers located in another area … once each week, if they were lucky.

Showers had no floor drains, therefore water spilled out in the same corridors used by the jailers when making rounds.

Showers drained into the corridors.

To open cell doors deputies/jailers used a Folger-Adams key to release a lock on a cabinet attached to the wall outside each block of four cells. The compartment was made of thick steels and contained the door controls. The same key also locked and unlocked all interior jail doors, such as the cell doors, supply closets, access to plumbing and electrical systems, and the main “in/out” door to the jail that connected to the lobby/visiting area.

Folger-Adams key

With the cabinet door unlocked, the jailer opened and closed cell doors using levers and a large wheel. Each lever controlled the lock to one cell door. The jailer pulled the desired lever down to lock a door(s) and then turned the wheel to “roll” the barred doors either open or closed. This was all performed manually. No electronic controls. Should a door not close completely, its corresponding light (below the levers) illuminated with a bright red glow.

The door to the jailer’s right (below) was the entrance to a block of four cells and a very small small, narrow day room. When the jailer opened the cell doors, it released each of those four prisoners into the day room. He’d then roll the doors shut until night. Prisoners were not permitted to remain in their cells during daytime hours.

If a prisoner refused to come out of his cell when required, the others were returned to their cells (for safety) and deputies would then go inside to “gently” coax remove the misbehaving inmate, who would then serve a few days in “the hole” for not following instructions and jail rules. The unruly inmate would also lose commissary and visiting privileges.

Wheel of Misfortune

And that, my friends, was your look inside a place not many have seen. Those who have wish they hadn’t, I’m sure.

Cheers …

 

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 had a say in the matter, but the day has arrived, nonetheless. And that day arrived a lot sooner than you’d preferred. Time simply would not slow down, no matter how hard or how often you prayed that it would.

You knew the evidence was stacked heavily against you, but you were still a bit shocked when the jury found you guilty. Your mind was still racing when sheriff’s deputies (that’s who takes you into custody after court) handcuffed you and led you to a section of the courthouse you’d never seen. Who knew there were jail cells back there?

Now you’re sitting in a not-so-clean holding 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 that dig into the tender flesh at your ankles. You’re surprised at how quickly the soreness set in.

The transportation officers pack each of you into a very full van and then padlock the door from the outside. The benches in the back of the transport vehicle are crammed with men of all sizes and shapes. All skin colors and a variety of languages. Some were there because they’d been caught with illegal narcotics, while others were guilty of rape or murder, or both. The air is thick, and stale—gas fumes, stinky feet and flesh that hasn’t seen soap or water in many days. Not a good time for your claustrophobia to act up. Your gag reflexes are switched on and you fight to held back their attempts to expel stomach contents.

The fat man wedged in beside you, the guy who smells like a high school locker room times ten, had just been found guilty of using a machete to hack his mother to death. You couldn’t help but notice the foamy white stuff gathered at the corners of his mouth, and the crusty nuggets piled up over his tear ducts and lower eyelids. A blue scorpion tattoo on his neck wiggled a little with each beat of the now convicted killer’s heart. You soon find yourself passing the time by watching and counting the number of times his carotid arteries pushed against the inked arachnid, like counting ceiling tiles in a doctor’s office while waiting to say “ah” and hoping for a prescription that’ll calm your shattered nerves.

The driver made a sharp right-hand turn, slamming the wild-eyed, unshaven rapist against your shoulder and bare left arm. His slimy sweat transferred to your skin, feeling as if it  burned your exposed flesh. But the chains prevented you from wiping away the cause of the fire. You’ve never felt more filthy in your entire life.

You arrive at the jail where you and the others are herded into a large room, much like livestock you’ve seen at county fairs. Then you’re told to remove all your clothing. A long line of naked men standing before both male and female officers. The stench of body odor is overwhelming. The embarrassment is worse.

“Hold up your arms. Spread your fingers. Turn around. Bend over. Spread your buttocks. Squat. Cough. Next.”

A female deputy, a woman who’d somehow managed to squeeze a rather “wide load” set of buttocks into a pair of size-too-small khaki pants, issues you a set of jail clothing—an orange jump suit big enough for two inmates, a dingy gray t-shirt that could’ve been white once upon a time, a pair of threadbare yellowish-gray boxers, and a pair of white socks that wouldn’t stay up no matter how many times you tugged. At the moment, though, while exposed for all the world to see, you gladly put on your brand new, many-times-used outfit.

Deputies yell for your group to hurry. The few who weren’t completely dressed awkwardly attempted to finish the task as they stumbled along trying to keep up.

Everyone is marched down a concrete corridor to another large room where you’ll 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.

Welcome to jail.

 

Last weekend, August 1-4, 2019, coroner Graham Hetrick, the star and host of the TV series, THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, served as special guest speaker at MurderCon in Raleigh, N.C.

