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My career in law enforcement started in the prison system working as a corrections officer in a maximum security facility. The aged institution was a series of old, weathered and worn brick buildings that were probably ten years past the demolition stage. Ironically, that description fit many of the prison’s residents—old, weathered, and long past their prime.

As a new employee, and someone who didn’t know what to expect, once I was permitted inside the endless fencing and razor wire, well, I was a bit apprehensive to say the least.

During our orientation period (the prison system is a revolving door of both inmates and employees—neither seem to want to stay for very long), we were told the prison housed many hard-core inmates, even brutal murderers who’d never again set foot in society.

It didn’t take long to discover how many of the prison inmates survive in such a harsh environment. To do so, many of them “obtain” things from the outside. However, getting their hands on contraband is not the easiest of tasks. Therefore, using tactics similar to those used by feral animals, they stalk their prey, focusing on weak-minded, soft-touch officers. Then, when the moment is right, they cull the timid from the herd before moving in for the kill.

The difference between this type of prisoner and a lion is that the lion hunts for food, while the desperate inmate hunts for favors, liquor, drugs, cellphones, women, and possibly freedom. His prey—new, unsuspecting prison guards who could be manipulated and conned into granting those wishes.

Thankfully, I’m not weak or meek, nor am I an easy mark, so I never once fell for any of their clever con games. However, there’s another type of prisoner that did seem to get to me at times—old-timers with sad stories who seemed to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They could have been anybody’s grandfather, even mine. And such was the case of …

The Wheel: Page Two of My Spiral Notebooks

Tired eyes.

Skin, wrinkled like grooves etched in wet sand.

Working man’s hands.

Nails bitten to the quick.

“They tore down the mill,” I said.

Anxious eyes.

“The one near my place?” he said.

I nodded.

“I used to gig frogs at the base of that old wheel.”

“Caught some nice ones there.”

I offered another nod.

“What’re they gonna do there?”

“Convenience store’s what I heard.”

A gaze into the distance.

Staring into his past.

A deep breath.

A sigh.

A tired voice,

Nearly a whisper.

“The wheel was turnin’ that night, you know.”

I’d heard the story a hundred times before.

“I heard the water running over it when I crossed the road.”

Trembling hand through white hair.

The other, clutching fence wire.

Knuckles, white and taut.

“She screamed, but I still heard the water pouring off the wheel.

And the metal squeakin’ and creakin’.

It was loud. So loud.”

His eyes meet mine.

“Still hear it, you know. Every night, in my head.”

“I know you do.”

I know this because I hear his screams.

The ones that wake him late at night.

“I went over to her trailer to see about all the racket.”

Hand gripping hand.

Wringing and twisting.

Beads of sweat spattered across his forehead.

“She was my little girl, you know.”

Deep breath.

“I opened the door.”

Eyes growing wide.

He was there, again.

In his mind.

“He … He was sittin’ on top of her …”

Voice quivering.

“She was naked. Lips bleeding. Down there, too …”

Old eyes filled with water.

Spilling down his sun-leathered cheeks.

“I tried to pull him off.”

Voice cracks.

“Too big. Too strong.”

Anger crept in.

Teeth clenched tightly.

“I went back across the road to my house.”

Looking at, but through me.

Seeing it all again.

“To get my shotgun.

I didn’t want her to marry him. Never did like the guy.

A drunk and a bum.

Never worked a day in his life.

Beat her all the time.

Bruises and black eyes.

I seen ‘em.”

More hand-wringing.

“Loaded three rounds of double-aught buckshot, I did.

Get off my little girl!

Mind your own business, old man, he says to me.”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

“Well, that bastard’’ll never touch my precious angel again.

No, sir.

Never again.”

Police.

Arrest.

Jail.

Court.

Murder.

Went home to get gun.

Premeditated.

Life sentence.

No parole.

A beat of silence passed.

“So they tore it down, huh?”

“Yep.”

A sigh.

“A convenience store, huh?”

I nodded.

“I’ll always hear that water runnin’.

And the metal screechin’ and squealin’.”

Wiped away a final tear.

“I know you will.”

“I’d do it again tomorrow, you know.”

I nodded.

Another beat.

Announcement from speaker.

“Count time in five minutes.”

“All inmates report to their cells.”

