WPA 2012: Jail Time




An old view through old bars.


The first evening of Writers Police Academy, I was lucky enough to draw one of the limited spaces for the tour of Guilford County Jail.  It’s a new facility, and much needed.  The previous facility experienced extreme overcrowding, to the tune of  two hundred-plus inmates who were bunking on the floor.

The new jail is clean, bright, state-of-the-art, but grim.  That last surprised me, though I’m still not sure why.  I haven’t spent much time in prisons (read “any”), and what I’ve seen in the movies and on T.V. didn’t seem to touch the reality.  Hollywood builds with an eye to viewer reaction.  Real jails are built with an eye to security–bottom line–and you can feel the loss of options the further you go into the facility.   It’s there for only one purpose: to house potentially dangerous people securely.

One of the first things I learned–and again, it’s something I thought I should have known–is that jails are for people awaiting trial or who have been sentenced for a short duration, typically less than a year.  Prisons are there to hold people with longer sentences.  Jails are run by county sheriff’s departments.  Prisons are run by by the Prisons and Corrections office in each respective state, or by the federal government.

Another thing I hadn’t considered is the type of work the officers handle as part of their assignment to the correctional facility.  There are no “light duty” assignments, per se.  You’re processing people in or out, or walking the levels, or overseeing the inmates during their “free” time.  It’s a full-time, on your feet, always-on-the-alert gig. The only person who gets to sit a desk is the officer assigned to the Control Room.


The Control Room

The Control Room
Courtesy of Triangle.News14.com

From there, the entire jail is monitored, the elevators are controlled, and the cell doors can be operated.  As you can see, the walls are made of security glass.  It’s a fishbowl in there.


Cell Row
Courtesy of Triangle.News14.com


The population isn’t housed according to what they’ve been charged with.  They’re housed based on behavior or need.  So the candy bar thieves are cheek to jowl with the child pornographers and the murderers.  Four to a room.  All just waiting for their court date, or their sentencing date, or for the case to be dropped, or to be transferred to a prison.

It’s clean.  Spotless, actually.  It needs to be.  With an enclosed population, disease spreading would be a disaster.  For all of the off-white paint and bright overhead lights, it’s bleak.  The sense of waiting is palpable.   It’s full of the passing of time.  Time weighs heavy, presses against the walls.  It’s an accumulation you can feel, and not only because of the prisoners gathered in the common room, or pressed up against their cell doors watching through narrow windows, but it’s also carried in by the families and friends in the lobby, waiting for their 15 minutes of glass-partitioned visiting time.

Sheriff BJ Barnes graciously allowed us to tour the facility as part of WPA, and I’m grateful he allowed us to disrupt his exceedingly professional staff for an hour.  As a writer of crime fiction, it was a invaluable experience to see the officers working on the various levels, learning the intake process, hearing an inmate hoot and holler and bang cloistered behind one of the “incident room” doors, and seeing how direct contact supervision worked in reality.  As a citizen, it was even more valuable to learn the realities of correctional facilities.  It’s not something we, as a general population, know anything about … outside of fiction.

I will admit to being glad when we left, relieved to step outside into the fresh, soft North Carolina night.  It felt good to look up and see something other than stark white ceilings, to smell the dense green vegetation and not the faint-but-layered aroma of old gym socks, bodies and disinfectant.

The outside is a good place to be.


Writers Police Academy 2012


Coming into Greensboro, North Carolina


What do Greensboro, human trafficking and forensic investigation have in common?  The always awesome Writers Police Academy, that’s what!

Last week, I returned to the southeast to learn what it is cops, EMTs, and forensic anthropologists do.  Research, research, research.  And what fabulous research it was!  The sun was shining, unlike this time last year when we had the fallout from a tropical storm and a veritable deluge.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather, or better people.

Friday’s seminars included:

  • Human Trafficking
  • Cold Cases and the Realities of Investigation
  • Building Searches (we got to suit up for this one)
  • Interviews and Investigation
  • Forensic Identification, by Dr. Elizabeth Murray

And in the evening:

All of this is on the first day.

Saturday’s seminars included:

  • A re-enactment of a felony stop complete with car chase and shoot-out.
  • Suicides, Hangings and Auto-Erotic Death Investigations
  • Police Gunfighting
  • EMS and the Crime Scene
  • Crime Scene to Court: Evidence Handling and Chain of Custody
  • Working the Courtroom into Your Thrillers, by Marcia Clark
Saturday night was the banquet, complete with a special appearance by Mayberry’s favorite deputy, and special guest speaker Lee Child.  He was an incredible, gracious speaker, and it was a pleasure to hear him talk about our type of stories … the thriller … the proto-story.
More detail on various seminars to come, including a bit about my tour of Guilford County’s jail.  Stay tuned ….


Writers Police Academy, Pt 1

Beginning of autumn, not that you could tell by how warm it was.  Central North Carolina.  Eight o’clock in the morning.  Running on not much coffee.  Simone and I at the Writers Police Academy: Day 1.

Kath says warm; Simone says, “The reason I would never live in North Carolina ever again.” It was only about 85 degrees. It felt like 95. The rain felt like we were standing under the place where God and the angels hang around wringing out their sweaty basketball clothes at the end of a good pick-up game.

