Tis the season

 

In 1993, Marcus Wellons was convicted of raping and killing a 15-year-old girl back in 1989. His punishment…the death penalty.

A witness told officials they’d seen Wellons carrying a large object wrapped in a sheet into a wooded area near his home. Police located the girl’s nude body in that same wooded area. Evidence of the murder was also found in Wellons’ girlfriend’s apartment.

Marcus Wellons entered death row at the age of 34, where he waited to die. In the months and years since he first walked through the prison gates, Wellons’ probably passed time by watching TV, reading, exercising, and eating the meals that were delivered to him. His cell was cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Wellons’ and his attorneys kept the courts busy by filing various appeals, hoping to find someone who could somehow spare the life of the man who brutally raped and murdered a young girl. Even at the end, those same attorneys made a last minute plea to Justice Clarence Thomas, who, by the way, is from Georgia. Justice Thomas passed on the appeal to the full Court, who rejected it.

Last night, twenty-five long years after the crime was committed, Georgia prison officials finally carried out the execution of Marcus Wellons, by lethal injection. He was 59-years-old.

Early this morning, in Missouri, officials there executed John Winfield. Winfield was convicted of shooting three women in the head in 1996, killing two of them. Another execution is scheduled later today, in Florida.

Each time an execution is carried out, my mind takes me back to a night in 1994 when I served as witness to an execution by electrocution/electric chair.

New Picture (2)

Since it was my job to arrest murderers for their crimes, I figured I should see what could be the end result of my investigations.

And it was that thinking that brought me to this…

Have you ever sat looking into the eyes of a serial killer, watching for some sign of remorse for his crimes, wondering if he would take back what he’d done, if he could? Have you ever smelled the burning flesh of a condemned killer as 1,800 volts of electricity ripped through his body? No? Well, I have.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer

The Southside Strangler

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I requested to serve as a witness to his execution. I figured if I had the power to arrest and charge someone with capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, corrections officials met me at the state police area headquarters. I left my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice there and they drove me to the prison. We passed through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside the building where death row inmates await their turn to die.

Once inside, I was led to a room where other witnesses waited for a briefing about what to expect. Then we, in single file, were led to where we’d soon watch a condemned person be put to death.

The room where I and other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room, with the exception of Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

State executions in Virginia are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did. A couple of prison officials entered first, and then Spencer walked into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own, without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber. I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.

Spencer was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp.

Spencer scanned the brightly lit room, looking from side to side, taking in the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims. Perhaps, the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the oak chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I was seated directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

 

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub and doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

Yes, I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. All the way to the end, he kept his gaze on me.

Suddenly all eyes were on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor. Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It did not ring.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber, out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, then he and the rest of the team left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, the executioner sent a second burst to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes (I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it).

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair, placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, and listened for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America was dead, finally.

Strange, but true facts about Spencer’s case:

– Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

– Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

– David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

– Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

– Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.

Jail Cell

 

How do you safely remove handcuffs when placing a suspect inside a jail cell?

Sometimes it’s easier said than done, especially when the guy wearing the cuffs is 6’6″ and weighs over 300lbs—a solid mass of hard-packed muscle that was designed to break bone and blacken perfectly good eyes. So you and the eight other officers it took to get Bobby Bodybuilder to the cell block, all give one big heave-ho, forcing the over-sized version of Ah-nold Schwarzenegger through the door. Hopefully, someone will remember to close and lock it.

To remove  cuffs from the wrists of “good” bad guys, officers have the suspect(s) step inside the cell and then close and lock the door behind them. The prisoner then places his cuffed hands to the rectangular opening in the cell door. This allows officers to safely unlock the handcuffs. The same opening in the cell door is used for passing  food trays to the prisoner(s) inside.

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

The picture above is of a typical holding cell. The platform to the right is the bed (without a mattress, which by the way, is not much more comfortable than the concrete and tile platform).