During his talks, Hetrick detailed low-hanging suicides committed by a victim who ties a rope, cloth, twisted garbage bag, shoestring, belt, or other material, to a doorknob, bed post, etc., and then places the other end—a loop—around the neck. The victim then, with practically unbelievable willpower, simply leans forward to tighten the “noose” around the neck thereby shutting off the oxygen supply to the brain. The end result is, of course, death. All without the body dropping from a platform, chair, ceiling beam, etc.

In this type of suicide by hanging, the person committing the act must overcome the body’s forceful urges to live. They must resist ripping the ligature from their body in order to take another breath—to ignore the begging and pleading of the lungs, demanding that the brain immediately intervene.

These people often have a very strong desire to die, and they do. Maybe not on the first attempt, but kill themselves they do, eventually. Somehow, someway. Others, however, use a suicide attempt to escape intense emotional pain, not necessarily to die.

Was it possible that Hetrick had some sort of premonition? After all, he’s quite the insightful man.

Whatever brought the coroner to discuss this sort of suicide tactic remains to be seen but, ironically, it was a mere few days later when 66-year-old Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide in the protective housing unit, 9 South, at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federal prison in Lower Manhattan, And he did so in the precise manner detailed by Hetrick.

Back in the day, during my time as a state corrections officer, when working in the segregation units we were required to make rounds every 30 minutes, 15 if the prisoner was on suicide watch. We took that a step further by stationing an officer outside the suicide watch cells.

During the course of those 30 minute rounds in segregation it was mandatory to sign and timestamp a logbook positioned at each block of cells. The log station was in a location where each cell was clearly visible to the officer. The logbook was attached to a podium and could only be removed by a watch commander.

We were required to make verbal contact with each inmate. In return, they were to respond to the officers questions. We were required to see and make note of signs of life, meaning the inmate must move, sit, stand (speak) or, if asleep, we were to observe the chest rise and fall normally. If not, we were to wake the inmate. They were not permitted to sleep with blankets covering their heads.

Things Could Go South in a Hurry!

One night, while making my rounds in the segregation unit, I found a young inmate hanging by the neck from a bedsheet attached to a steel bedrail that was no more than three or four feet from the concrete floor. He’d simply tied the sheet around the steel rail and leaned forward until his airway became constricted.

I saw him the moment I rounded the corner. His facial skin was beginning to turn a slight grayish hue. His eyes were open and and slightly bulging and his tongue protruded from between his lips just a bit, much like a thirsty dog’s tongue. It had only been 15 minutes or so when I last passed by his cell. We’d even exchanged a few words of small talk on my last round. He’d seemed fine.

I used my radio to call for help and for control to unlock the cell door. I managed to raise the man’s body to the bed and then released the sheet from his neck. Medical staff arrived and took control. The inmate survived the suicide attempt. All of this took place within minutes. Mere minutes.

Suicide attempts in jails and prisons across the U.S. are not uncommon and those who try often succeed.

In one U.S. jail alone, the county lockup in Traverse County, Mi., there were 51 attempted suicides and two suicides during the years between 2011 and 2018. Marilyn Lucille Palmer and Alan Bradley Halloway hanged themselves in the shower sections of their cells. They accomplished the task by attaching nooses to small openings in the steel walls. These two deaths occurred nearly ten years apart, to the day.

Bedsheets are a common instrument used in inmate hangings. So much so that jail officials in Cleveland, Ohio have eliminated bedsheets from all cells housing inmates at risk of suicide. In lieu of sheets they’re issued an extra blanket. The decision to replace sheets with the thicker and tougher-to-tear blankets came after five prisoners committed suicide, including Nicholas Colbert, who hanged himself in the military veteran’s pod section of the jail.

In North Carolina, a record 12 inmates died by suicide, in 2018, while in state custody. This is compared to six inmate suicides in 2017 and seven in 2016. To help tackle the problem of inmate suicides, the state is recruiting prisoners who will watch over other inmates who are considered suicide risks. Each the selected prisoners will receive specialized training and take notes every 15 minutes during their assigned shifts. If trouble should arise they’ll hen call for staff members. The same policy is already in place at the federal level (see below).

Epstein’s Death Was More Than Likely Just As It Seems, a Suicide

As much as folks from all spectrums of the conspiracy theory trail would like to believe, prison suicides occur far more often than the public generally hears about. They’re not reported by the media because they don’t involve high-profile prisoners, like Jeffrey Epstein. Nor do those suicide cases come at a time when the death conveniently saves the day for a lot of high-profile politicians, businesspeople, etc. (Please, I’m begging you to not turn this into a political discussion or debate. I’m merely reporting fact, not opinion).