Voices approach.

Chatter of dozens.

Feet shuffling on concrete.

“I wish she’d found somebody like you.

Maybe we could’ve gone frog-giggin’ together, you and me.

Before they tore it down.

Or fishin’.

Crappie there are as big as your two hands held side-by-side.

They’s some good eat’n.”

Gnarled fingers through the wire.

Reaching for me,

For a simple touch.

Human to human.

Liver spotted hand.

“I’da liked that. I really would have.”

“Me, too …

Me, too.”

* The Old Man and the Wheel is a true story that crosses my mind from time to time. Today is one of those times.

Thinking back to the days prior to working in law enforcement I recall the intense desire to become a police officer.

I especially wanted to work in a sheriff’s office. However, openings in the local sheriff’s office were as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was a job that deputies loved and there they remained. Sure, I’d applied and I’d spoken to the sheriff to express my eagerness to become a deputy. But his reply was the typical “I’ll keep you in mind if an opening becomes available.”

So, while impatiently waiting, I decided to apply for a job as a corrections officer within Virginia’s state prison system. And, soon after applying I received a call directing me to come in for an interview.

The day for the initial meeting finally arrived and I was escorted inside to a small conference room. To set the stage, a three person interview panel were seated behind a long table. The chair where my escort indicated that I was to sit, was positioned approximately eight feet in front of the trio of white-shirted ranking officers—one captain, a lieutenant, and a sergeant. No one had passed out smiles that morning.

The captain spoke first, introducing himself and the others. He then asked me to tell them a bit about myself and my background and why on earth did I want to work in a place that could be described as hell’s stinky armpit.

Could you, would you?

When I finished my opening spiel, the real questioning began. “Have you ever belonged to a gang?” “Do you personally know anyone who’s in prison?” “Have you ever been struck, punched, or physically injured by anyone?” What are your views on the death penalty?” Could you shoot another person, if necessary?” Could you bring yourself to shoot a coworker if they’d been taken hostage by an inmate and that shooting through the fellow officer was the only means of preventing the escape?” “Could you?” Would you? And why?”

A few weeks later I received another call instructing me to report to the prison for a physical and a drug test. Two weeks after the exam and drug testing I was officially hired and was scheduled to report for orientation and assignment of uniforms and other equipment, including the first badge I’d ever pinned to a uniform shirt.

Then I received my duty assignment, a prison in the middle of nowhere that consisted of four separate sections, with each building surrounded by a tall, razor-wire topped fence. The four individual areas were contained by a double set of larger fencing that encompassed the entire place. Towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter and an asphalt drive circled the prison, just outside the fence.

Armed officers drove around the compound on a never ending loop. I found out during my orientation that this particular prison was where the state housed many of the inmates that other prisons couldn’t handle.

The prisoners were divided into four categories—those with medical and mental problems, bad-to-the bone dangerous, younger inmates, and finally a mixture of “not super rowdy but were there anyway.” Inmates classified as either of the four groups were housed appropriately—medical and mental were assigned to C Unit, younger inmates to D Unit, the mean and nasty to B Unit, and “the rest” to A.

The Guard Shack

An officer’s station, a small building, sat in the middle of the main compound yard. Inmates were allowed inside this area only when moving from place to place and under controlled circumstances—medical department, visiting room, etc. Each individual section had it’s own recreation yard. The inmates were not permitted to mix (No As with Bs, etc.). The only exception would be during visitations and medical visits.

Nurses delivered medication to each unit. It was at this time when prisoners were permitted to address their medical needs. They would then schedule an appointment to see the prison doctor who, by the way, only visited the prison only once or twice per month unless there was an emergency.

Okay, so I’m at work on my first day and they’ve assigned me to the main compound. My job was to check the passes of inmates before manually unlocking the gates to allow them outside of their designated unit yards. Yes, each gate was locked with a large padlock and I carried a huge ring of keys, many of which I never learned their purpose.

When I arrived at the main gate that morning, an officer used a key to open the lock and let me inside. We walked to the “guard shack” where he gave me a quick briefing about the goings-on during his shift (nothing at all) and then handed me the keys. We walked back to the gate where I opened the lock to let him out. On the way we passed by large man wearing jeans, work boots, a green long-sleeved shirt, and a bright yellow hardhat. The officer spoke as did Mr. Hardhat. Then I snapped the lock closed and returned to the guard shack.