In the rear of the cell is a stainless steel toilet/sink combination—good for taking care of bodily functions, clothes washing, passing messages to a friend in another cell (details another day).

A polished steel mirror hangs above the sink. The heavily scratched and dented faux looking glass is held to the wall with bolts that can’t be backed out without a special tool. The thick steel door is equipped with the aforementioned tray slot and peep hole. You can also see a round piece of stainless steel on the upper door. This is a receiver for a computerized device called “The Pipe.”

 

Jail officers carry the pipe with them as they make their rounds, touching the end of the apparatus to each receiver throughout the jail or prison. The receiver uploads the time and date into the pipe. At the end of the officer’s shift he/she inserts the pipe into a terminal inside the jail’s master control room.

 

The computer then records every movement the officer made during the day. There are also many, many security cameras throughout the institutions that send their images to the main control booth.

Cameras are okay, I guess. They do offer a view of the goings-on throughout the facility. However, officers often forget the cameras are there, especially the tired and sleepy officers working graveyard shift. First thing you know, one of the sleepy-beauties decides to sing a little song to help keep him awake. So he pulls out his can of pepper spray and uses it as a pretend microphone as he warbles and screeches out a chorus or two of “It’s Raining Men.” And this is without auto-tune. Next thing they know, he’s entertainment for the entire supervisory staff and control room officers.

Cameras don’t lie…unfortunately.

*I’m doing a bit of traveling today, so please play nice while I’m away.

Inmate: J.L. Bird

 

Inmate J.L. Bird had never heard of the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS), let alone be a part of the system’s mobile inventory. And he didn’t care if he never heard of it again…ever.

He’d been traveling with JPATS for three days and already he was sick of it, and of the U.S. Marshals who watched his every move, including bathroom breaks. He was weary of flying a zig-zagged pattern across the U.S., landing at what seemed like every remote airfield in the country to either drop off or pick up inmates. Then came the never-ending, end of the day van rides to county jails, the holdover facilities located in hick towns that were surely too small and too backward to be considered even for the filming of Deliverance. In fact, Bird was quite sure that most of their holdover locations were in towns with names recognized only by loyal viewers of Hee Haw—places like Bumpass and Doodlum, Va., and Talking Rock, Ga., the little honey hole in Pickens County nestled between Ellijay and Jasper.

Bird did learn that in exchange for holding federal prisoners, the federal government paid the county sheriff $70 per day per federal inmate held. And that’s a pretty sweet deal for merely furnishing a blanket on a concrete floor, a couple of boiled eggs, and maybe a dry sandwich made from stale bread and greenish-tan bologna.

He also learned that deputy sheriff’s didn’t give a rat’s patootie about federal prisoners, and that they pretty-much ignored him and the others. In fact, many of them mistreated the federal prisoners, forcing them to sleep on the floor in dirty, unused cells. Bird and his crew were the last to be fed, receiving leftovers, and they were the last to see soap and water. Therefore, they often went several days without bathing, deodorant, or brushing their teeth. And that really made for a sweet-smelling ride in the back of hot vans, and airplanes that recycled the cabin air.

But, after several unpleasant layovers in county jails, the JPATS jet finally touched down at Will Rogers airport in Oklahoma City. A real airport with real people scurrying about, tending to whatever duties are assigned to airport workers. Bird was ecstatic. He was overjoyed at the thought of seeing honest-to-God people other than the unwashed pack he’d been traveling with for the past several days.

FTC Oklahoma. The jetway is pictured at the top of the image.

The JPATS jet taxied to the far west corner of the airport, though, and pulled alongside a private jetway leading to a brick building that stood alone on the airport property—the Federal Transport Center.

The FTC Oklahoma City is the hub for JPATS air transport. It’s the facility where nearly all federal inmates are housed until they’re assigned to a permanent prison. It’s also where prisoners are housed while in transit to new prisons, court, etc. Bird finally learned that he was on his way to a hearing at the federal court in Richmond, Va.