Unfortunately for Epstein and his family, and for the victims who wanted to face him in a court of law and to see him rot in a prison cell for life, it seems that the corrections facility staff dropped the ball due to staffing shortages, rules that weren’t followed, unreliable and unprofessional officers, and a perfect storm of other issues that could’ve gone unnoticed during a typical day in prison, if the deceased had not been connected to high-profile folks.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center’s website issues an Admission and Orientation manual for pre-trial inmates. Jeffrey Epstein was one of those pre-trial prisoners. The first paragraph of page five of the manual is dedicated to inmate suicide prevention. It reads:

“It is not uncommon for people to experience depression and hopelessness while in jail or prison, particularly if they are newly incarcerated, are serving a long sentence, are experiencing family problems or problems getting along with other inmates, or receive bad news. Sometimes, inmates consider committing suicide due to all of the pressure they are under. Staff are trained to monitor inmates for signs of suicide, and are trained to refer all concerns to the Psychology Department. However, staff do not always see what inmates see. Ifyou are personally experiencing any ofthe problems noted above, or you or another inmate are showing signs of depression (sadness, tearfulness, lack ofenjoyment in usual activities), withdrawal (staying away from others, reducing phone calls and/or visits), or hopelessness (giving away possessions, stating that “there is nothing to live for”), PLEASE alert a staff member right away. Your input can save a life.”

Finally, in case you’d like to learn more about the BOP’s policies on suicide watches …

From the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)

OPI: CPD/PSBNUMBER: P5324.08DATE: 4/5/2007

SUBJECT: Suicide Prevention Program

RULES EFFECTIVE: 3/15/2007

SUICIDE WATCH

  1. Housing. Each institution must have one or more rooms designated specifically for housing an inmate on suicide watch. The designated room must allow staff to maintain adequate control of the inmate without compromising the ability to observe and protect the inmate.
  • The primary concern in designating a room for suicide watch must be the ability to observe, protect, and maintain adequate control of the inmate.
  • The room must permit easy access, privacy, and unobstructed vision of the inmate at all times.
  • The suicide prevention room may not have fixtures or architectural features that would easily allow self-injury.
  • Inmates on watch will be placed in the institution’s designated
  • suicide prevention room, a non-administrative
  • detention/segregation cell ordinarily located in the health
  • services area.  Despite the cell’s location, the inmate will not
  • be admitted as an in-patient unless there are medical indications
  • that would necessitate immediate hospitalization.
  • Placement of a suicide watch room in a different area may be
  • warranted given the unique features of some institutions.

However, designating a room for suicide watch outside of the Health Services area requires written approval of the Regional Director.  Such rooms must meet all of the requirements identified above.

Administrative detention and disciplinary segregation cells will not be designated or approved as suicide watch cells. Under emergency conditions a suicidal inmate may be placed temporarily on suicide watch in a cell other than the institution’s designated watch room. The inmate must be moved to a designated suicide watch room as soon as one becomes available.

  1. Conditions of Confinement. While on suicide watch, the inmate’s conditions of confinement will be the least restrictive available to ensure control and safety. The inmate on watch will ordinarily be seen by the Program Coordinator on at least a daily basis. Unit staff will have frequent contact with the inmate while he/she is on watch. Ordinarily, the Program Coordinator or designee will interview or monitor each inmate on suicide watch at least daily and record clinical notes following each visit.

The Program Coordinator or designee will specify the type of personal property, bedding, clothing, magazines, that may be allowed.

  • If approved by the Warden, restraints may be applied if necessary to obtain greater control, but their use must be clearly documented and supported.
  • Any deviations from prescribed suicide watch conditions may be made only with the Program Coordinator’s concurrence.
  • The Program Coordinator will develop local procedures to ensure timely notification to the inmate’s Unit Manager when a suicide watch is initiated and terminated. Correctional Services staff, in consultation with the Program Coordinator or designee, will be responsible for the inmate’s daily custodial care, cell, and routine activities.
  • Unit Management staff in consultation with the Program Coordinator will continue to be responsive to routine needs while the inmate is on suicide watch.
  1. Observation. For all suicide watches:
    • Any visual observation techniques used to monitor the suicide companion program will focus on the inmate companion and/or the inmate on suicide watch only.
    • The observer and the suicidal inmate will not be in the same room/cell and will have a locked door between them.
    • The person performing the suicide watch must have a means to summon help immediately (e.g., phone, radio) if the inmate displays any suicidal or unusual behavior.
    • The Program Coordinator will establish procedures for documenting observations of the inmate’s behavior in a Suicide Watch log book, which will be maintained as a secure document. Staff and inmate observers will document in separate log books. Post Orders will provide direction to staff on requirements for documentation.
  • Staff Observers. The suicide watch may be conducted using staff observers. Staff assigned to a suicide watch must have received training (Introduction to Correctional Techniques or in AT) and must review and sign the Post Orders before starting the watch. The Program Coordinator will review the Post Orders annually to ensure their accuracy.
  • Inmate Observers. Only the Warden may authorize the use of inmate observers (inmate companion program). The authorization for the use of inmate companions is to be made by the Warden on a case-by-case basis. If the Warden authorizes a companion program, the Program Coordinator will be responsible for the selection, training, assignment, and removal of individual companions. Inmates selected as companions are considered to be on an institution work assignment when they are on their scheduled shift and shall receive performance pay for time spent monitoring a potentially suicidal inmate.
  1. Watch Termination and Post-Watch Report. Based upon clinical findings, the Program Coordinator or designee will:

1) Remove the inmate from suicide watch when the inmate is no longer at imminent risk for suicide, or

2) Arrange for the inmate’s transfer to a medical referral center or contract health care facility.

Once an inmate has been placed on watch, the watch may not be terminated, under any circumstance, without the Program Coordinator or designee performing a face-to-face evaluation. Only the Program Coordinator will have the authority to remove an inmate from suicide watch. Generally, the post-watch report should be completed in PDS prior to terminating the watch, or as soon as possible following watch termination, to ensure appropriate continuity of care. Copies of the report will be forwarded to the central file, medical record, psychology file, and the Warden. There should be a clear description of the resolution of the crisis and guidelines for follow-up care.

At a minimum, the post-watch report will include:

  • risk factors assessed,
  • changes in risk factors since the onset of watch,
  • reasons for removal from watch, and
  • follow-up recommendations.
  1. INMATE OBSERVERS – INMATE COMPANION PROGRAM.
  2. Selection of Inmate Observers. Because of the very sensitive nature of such assignments, the selection of inmate observers requires considerable care. To provide round-the-clock observation of potentially suicidal inmates, a sufficient number of observers should be trained, and alternate candidates should be available.

Observers will be selected based upon their ability to perform the specific task but also for their reputation within the institution. In the Program Coordinator’s judgement, they must be mature, reliable individuals who have credibility with both staff and inmates. They must be able, in the Program Coordinator’s judgement, to protect the suicidal inmate’s privacy from other inmates, while being accepted in the role by staff. Finally, in the Program Coordinator’s judgement, they must be able to perform their duties with minimal need for direct supervision.

In addition, any inmate who is selected as a companion must not:

  • Be in pre-trial status or a contractual boarder;
  • Have been found to have committed a 100-level prohibited act within the last three years; or
  • Be in FRP, GED, or Drug Ed Refuse status.
  1. Inmate Observer Shifts. Observers ordinarily will work a four-hour shift. Except under unusual circumstances, observers will not work longer than one five-hour shift in any 24-hour period. Inmate observers will receive performance pay for time on watch.
  2. Training Inmate Observers. Each observer will receive at least four hours of initial training before being assigned to a suicide watch observer shift. Each observer will also receive at least four hours of training semiannually. Each training session will review policy requirements and instruct the inmates on their duties and responsibilities during a suicide watch, including:
  • the location of suicide watch areas;
  • summoning staff during all shifts;
  • recognizing behavioral signs of stress or agitation; and
  • recording observations in the suicide watch log.
  1. Meetings with Program Coordinator. Observers will meet at least quarterly with the Program Coordinator or designee to review procedures, discuss issues, and supplement training. After inmates have served as observers, the Program Coordinator or designee will debrief them, individually or in groups, to discuss their experiences and make program changes, if necessary.
  2. Records. The Program Coordinator will maintain a file containing:
  • An agreement of understanding and expectations signed by each inmate observer;
  • Documentation of attendance and topics discussed at training meetings;
  • Lists of inmates available to serve as observers, which will be available to Correctional Services personnel during non-regular working hours; and
  • Verification of pay for those who have performed watches.
  1. Supervision of Inmate Observer During a Suicide Watch. Although observers will be selected on the basis of their emotional stability, maturity, and responsibility, they still require some level of staff supervision while performing a suicide watch.
  • This supervision will be provided by staff who are in the immediate area of the suicide watch room or who have continuous video observation of the inmate observer.
  • In all cases, when an inmate observer alerts staff to an emergency situation, staff must immediately respond to the suicide watch room and take necessary action to prevent the inmate on watch from incurring debilitating injury or death. In no case will an inmate observer be assigned to a watch without adequate provisions for staff supervision or without the ability to obtain immediate staff assistance.
  •           THE DECISION TO USE INMATE OBSERVERS MUST BE PREDICATED
  •           ON THE FACT THAT IT TAKES ONLY THREE TO FOUR MINUTES
  •           FOR MANY SUICIDE DEATHS TO OCCUR.