Belly of the Beast!

I was in the process of entering a bit of information in the logbook when “Hardhat” poked his head inside the door. He said good morning and offered his name and mentioned he’d be around if I needed anything. Of course, I appreciated his presence since I felt as if I’d been shoved into a caged arena as the star of a Roman execution ad bestias, “to the beasts.”

Assuming Hardhat was a prison maintenance worker I gladly took him up on his offer and he joined me out on the yard to advise me as to where and when inmate movements should take place. He also kindly provided whispered information regarding which prisoners could be trusted and which could not.

An hour or so later Hardhat suddenly made himself scarce when he spied a sergeant on his way to check on me. Everything was in order—inmate movements were flowing smoothly, logbooks were in excellent shape, keys and other equipment were present, etc. He was pleased.

As my supervisor started to walk away he stopped and turned around to say, “By the way, if you see an inmate walking around wearing a hardhat, send him to C Unit. He didn’t show up for an appointment. Not unusual for him, though, so not to worry. He often hangs out in this area. But he’s as wacky as a box of Fruit Loops. Sometimes he thinks he works here.”

Believe me, the call from the sheriff’s office didn’t come soon enough.

As most of you know by now, Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She was later sentenced to serve time in federal prison, a penalty also shared by the likes of  dangerous criminals such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Martha Stewart (I’m sure staff kept a close eye on Stewart, thinking that she had plans to bake a cake containing a tasty filling made of files or hacksaw blades).

Huffman will soon face a huge challenge, setting foot in prison where she could become an even more hardcore criminal.

First, she, through her attorneys, has requested that she serve her time at FCI Dublin, a women’s correctional facility in California. Typically, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allows inmates to serve their sentences at a facility within 500 miles of their home. This is to help maintain close family ties during long stretches behind concrete walls and steel bars.

What many of you may not know is that judges do not have the final say in where a federal prisoner serves their time. That decision is that of the BOP. Judges may recommend, but it is the BOP who has the final authority.

For now, let’s say Huffman gets her wish and the BOP assigns her to FCI Dublin, a “low security” correctional institution. Here’s what she can expect while serving her brutal 14 day sentence.

  • Huffman is assigned an inmate an eight digit inmate register number. She must memorize this number because at any time during her time in “the system” she may be called up to recite it. This number is important because it tells staff vital information about the inmate. The first five numbers are unique to the inmate. It’s their specific ID. The last three digits signify the district wherein the offender was arrested and/or processed into the system.

If the feds use Boston, where she was sentenced, as a basis for the assigning district, the last three digits of her register number would be 038, the code for the District of Massachusetts (D/MA).

If her arrest location is used (I’m not sure of the exact location or district) one of the following would be the identifying numbers—097- Eastern District of California (E/CA), or 098 for the Southern District of California (S/CA)

Therefore, her official register number would be something like 12345-038 (Boston), or 12345-098 (Southern district of California.

  • Huffman has been granted the option of self-surrendering to prison, meaning that her family will deliver her to the entrance of the prison where they’ll say their goodbyes with hugs and kisses all around.
  • Next, Huffman will be escorted to Receiving and Discharge (R&D). It is at R&D where she’ll be processed—fingerprinted, etc.—and she will receive initial clearance by the Medical and Unit Staff. Afterward, she’ll be sent to the Admission and Orientation (A&O) sections of the Housing Unit where she’ll remain until she is classified (determination of her custody status—low, medium, high).

Should the medical staff find that Huffman has medical needs she will be placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), otherwise known as solitary confinement. Inmates with medical needs may not be released into general population until cleared by a physician.

  • Assuming all goes well, a counselor and a case manager will be assigned to Huffman. They will direct and follow her progress during the entirety of her confinement.
  • New inmates such as Huffman will be expected to work within their assigned housing units when asked to do so by the Unit Officer.
  • Huffman will be required to make her bed by 6:30 a.m. The bed-making deadline on weekends and holidays is no later than 10 a.m.
  • As a new arrival, Huffman will be required to attend Unit Orientation within seven days of her arrival at the prison. This session details rules of the housing unit.
  • Within thirty days of an inmate’s arrival to the institution, it’s mandatory that they receive an in-depth institutional orientation from each of the prison’s  Department Heads and Executive Staff. This session lays out ALL prison rules.