“Absolutely no talking!” shouted the marshal who’d stepped inside from the jetway. He rubbed his stubby fingers across his buzzcut. “Not a sound unless one of us asks you a question. You’ll stand perfectly still until a marshal or other officer gives you a command. Do not, and I repeat, do not let your ankle chains mar the floors in the hallway. Okay, let’s go. Single file. In the jetway, now!”

Unfortunately, for Bird, he’d see not a single civilian. The jetway led directly into the prison facility. However, he was pleasantly surprised at how clean and fresh it was inside. The floors were highly polished and there wasn’t a single blemish on the stark white walls. Overheard fluorescent fixtures lit the long hallway like a night game in Fenway Park.

Bird and his fellow travelers made their way along the wall (following a red line painted on the floor) until they reached three BOP officers who were busy removing handcuffs, waist chains, and leg irons. Bird was elated when the set of leg irons were removed from his ankles. Wearing the steel cuffs daily for a week had rubbed the thin skin there until it was raw and sore.

Next for the prisoners came a brief orientation, a chat with a psychologist, a quick consult with a counselor, and then to their assigned housing units. Bird met his unit officer who assigned him to a cell. Again, Bird was pleased to find a spotless cell, complete with a soft mattress, soft pillow, a large window, and a real door. No bars!

Bird was also pleased to learn that he could shower whenever he liked and as many times as he liked. And, the facility provided the inmates with soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and more. And, within minutes, kitchen workers delivered a hot meal to the unit for those who’d been traveling all day. The food was absolutely delicious. Real bone-in chicken. Not the unidentifiable ground goop he’d been used to eating back at the prison.

The unit was quiet. The inmates seemed pleasant (he’d discovered that he’d been assigned to a low security unit). And the guard was a guy who addressed the inmates either by their last names or by calling them “sir.” As in, “Thank you, sir.” “Sir, when you get a minute would you please stop by my desk.” And the prisoners did the same in return. There was no shortage of respect.

It was late in the day when the JPATS jet touched down in Oklahoma, so it wasn’t long before the sun set. Bird noticed that as soon as it was dark outside, all the cells/rooms on his side of the unit went dark. Not a single light on in either of them. The cells across the dayroom, opposite his, were all brightly lit. He also noticed that most of the inmates had suddenly disappeared into the darkened cells. Curious, he asked one of the few remaining prisoners, a slack-jawed, flamboyantly gay guy who’d somehow managed to paint his fingernails fire engine red, about the strange occurrence.

“”It’s showtime,” he said. “Not my cup of tea, though…if you know what I mean.” He winked at Bird, but Bird didn’t have a clue what he meant, and his confused expression prompted the prison sweetie to say, “Go have a look. You’ll see.”

So Bird opened the door to his cell and found a gaggle of prisoners gathered at the narrow window, looking across to the next wing. Bird quickly saw the attraction. The next unit over, with windows perfectly aligned with those in Bird’s unit, was the unit that housed female prisoners. Bird also noticed that while the lights were off on his side of the unit, the rooms across the way were brightly lit.

And standing, sitting, dancing, jiggling, wiggling, or gyrating in each window, was a totally nude female prisoner who was working hard to entertain the male population of the transfer center.

It was indeed showtime in Oklahoma, a long-standing tradition, and each cell had its own private, live peep show that lasted until lights out at 10pm.

Bird slept better that night than he had in a long, long time. And he went to sleep feeling a little dirty, even though he’d showered three times in as many hours.

*Of course, inmate J.L. Bird is an imaginary prisoner, however, his journey is one of thousands that take place each and every work day of every week. JPATS is indeed a very busy operation. Oh, the peep shows are also very real…

Next, Bird goes to court.

J.L. Bird: Flies the friendly skies

 

Inmate J.L. Bird had always enjoyed living in California. The scenery was absolutely to die for, and the Mexican cuisine was the best in the country. The U.S. that is. Somehow, though, the view of the San Joaquin valley didn’t quite seem the same when seeing the vast strawberry fields pass by through windows covered in metal mesh.