Supervision must consist of at least 60-minute checks conducted in-person. Staff will initial the chronological log upon conducting checks.


Again, please, I’m begging you to not turn this into a political discussion or debate. I’m merely reporting fact, not opinion. Thank you.

Police Officers are the brave men and women who’s duty is to protect us and to round up the evil folks who commit dastardly crimes against society. They’re enforcers of the law. They run into danger, leaping mud puddles and discarded fast food wrappers along the way. They dodge kids on tricycles and those licking popsicles.

Officers often work during the nighttime among feeding feral animals and smelly winos. Their nerve are cords of steel and their hearts and minds are filled to the brim with compassion.

They train and train and they train, and they’re given all the tools needed to fulfill their duties with the utmost expertise.

Unfortunately, though, cops are human and we all know that humans subject to making mistakes. Cops are no exception. Here, see for yourselves.

Oops!

Serving search warrants and entering homes and businesses to search for killers, robbers, and thieves is risky to say the least.

Before “going in,” though, there’s often a ton of necessary preparation—surveillance, paperwork, briefings, etc, not to mention the hours of training and practice that goes hand-in-hand with being a finely-honed, well-oiled member of police department’s special team. After all, the goal is to make a swift and safe entry, collect evidence, and to bring out the bad guys with no one getting hurt, including the crooks.

But, after all those grueling hours of aforementioned training, often in harsh conditions, repeating the same tactics over and over again until they come as naturally as taking a breath, well, things still happen while executing warrants. Such as …

Knock on Wood

We’ve all seen the TV cops, the officers knocking and announcing their presence and purpose. Bam! Bam! Bam! “Police! Search warrant!” Then the door-kicking starts (battering ram, actually) until the jambs and locks give way. Officers are then able to storm the house like ants on a dropped lollipop.

That’s how it’s supposed to go, right? But then there’s this …

Officers kick and kick and kick, and pound and pound and pound, trying to get inside a crack house. But the door won’t budge. They’re frantic that evidence is being destroyed with each passing second, so one cop decides to break a window when he suddenly hears a voice calling out from inside the home. “Use the door knob, dumbass. It’s unlocked.”


Lookin’ Through the Window

It’s mid July and a baby is trapped inside a locked car. The motor’s running and the mother is hysterical. She accidentally hit the lock on the driver’s door as she was getting out. “Please hurry! My baby’s so scared, and it’s really hot inside. Hurry!”

The responding officer peeks through the glass of the driver’s side window and sees that all four doors are securely locked, so he uses a Slim Jim to try and pop open the latches. But it just doesn’t seem to work this time and he curses those “newfangled” electric locks and all the wiring that becomes tangled around his cardoor-unlocking device. Precious minutes tick by as the temperature climbs past 90. The baby seems to be okay and the ambulance and fire crews are on the way. Another five minutes of jabbing the metal tool inside the door panel passes before a fire truck finally pulls up. Whew! They’ll have the right equipment to get the kid out safely.

The fire captain hops out of the truck and walks up to the car. He steps around to the passenger door and calmly reaches inside through the OPEN window. Then he gently scoops up the cooing baby and hands her to her sobbing mother.


The Old “Mattress as a Shield” Trick: Please Help Me I’m Falling

The prison Emergency Response Team has been called to extricate a suicidal inmate from his cell. The prisoner is extremely violent and he’s well known for hurting staff members. He’s also built like a bulldozer and is as strong as twenty men.

The team assembles at the cell door waiting for the command to go in. The lead officer, typically the largest of the group, is in charge of a cot-size prison mattress. His assignment is to hold the mattress in front of his body, vertically. The idea is to rush the guy and pin him to the rear cell wall with the padded shield. Doing so allows the team to easily restrain the guy. No problem. They’ve used the tactic several times before with great success. Never had an injury, either. When everyone is ready, someone begins the countdown. One. Two. Three. Go!

The door opens and the 6’4, 250 pound ox of a man, the officer who’s wielding the mattress makes his move. The only job for which he’s responsible, to be a human battering ram. However, he steps on the bottom corner of the mattress and tumbles inside the cell. The rest of the team fall on top of him while the inmate looks on. He slowly begins to laugh and then starts to chuckle uncontrollably as the team scrambles to get to their feet. The prisoner, of course, is laughing so hard he has tears streaming down his cheeks.


Slim Jim

Before the introduction of electronic locks, it was a simple matter of slipping a Slim Jim between the window glass and rubber weather strip, feel around until the tool hit the “lock rod,” and wiggle it around a tiny bit until the lock knob popped up.

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So presto, bingo, all was well and the happy citizen went about their daily routine.