Some of the rules Huffman is required to obey during her stay are:

  • Khaki clothing furnished by the BOP will be marked with the inmate’s name and number (F. Huffman 12345-098). She must wear the khaki clothing while at work and during weekday breakfast and lunch meals.
  • Baggy pants and excessively large shirts are not permitted.
  • Khaki shorts may be worn after 2:30 p.m. and on weekends, except to Visiting, Education, and the Chapel. Shorts must be no shorter than above the knee. No sleeveless tops are authorized as outerwear at any time.
  • Huffman may not hold hands with other inmates, and she may not, not ever, engage in sexual activities with other inmates or staff members.
  • Inmates are permitted to watch television in the common area until 8:45 p.m. during the week, or until 11:45 p.m. on the weekends. She will be  allowed to spend up to $320 per months at the commissary. If she has money “on the books” she’ll be required to purchase her own toiletries. Otherwise, those items—basic needs—are furnished by the prison.
  • She may sunbathe on the weekends but she’ll have to wear a shirt and shorts. No topless or nude sunbathing allowed. Sunbathing is permitted only on the sundecks.
  • Huffman, like other inmates in the system, may not possess cash or coins.
  • Felicity must be completely dressed in full khaki attire by 6:30 a.m.
  • She may not take away any food item from the dining room, with the exception of one piece of fruit. However, the fruit must be eaten before it spoils. It goes without saying that the fruit may not be used to make homemade alcoholic beverages.
  • Huffman may not at any time feed birds or other wildlife.
  • Sitting on stairs is prohibited.

Head counts are held at 12:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 4:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. An extra count is held at 10:00 a.m.on weekends and holidays. These counts are considered as Official Counts.Unofficial Counts may be held at any time and for any reason.

When staff announces a count, Huffman and her fellow inmates must  be in their own rooms (unless they’re authorized to be elsewhere). Each and every day, at 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., inmates are required to stand for these official counts. An extra standing count takes place at 10:00 a.m. on weekends and all Federal holidays.

Okay, I could go on and on about the dos and don’ts of prison life, but there’s simply not enough time or space here to do so. Believe me, the list of rules, regulations, and procedures is long. Very long.

However, Huffman will only be in “the joint” for a couple of weeks. Not even long enough to make it to the main orientation. Not long enough to visit the commissary for the first time. In fact, I doubt she’ll be able to have her visiting list approved in time to receive a single visit from a family member.

Actually, Huffman will probably be in and out before she has a chance to get a gang or teardrop tattoo, make her first batch of pruno, or to join the prison softball team. Her sheets won’t have had time to wrinkle before she walks out of the front gate to leave prison life behind. Her sentence is so short that she couldn’t binge watch all episodes of Desperate Housewives before she’s released.

So many things to do and such a short time to do them…

 

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.

Parstamp1

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.

Most of us are familiar with famous forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee. I, in fact, I have a couple of books on my office shelves, reference material that features his renowned work. He’s practically a guru when it comes to his word in a court of law, as it pertains to crime scene evidence.

Dr. Lee’s word had been golden until a recent case in Connecticut showcased a crack in the manner as to how he collects and examines crime scene evidence. As a result, his character came under fire.

Sure, mistakes happen because Dr. Lee, like the rest of us, is merely human. But when those errors send potentially innocent people to prison for decades at a time before a third party discovers that an expert, especially one of Dr. Lee’s caliber, offered incorrect testimony during a murder trial, well, it’s nothing short of inexcusable. The facts in this case speak for themselves. Someone goofed and it caused two men to spend the past three decades behind bars.

The Case

Two men, Sean Henning and Ralph Birch, were convicted for the horrific murder of Everett Carr, a victim who was stabbed 47 times. His attackers also slit the man’s throat and then tracked Carr’s blood throughout the house.

Henning and Birch were sent to prison based partially on the testimony of Dr. Lee.

Dr. Lee testified that a towel in the victim’s bathroom had a small speck on it, a spot that he had tested and found was “consistent with blood.” Dr. Lee’s word is golden, right?