The marshal had been driving about two hours when Bird reached into his paper sack and pulled out one of the boiled eggs. He smashed it against the aluminum seat back in front of him and then began the tedious process of picking away the shell one small fleck at a time. He devoured the egg in two bites. The second one, though, he decided to savor, nibbling at it and letting his tongue enjoy the creamy texture of the yolk. Besides, who knew when the next meal would come.

The inmate seated next to him on his left, a man whose exposed flesh was mostly covered in jailhouse tats, slept soundly. His shaved head lolled from shoulder to shoulder depending on the direction of curves and varying depths of potholes. A bluish-black cobra adorned the back of his head, and the words “You Die” were inked across his forehead in large block letters.

The man directly in front of him had long, knappy dreadlocks that he’d gathered into ponytail by using a series of bright pink rubber bands. Next to him sat the fattest man Bird had ever seen in prison khaki. His breathing was loud and wheezy and each exhale produced a faint whistle. His nerdish-cut greasy hair was the perfect compliment to the three-day growth of deep black whiskers covering his cheeks and upper neck.

Bird passed the time by thinking about how wonderful it would be to stand outside in the midst of the almond orchard they’d just passed. Or to feel the sunshine on his arms and face while tending to the dairy cows at the massive farm he’d seen back near Barstow.

The driver suddenly turned left into what appeared to be an abandoned airport. She pulled over next to a dilapidated old shed and asked if any of the prisoners needed to use the restroom.

Bird waited his turn as the Marshals let them out two at a time to expel their water right there on the asphalt. The female marshal was nice enough to look the other way while her male partner stood watch over the tinklers.

Twelve men later, and a nice-sized S-shaped river that disappeared beneath the van, the side door was closed and padlocked, and the driver headed straight for a cracked runway with tall, dry weeds sprouting through the jagged openings. She hooked a left and suddenly Bird saw a menagerie of sheriff’s vans and buses, prison vehicles, and an array of heavily-armed officers from various agencies. The roof of the old hanger was lined with snipers, and several BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons) CO’s (corrections officers) held shotguns. Many of the officers cradled fully automatic weapons. Those guys were not there to play games. No sir.

“Where are we?” Bird asked the female Marshal.

“My guess would be an airport,” she said, and looked to her partner who politely chuckled at her weak attempt at humor.

“How about this, then,” Bird said. “Where are we going?”

“You know we can’t tell you that, Bird,” said the male Marshal. “Obviously, you’re going to take a little trip. So just sit there and be quiet. You’ll find out where you’re going when you get there.”

Bird leaned back in his seat. Fat Guy was fidgeting in his seat and sweating profusely, and his breathing whistles had grown louder and higher-pitched, almost to the point of “only dogs can hear.” He toyed with the black box mounted between his cuffs. Bird wondered what he’d done to warrant the added security.

Suddenly the officers outside began to move around until they’d assembled into a somewhat orderly formation. Something was about to happen…and it did. A large passenger jet came into view in the sky at about the ten-o’clock position. It touched down smoothly, stirring up clouds of dust and sending a half-dozen tumbleweeds rolling off into the desert. The massive jet came to a stop in front of the officers.

A rear stairway lowered to the ground and a handful of jump-boot-wearing marshals filed out. They spoke with the group of ground transport marshals, deputies, and other officers, and then motioned to the driver in control of Bird’s van, who eased the vehicle forward until it was within a few yards of the plane. She and her partner opened the side door to the van and told the prisoners to step outside and line up, single file. A second door on the jet opened. This one was on the side, and a set of stairs lowered until it, too, touched the pavement.

As the buses and vans unloaded their human cargo, a steady stream of t-shirt and khaki-wearing prisoners made their way down the jet’s side stairs. As soon as their blue-shoed feet hit the pavement they were whisked away by the officers who were there to take them to their new home for the next 5-10 years, or longer.