This was a dream come true for me.  I love being a writer, and I love digging into the research I get to do as part of writing.  I’ve been like a sugar addict in a candy store for the last six months with all the police procedure and investigation researching we’ve done for our WIP.  Just ask anyone, they’ll say I’ve been giddy with it.  Giddy!


The Writers Police Academy, organized by the fabulous Lee Lofland (buy his book!!), is a combination of hands-on learning and seminars taught by active duty officers and some of the leading experts in the fields of investigation and forensics.  It’s an amazing three-day opportunity to learn what’s real and what’s prime time television.

Lesson #1:  The first thing we were told?  Real police and CSI techs do not wear high heels or even moderate heels.  Or tight skirts.  Sorry, Detective Beckett.

Let’s get it right.

It is not normally this dark at 8AM in September.


We watched the clouds deepen and darken as we gathered in the EMT training bay at Guilford Technical Community College and Public Safety Training Academy.  The wind shifted, and our instructor for Fire Equipment, Bob Halpin, said, “Let’s keep moving, the rain’s coming in.”  I shrugged.  I’m from Seattle.  What’s a little rain between friends, right?

We toured the firehouse set up.  Got a good look at fire engines and the firefighters’ gear …



Then the heavens opened.

This was no end-of-summer shower.  It was a deluge!  The only other time I’ve been in rain this heavy and persistent was when Simone and I were in Florida.  What is it with these southern rainstorms?

Being a stalwart and relentless researcher, not to mention a cocky Seattleite who shugs off rain as a matter of course, I chose to take the Shallow Grave Crime Scene workshop first while Simone went to her appointment with the Firearms Training Simulator (or F.A.T.S).

Okay, the Firearms Training Simulator is amazing. And yes, I wondered when I’d get to shoot the little girl carrying the chemistry book like in Men in Black (“What is she doing in this neighborhood?”).  But the simulator was more sophisticated than the popup targets and laser-tag I had been expecting. We were issued real, modified Glocks, and walked through live action video. A controller (and our extraordinary support person for the training) would decide in real time if our words or actions affected the simulation and could change the video reaction on the fly–a bit like the animation from an old video arcade game. Our guns interacted with the screen, and the computer assessed whether we hit or missed, and, if we hit, whether or not the hit would affect, incapacitate, or kill the target. Sometimes no shooting was called for. Sometimes you could save everyone except the suspect. Sometimes only shooting VERY ACCURATELY could give you a better than horrible outcome.

The analyzing part of my brain loved observing how the simulations used shouting and amped up gestures to stimulate adrenaline and get us examinees more involved in what would otherwise be a “video game.” Several of the people I observed were really tense. 

Lesson #2a: The trigger on the weapons we were given can only be pulled if your finger fully engages it.

Lesson #2b: Aiming meticulously and trying to fire from the side of said trigger gives your partner time to shoot several other things in the environment. Innocent, video squirrels suffered that day.

Lesson #3: If given a choice, wait for the bomb squad. If not given a choice, bemoaning your fate to the instructor only makes him giggle.

While Simone was off shooting bad guys, those of us wanting to check out dead bodies huddled in the pagoda outside the training facility in our various states of water-repellent preparedness while we waited for the storm to pass.  It didn’t.

Did I mention we were stalwart?


Crossing the Line


We tromped through the grass and sticky red clay mud to get to the body of Sonja, a young female mannequin who had been dumped in a shallow grave.

No mannequins were harmed in the deploying of this shallow grave.

If I ever wanted to know what it was like working a crime scene in pouring rain, in muddy, crappy conditions, now I know.  The REI waterproof jacket failed.  The hat failed.   Also, iPhones take even crummier pictures when the lens is wet.  The good thing?  The rain kept down the smell of decomposition which in turn kept away the corpse-loving bugs. Despite the torrent, we found evidence galore.

Lesson #4:  Rain screws with crime scenes, yes, but that doesn’t mean all evidence is washed away.

This is totally going into our next book.

Note to self:  Next year, bring a change of clothes.  And boots.  Lee did warn us.  He really did.

After that, I met a (completely dry) Simone at a Blood Stain Patterning seminar taught by Dave Pauly, Director of Applied Forensic Science at Methodist University, Fayetteville, NC.  We learned about angles of descent, the need for presumptive testing, what methods can be used to reveal a blood stain, and just how much a blood stain can tell an investigator.  The answer is ‘quite a lot.’  And that high school math you thought you’d never use?  It comes in very handy when looking for the area of convergence and the angle of impact.  Who knew?

How blood lands can tell an investigator a huge amount about what occurred. Copyright: howstuffworks.com


Lesson #5:  Scrubbing away stains with bleach won’t remove the presence of heme (as in hemoglobin).  Neither will scrubbing off and painting over a spattered wall.  Also, sprayed blood hides everywhere.  Everywhere.  

“We pulled up the baseboard, and sure enough …” –Dave Pauly 

Coming up, Part 2!  Fingerprinting, Impressions Evidence, and Forensic Psychology.


PS  Lee Lofland is a retired police officer and one hell of a blogger.  You can read his true stores, his reviews of the TV show Castle, and find out more about the Writers Police Academy at The Graveyard Shift.

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