However, the Innocence Project, after taking the case, offered that the state forensic laboratory revealed the towel had not been tested prior to the original trial. And, in a shocking discovery, they learned that when the lab did finally test the towel for DNA they determined the substance (the spot) on the towel was not blood after all. A KEY piece of evidence.

So how was it that Dr. Lee arrived at his conclusion regarding the spot on the towel found in a second floor bathroom? The renowned expert simply relied on the results of a presumptive field test, a chemical that turns blue in the presence of blood. But, presumptive field tests are used merely as an indication of that the substance is probably blood, drugs, etc. It is only when a full test in a laboratory is performed that can confirm the actual ID of a substance.

Field tests are not always 100% accurate. They do, however, provide probable cause which points an official in a certain direction—to pursue the notion that blood or drugs are present, or not (to make preliminary conclusions). Proper and formal lab tests are a must if the substance in question is to be introduced in court as evidence.

So what happens when officers and experts such as Dr. Henry Lee offer inconsistent and/or inaccurate and misleading evidence?

Last Friday, Connecticut’s highest court ruled that Sean Henning and Ralph Birch should get a new trial.

In the decision, Justice Richard Palmer wrote, “It is inarguable that Lee, as the representative of the state police forensic laboratory, should have known that the bathroom towel had not been tested for blood. He, like any such witness, had an affirmative obligation to review any relevant test reports before testifying so as to reasonably ensure that his testimony would accurately reflect the findings of those tests.

To conclude otherwise would permit the state to gain a conviction on the basis of false or misleading testimony even though the error readily could have been avoided if the witness merely had exercised due diligence.” 

The Appeals Court said, “We agree with the petitioner that, contrary to the determination of the habeas court, he is entitled to a new trial due to the state’s failure to alert the trial court and the petitioner that Lee’s testimony was incorrect, and, therefore, we reverse the judgment of the habeas court.” 

And just like that, after a 57-year career of investigating over 8,000 cases, a tiny stain on a towel instantly became a large stain on the record, reputation, and the integrity of one of the world’s leading forensic experts.

After serving 30 years in prison, Henning has been released on probation. Birch remains incarcerated at the Osborn Correctional Institution. Meanwhile, prosecutors must decide whether or not the two men should face a new trial.

Dr. Lee adamantly states he did nothing wrong.

The courts and the two men who were tried and convicted and imprisoned based mostly on Lee’s testimony back in the late 1980s, well, they’d probably disagree with Dr. Lee’s self assessment.

 

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.

visiting room

 

 

In the days before DNA testing became available for use in criminal cases, cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries relied on other physical evidence to send bad guys to jail—fingerprints and footprints, soil, glass fragments, trace evidence, etc. Those things along with confessions and eyewitness testimony were the building blocks used to convict the guilty.

Then, when DNA arrived on the scene, well, it soon became apparent that somehow officials had made a few boo-boos along the way and had sent more than a handful of innocent men and women to jail for crimes they didn’t commit. DNA testing of old evidence, in fact, exonerated people like our friend Ray Krone who served ten years in prison, three of which were on death row, for a murder he didn’t and couldn’t have committed.

Ray as an inmate at Arizona State Prison in Yuma

Ray Krone could’ve easily been eliminated as a suspect had DNA testing been conducted at the time of the investigation. Instead, his conviction was based on bite mark evidence, a test/examination/comparison method that’s been found to be unreliable.

DNA test results were used in court cases as early as the mid 1980s. Ray was convicted in the early 90s, without the benefit of DNA testing, a simple test that would have prevented him from serving time in prison as an honest, clean-handed man.

Nowadays, to weed out the innocent, DNA testing is routinely performed in the early stages of criminal investigations. And it helps … some. The use of DNA tests in post-conviction cases and appeals sometimes leads to exonerations, such as, for example, Ray Krone’s release from prison.

Electropherogram – a chart produced by testing equipment after DNA sequencing is completed.

Unfortunately, and what most members of juries do not understand, is that during a typical criminal investigation, in only about 10-20 percent of all cases do cops find testable biological evidence. In spite of this low percentage, some juries still expect a case to hinge on DNA results. However, without something to test, of course, there’ll be no electropherograms pointing to a specific suspect.

Sometimes, even with the presence of DNA, those results are not always definitive.