After comparing papers and photo ID’s, Bird’s group was loaded into the jet via the rear stairway, where Marshals guided them into seats that had seen their better days many years ago.

The interior of the plane was hot and the little moveable air nozzles either didn’t work or were missing. The seat trays had been removed and the carpeting was stained and sticky. Many years of accumulated artificial fruit juice, piss, and vomit, Bird surmised. The aroma of pine cleaner did nothing to hide the stench. He wondered how the marshals stood being cooped up inside the funky-smelling jet day in and day out.

Within a few minutes they were taxiing down the runway, headed for who knew where. As soon as they reached their cruising altitude the pilot made a brief announcement. “You must remain in your seats at all times. You may not stand for any reason. You may not use the restroom during the flight. The air marshals on board are not flight attendants. They are here to insure my safety and yours. You will follow their instructions at all times. If you have any questions, please hold them until we land. Until then, thank you for flying Con Air.”

Bird closed his eyes, hoping to sleep the day away. But the nose-whistling fat guy wasn’t about to let that happen. He stood and began screaming some sort of gibberish about being terrified of flying and that he was going to kill the pilot. Well, it took all of four minutes and five air marshals, a Taser, and a few well-placed blows to the head, shoulders, and lower back to silence that nonsense.

Bird closed his eyes again, hoping the steady hum of the jet engines would help him sleep and send him to freedom, if only for a few hours.

Next up…Oklahoma City, good food, and the nightly all-nude girlie shows—for prisoners’ eyes only.

 

 

It was three-thirty in the morning when the taller of the two guards woke him by poking his thigh with a metal flashlight.

“Roll ’em up, Bird. You’re going on a little trip,” said the short one with the acne scarred face. “You’ve got fifteen minutes to get dressed and have your stuff at the door.”

The inmate, J.L. Bird, knew better than to protest. To argue would serve to do nothing less than to earn him a couple of weeks in “the hole.”

Bird pulled on a pair of khaki prison pants, the ones with the elastic waistband, a clean white t-shirt, threadbare white socks, and blue slip-on tennis shoes. Next, he opened his locker and emptied the contents onto the middle of his twin-size mattress. He took a last look around to be sure he hadn’t missed anything before rolling the mattress and its contents into a ball, otherwise known as “inmate luggage.” He held the knot of belongings under one arm and carried it to the front door where the night shift dorm officer stood yucking it up with the two transportation officers that had interrupted his dream time.

“Where am I going?” Bird said, addressing no one in particular.”

Ignoring his question, Scarface said, “That everything?”

Bird nodded. “That’s it.”

“Let’s go, then,” Scarface said while pushing open the heavy steel door.

Again, Bird knew better than to push his luck by asking more questions.

When the trio reached the main office area, the taller guard told Bird to place the rolled-up mattress beside the property room door and then have a seat in one of the two plastic chairs near the control booth window. Bird heard a buzz followed by a click, the sound of an electronic lock responding to the button pushed by the officer behind the tinted glass.

The outer door swung open and two US Marshals came into the room, a muscular man with a dark buzz cut and an attractive blonde female with the whitest teeth Bird had ever seen. The woman’s straw-colored hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, leaving her neck exposed. A small mole on her right cheek was the only blemish on her pale skin. She doesn’t spend much time outdoors, Bird muttered to himself.

The two Marshals didn’t waste any time. They walked over to Bird and instantly set about the task of preparing him for a trip to who-knew-where. “Face the wall. Put your hands on the wall. Spread your feet. Anything in your pockets? No needles? No drugs?” He felt the mans hands dig into his armpits. Thumbs tracing his spine. Fingers inside his waistband, workng all the way around his middle. A hand deep into his crotch, then down his left leg. Then another hand in his crotch before sliding down his right leg. “Open your mouth. Lift your tongue. Move it from side to side, slowly.”