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Slim Jim

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Notches used for “hooking” the lock rod and other mechanisms

After electronic locks replaced the simple, manual ones, things changed. No longer was unlocking a car door an easy task. In fact, it was quite the opposite and many officers, especially the old-timers, found themselves jabbing Slim Jims inside car doors while pushing and pulling and pumping the darn things in and up an down motion that brings to mind a frazzled grandma in the kitchen using a hand-mashing implement to frantically and wildly smash the heck out of a pot full of potatoes.

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Grandma pounded out a week’s worth of frustrations using one of these things while preparing Sunday lunch.

Sometimes during a particularly violent Slim-Jimming session, the device became entangled in the nests of wiring, rods, gadgets, and connections inside the door. When this occurred it sometimes was impossible to remove the “Jim” without damaging an entire network of electrical, well, car stuff.

Therefore, it was not all that unusual for an officer to leave the device protruding from the door of a high-end vehicle while the owner called a professional for help. Then off they’d drive (the car owner), heading to the dealership with long, flat piece of metal flapping in the breeze.

Serving Time

Close your eyes for a moment and then allow your imaginations to take you inside the filthiest public restrooms you’ve ever visited. I’ll give you a minute to set the stage.

Are you there?

Okay. Now take a deep breath and let your senses take over, first conjuring up a stench that lingers in places only roaches and vermin dare trod. Combine those odors with the scents of dirty sweat socks and t-shirts, soiled underwear, cooked popcorn, urine, hot tuna, raw onions, and steaming chicken-flavored Top Ramen noodles.

Then add the scent of unwashed human bodies, the flesh of humans who’re allowed to shower only once or twice each week. And some who simply refuse to bathe even when allowed to do so.

Picture living or working where every breath is similar to what I’ve described above. Never a single lungful 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 crew for eight hours in ninety-degree heat and 100% southern humidity—a sink positioned two feet above a toilet that’s used several times a day by two or three three people, but is sometimes flushed only twice in an eight hour span due to water restrictions imposed upon prisoners who clog their drains in order to flood a cellblock?

How about sleeping in an enclosed six-by-nine concrete box with two other large men who haven’t showered in several days during the hottest time of the year? There’s no ventilation—no windows to open. And the only way in or out is a heavy steel door that’s locked nearly 24/7.

What about sleeping on a hard floor with nothing between you and the grimy concrete surface but an itchy, wool blanket, with roaches, rats, and mice darting from gaps between rusted plumbing and cracked cinderblocks. Dried blood and vomit are the only splashes of color on drab walls.

HGTV it ain’t.

What I’ve just described is a mild description of the experience of serving time in some jails and prisons.

Keep in mind, though, that no two lockup facilities are identical. Conditions in many are far better than what’s seen in others. Some, in fact, are super clean, actually. Many, however, are just like I’ve described in the paragraphs above. Some are worse. Much worse.

But even the cleanest jails and prisons each have that certain, unmistakable “odor” that clings to the linings of your nostrils and then worms its way into deep lung space. That “funk” often comes to rest inside your mind where it’s never forgotten no matter how hard a person tries.

Serving time is no picnic. Even doing time in the nicer, cleaner prisons, especially federal facilities, is no walk in park. And, no matter how often you hear it, there are no “country club” prisons. Although, in the the less restrictive prisons, the federal camps, prisoners have more freedom and privileges. But it’s still prison.

The photos below were taken in one of the cleanest jails I’ve 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.

Correctional officers day

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 inside a dayroom that’s occupied by several inmates from morning until lockdown at night. The area outside the windows to the left is beyond the locked cell area. The doors to his right 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.

At no time is a prisoner allowed back into his cell unless medical staff finds that he/she is ill. Bunks must be made neatly each morning. An illness is the only time when a prisoner is allowed on their bunk during the daytime hours.

Looking out

The image below is of the inside of a steel cell door. The tiny rectangle (appr. 6″ x 12″) is a secure plexiglass window at eye level. Its purpose is to allow officers a view into the cell. It’s an inmate’s only view from inside his cell unless he’s fortunate enough to be housed inside a cell with a window. Otherwise, their only scenery is whatever goes on in the hallway outside their cell.

Many dreams and fantasies of life on the outside begin at this very spot. The door across the hall below 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.

 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.

Just as I clicked off this shot, a group of deputies ran past to quell a disturbance in 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.

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

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.

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An old tin cup sits on a shelf in my office. People who see it rarely ask about it, with most not giving it so much as a second glance.

The cup, while scratched and slightly dented, still has a bit of shine left on its surface, Those thin etched lines resemble an intricately-drawn roadmap. And, if one knows the history of the cup, well, each line is indeed a well-traveled path, and each line has a story to tell. While I don’t know the details of all of the stories held by my old tin cup, I know a few.

