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 Tri​an​gle​.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 Tri​an​gle​.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: how​stuff​works​.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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