A chain around the waist. “Hold out your hands.” First one cuff through the waist chain and then both wrists clamped tightly. The same for the ankles. Snap. Click. Metal clanging against the tile floor.

The woman said, “We have a long day ahead. Now would be a good time to use the restroom. You won’t have another opportunity to do so until tonight.” Bird shuffled his way into the restroom while a male prison guard held the door open, watching to be sure Bird didn’t pull a Houdini and escape through the drain. When Bird finished washing his hands, the guard handed him a small paper sack—a sandwich, two ice cold boiled eggs, a bruised apple, and a cardboard container of artificial juice. “Here’s your breakfast and lunch. You’ll get dinner on the other end.”

Minutes later, the female Marshal unlocked a heavy padlock hanging from the sliding doors of an unmarked gray passenger van. She motioned for Bird to climb in, a somewhat difficult task to accomplish with his feet tethered to the short chain attached to the ankle cuffs. Bird took his time, but made it easily. He slid into the seat beside another inmate. The van reeked of body odor and unwashed clothing.

The female closed the door and Bird heard her snap the lock closed. She climbed onto the driver’s seat and switched on the ignition while her partner signed the last of the transfer papers.

Bird pressed his face against the thick wire grating that separated the prisoners from the front compartment. “Where’m I going?” he asked the woman.

“You’ll see when we get there,” she replied.

He’d not expected an answer to his question, but it never hurt to try. Bird felt the van rock as the other Marshal opened the passenger door and climbed onto the seat. He tossed a clipboard brimming with papers onto the dash and snapped his seatbelt in place. “Let’s roll, ” he said. “According to the officer we’ve got about two hours to make a three-hour drive.”

“You have the directions?” female Marshal asked.

“He said to turn left on the main road and drive until we get there. Supposed to be nothing but desert between here and there. Says we won’t miss it because it’s the only thing we’ll see on the way, besides tumbleweeds, lots of sand, and maybe a roadrunner or two.”

And so it began, the first leg of a cross-country trip to court. A trip that would take a very long three months to go and come back.

Next up…flying on Con Air.

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 either.

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 to get 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 like it was burning your exposed flesh. But the chains prevented you from wiping it away. 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. 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 used to be white, a pair of threadbare yellowish-gray boxers, and a pair 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, and a few weren’t completely dressed before everyone is herded 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.

female prison dorm

 

Life behind the bars and miles of looping razor wire of our country’s prisons and jails is not an easy existence. Not only do the inmates have to deal with the emotional stresses associated with being away from their families and homes, they have to adjust to living inside a six-by-nine concrete box. Sometimes, they even share that claustrophobic enclosure with one or two other prisoners.

Tensions can run high as the men and women in these institutions struggle to survive.  Sometimes, they find themselves fighting for their very lives. To assist them in their efforts to stay alive, inmates make weapons out of whatever materials they can find.

Prisoners are quite creative it comes to making their weapons. They’ve used material such as, toothbrushes, metal of any kind, rocks, glass, wire, newspaper, plastic, nails and screws, ping-pong balls filled with lighter fluid, bars of soap, padlocks, and even human feces.

A weapon made from a nail and electrical tape.

 

 

A large spike wrapped with tape and string.

Three nails and a piece of steel make for a nice punching/stabbing weapon.

A shank made from a piece of plastic. Tape is wrapped around the handle.

Stabbing, cutting, puncturing, and striking weapons.

Inmates often fill toothpaste tubes with feces and urine. Then they squirt the foul mixture on passing guards, or other enemies. This is known as sliming.

Dental Floss: Murder weapon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yum…

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief tour of a county jail:

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

Inmate Movement Control

Female dormitory

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

Correctional officers day

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

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

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

Jail Library

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

Jail Library

Cell block

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

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

Looking out

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

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

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

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

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

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

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

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

pod-recreation-area.jpg

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

Visiting Room

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

visiting room

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