When the cup was first manufactured, World War II had recently ended as had the manufacturing of cordite. Schools in Virginia had not yet been fully integrated and Arthur Ashe’s father was working as a Special Policeman for Richmond, Virginia’s recreation department. Arthur Ashe was the only African American man to ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open.

As tin cups made their way from factories to their final destinations, the Virginia State Penitentiary complex, built in 1800 at Belvidere and Spring Street, in Richmond, was in full swing. It was a horrid place that was so bad the ACLU once labeled it the “most shameful prison in America.” But it didn’t start out that way.

The idea to build the Virginia State Penitentiary was brought to the table by Thomas Jefferson.

In 1785, Jefferson served in Paris as ambassador. It was then and there when he noticed a different type of incarceration, one that was an experiment of the effect of labor by inmates in solitary confinement.

Jefferson believed that the object of punishment should be discipline, repentance and reform. Not as vengeance. So, when he returned from Paris he proposed his “labor in confinement” for prisoners. His idea was to have prisoners work on public works projects during the day then spend their non-work hours in small solitary confinement cells so they could reflect on their crimes.

It was 10 years later when Virginia lawmakers moved forward on Jefferson’s plan. Construction began on the Virginia State Penitentiary, soon to be nicknamed “Spring Street,” a moniker used by both inmates and staff. The name Spring Street quickly became associated with darkness and torture and pain … and the electric chair.

Prisoners at Spring Street drank from tin cups, much like the one in my office.

The Virginia State Penitentiary was designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, who later designed the U.S. Capitol.

The cell doors at the Spring Street prison had no windows, which meant that officers had to physically open them to check on the inmates inside. The prison was unheated, and believe me, it gets cold in Virginia during the winter months.To keep warm, prisoners wrapped themselves with thin German-made wool blankets. Each prisoner was give one blanket, their only protection against the freezing blasts of air that blew in through the barred windows.

The prison was not equipped with a sewage system; therefore, prisoners were forced to collect waste in buckets and then empty them down a trough that flowed into a nearby pond. Summertime in Richmond, Va. can be extremely hot with humidity so thick that flies nearly swim in mid air. It was after 100 years had passed by that officials decided to improve the sewage situation.

Tin cups remained in use throughout, during executions, riots, the incarceration of both notorious and noteworthy inmates, such as former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and the evil Briley brothers, a duo whose vicious and vile crimes I’ve written and about and detailed here on this blog.

At the close of the the Civil War, the entire population of the Spring Street prison escaped following the Richmond evacuation fire.

The tin cups, though, remained at the prison, waiting for the return of the prisoners.

Hundreds upon hundreds of tin cups where in use just a half-mile away.

Virginia began executions by electric chair at the Spring Street penitentiary in 1908. The last hanging was in 1909. Executions took place barely a half mile from the center of Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus, where in later years (much later) my wife Denene was hard at work earning her PhD in pathology.

A few blocks further down the way was the location of the state lab where I delivered crime scene evidence for examination and testing. The state morgue was also there. It was the place where I observed numerous autopsies performed on murder victims. It was where the autopsy was conducted on the armed bank robber I shot and killed during a shootout.

It was there at the basement morgue when the medical examiner told me, in detail, that four of the five rounds I fired were fatal rounds. The fifth, the first round I fired in response to him shooting at me, was a shot to the side of the head, caused massive damage, but had that been the only round to have struck him, the shooter/robber may have survived.

A Hanging

In the summer of 1900 Brandt O’Grady was hanged along side Walter Cotton. O’Grady was white and Cotton was black. The hangings were in retaliation for the brutal murder of several individuals.

A mob of citizens, both whites and blacks, stormed the jail and pulled Cotton from his shackles and hanged him from the Cherry tree in the corner of the courthouse yard. Minutes later the black townspeople demanded that O’Grady also be hanged so the group forcefully removed Mr. O’Grady from his cell and “strung him up” on the Cherry tree next to Cotton’s  lifeless body.

Inside the old red brick jail in Southside Virginia, the land of cotton, peanuts, and soybeans, were enough tin cups for each prisoner to have one he could call his own, as long as he was serving time there.

When I started working as a sheriff’s deputy, way back during the days of revolvers, patrol cars with those super long whip antennas, and when pepper spray was unheard of, my first assignment was to serve as a jailer. Part of that duty was to oversee the delivery of food trays at mealtimes. Prisoner trustees—short-timers with good jail records— carried the trays from the kitchen to each cell.

The trays we used were the kind you see in school across the country, hard plastic with divided sections that separate each portion of food from another. They were passed to the prisoners through “tray slots” in the cell doors.

At the top right of each tray was a tin cup filled with the beverage du jour. At breakfast time they contained coffee. To accompany lunch and dinner, the beverage was a fruit-flavored drink similar to Kool-Aid.