Electropheragram showing tested DNA of two subjects, and a mixture of DNA collected from a victim. Results showing a mixture make it difficult to point to any one suspect.

But let’s go back to the 10-20 percent figure, the number of cases where testable biological evidence is located and collected by investigators and then subsequently tested by laboratory scientists and other experts.

At the upper end, the 20 percent range, that leaves 80 percent of all criminal cases that are solved by using other means of crime-solving, such as the aforementioned fingerprints and footprints, soil, glass fragments, trace evidence and, of course, detectives going about the business of good old-fashioned door-knocking and talking to people. The combination of the physical evidence and confessions and eyewitness testimony is what leads to the majority of criminal convictions.

Sadly and dismally disastrous, without mostly foolproof scientifically tested evidence, courts must rely on human testimony, humans whose memories often fluctuate. Police investigators who enter a crime scene with a serious and dreaded case of tunnel vision. Prosecutors who do the same once the already skewed/tunnel-vision-tainted, unreliable witness’ flawed statement evidence is presented to them,

Overworked and underpaid public defenders aren’t always up to date on current scientific practices and the laws governing them. Those same attorneys carry heavy caseloads which stretches their time to a breaking point so thin that they can’t possibly devote the amount of time needed to decently defend their appointed clients. Their budgets are minimal, meaning expensive testing and other necessities for their clients’ defenses are practically nonexistent.

Post-conviction procedures (motion for new trials, ineffective assistance of council, appeals to address the lack of scientific testing to prove innocence) are a huge uphill climb for people who’ve been incarcerated. This is especially so for the poor.

Those of meager means often have no alternative other than to wade through prison law libraries, hoping to make sense of the legal jargon that fits their situation. They sometimes employ a jailhouse lawyer to help, paying for his services by whatever means available—cleaning his cell, cooking meals, shining shoes, and even purchasing items for them from the commissary, or having family members on the outside send money to the amateur legal eagle.

The wealthy, of course, have outside resources to help with the filing of necessary paperwork. But there’s sometimes a bad egg in this bunch, such as the high-priced, fancy-smancy defense attorney I overheard telling his client who’d just received 37 months in federal prison for possessing crack cocaine worth little more than $100, that for an additional $25,000 he could arrange to have him serve less time on home confinement. That’s fair, right?

And, there’s the Innocence Project who helps the wrongly convicted.

Aside from the obvious, there’s a real problem with the aftermath that’s sure to arise after retroactively clearing prisoners of their crimes based on DNA evidence.

Yes, when all the dust settles after all the men and women who’ve been wrongfully convicted and then cleared by the use of DNA evidence are out of prison with their recoreds expunged and their names cleared, there will still be hundreds if not thousands of people still behind bars because their convictions were based on the bad memory of a witness, a cop or prosecutor with tunnel vision, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a mistake made at the lab during evidence analysis (mislabel an item, etc., tainted evidence, such as the accidental transfer of a fingerprint or even DNA evidence).

Someday soon there will be a false sense that DNA has cleared ALL the innocent people, leaving  those behind who  surely must be guilty of their crimes because there was no scientific evidence to prove otherwise. But we know this can’t be so. Why not? Because of human error.

Yes, it is indeed possible to transfer a fingerprint, even accidentally.

Tertiary DNA Transfer

It’s possible that DNA can be accidentally transferred from one object to another. A good example could be the killer who shares an apartment with an unsuspecting friend. He returns home after murdering someone and then tosses his blood-spatter-covered shirt into the washer along with his roommate’s clothing. The machine churns and spins through its wash cycles, an action that spreads the victim’s DNA throughout the load. Police later serve a search warrant on the home, seize the clothing, and discover the victim’s DNA on the roommate’s jeans. The innocent roommate is arrested for murder.

The list of human error possibilities is extremely long and, unfortunately, there’s no magic DNA bullet to help clear the innocent folks convicted based on an accident. Their battles are practically hopeless. Laws and courts make it nearly impossible for people already serving time to have a judge revisit their cases.

Odds are, that hopelessness follows a few of the condemned all the way to the execution chamber, where it is indeed conceivable that an innocent man could be, and most likely has been, put to death.

And, well, I suppose it’s possible that given the right/wrong circumstances, anyone, even you, could find themselves behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.