Prisoners were not allowed to keep the cups inside their cells. To do so was an infraction of jail time which could’ve led to time in “the hole” or a loss of privileges such as visitations, phone use, or their weekly canteen service.

But, inmates will be inmates, and they seemed to find ways to steal a cup or two. The kitchen staff was responsible for the accurate inventory and control of all kitchen items (cups, silverware, trays, etc. Someone was accountable for those items at all times, and it was serious business if something turned up missing. And yes, it’s true. Sometimes those cups were used to bang against the bars. That’s a sound one doesn’t forget too easily.

Tin cups could be fashioned into all sorts of weapons, of course. They were also used for cooking. They’re great for heating coffee, soup, etc., when held over an open fire. Fire, of course, is not permitted at any time. But prisoners find a way. They always seem to find a way to do, well, anything.

My old tired eyes have seen many prisoners over the years, many of whom shared some pretty incredible stories. Some not so true, but others were so fantastic that they manage to flicker cross the front of my mind to this day. I still feel the emotion they exhibited when telling those personal tales.

Those men sipped from their tin cups during holidays, peering out of small, narrow windows, wishing for someone, anyone, to come for a visit. Some drank from the shallow metal cups during their last days on earth, knowing that in just a few hours an executioner would “pull the switch.”

Today, I see my own face in the cup’s reflection, but it’s someone I barely recognize. I’m much older now, but in my mind I’m still the same person who oversaw the delivery of those cups to thirsty prisoners. Many of men were grateful for something as simple as a morning cup of coffee, something we take for granted because we have the opportunity to brew one whenever we like. Not so for the folks who live in captivity.

Yes, the face I see looking back at me is far different than the person who used to peer back at me. Life has moved on and it’s sometimes difficult to let go of the past. But knowing where I’ve been sure goes a long way towards helping me get to where it is I’m going.

Like most things that come and go with the changing of the times, tin cups in jails and prison are likely a thing of the past.

Newcomers to my office barely give my old tin cup a first glance, seeing merely an old and empty, scratched and slightly dented, drinking vessel. Me, I see a tin cup that’s brimming with a lifetime of sorrow, pain, death, misery, happiness, tears, laughter, and more. It’s a cup that runneth over with emotion.

A cup filled with precious memories is what sits in my office. Some good and some not so good. But precious they are. And yes, the cup in my office was once used by murderers, robbers, rapists, and burglars.

Here’s to you.

It’s not been your day. First, the wife called to say the toilet won’t flush, the dog dug up the neighbor’s prized rose bush, and the principal suspended your oldest kid for drinking a beer in the restroom.

On your way home you stop at a buddy’s house to shoot the breeze and maybe pick up a small bag of pot to help shed the day’s troubles from your mind. Then, just as your pal pulls a quarter ounce from his 42-pound stash, the police kick in the front door. It’s a raid and you’re handcuffed and hauled downtown. Who knew your friend had been on the narcotics cops’ radar for the better part of a year?

Stick cuffs

One of the officers, McColdhands, according to his nametag, was a nice enough guy. He didn’t push or shove and he spoke to you in a nice way. No yelling or cursing. But he did snap the cuffs around your wrists, and he didn’t read you your rights (you later learned that’s not necessary because he didn’t ask any questions about your involvement in illegal activity).

Despite his cordial demeanor, you still hate his a** with a passion. After all, he just took away your freedom, right? Yeah, sure, it’s his fault, along with the other officers who busied themselves digging through drawers and closets and the refrigerator and the toilet tank.

Handcuffed eyes

But who knew good old Billy Buck, your friend since high school, had so much dope in the house? And all that cash? One of the cops said there was at least a hundred-thousand. Still …

After waiting in the backseat of a locked police car for what seemed like an eternity, Officer McColdhands slipped in behind the wheel, said some sort of gobbledygook into a radio microphone, and off you went to, well …

Welcome to jail.

Points to note:

  • You have no right to privacy while in jail.
  • Showering and shaving times and days are limited in most jails.
  • Telephone calls may be monitored and/or recorded.
  • Watching television is a privilege, not a right.
  • Visitation is a privilege, not a right.
  • Telephone use is a privilege, not a right.
  • Some jails charge inmates a modest daily housing fee.
  • Some jails charge a small fee for medical care.
  • Most jails and prisons have libraries, and some of the books there are YOURS!
  • Jail and prison are not the same.

Corridor inside an old county jail

A jail is typically operated by a county or city government. Jails house:

  • People who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or sentencing.
  • People who have been convicted of a misdemeanor offense and are serving a sentence of (typically) less than 1 year.
  • People who have been sentenced to prison—a sentence of one year or more—and are awaiting transfer to a state facility (prison).

*As always, laws and policies in your area my differ from those in another part of the country. For example, see Gina’s comment below.