Take It Off

I was 23 years old when I took my first job as a juvenile corrections officer. I’ve since worked with adults, males, females, low-security, high-security, and been on SRT (what some call SORT in other agencies, or Special [Operations] Response Team, sometimes referred to by inmates as “the ninjas”). I spent just enough time in it to become slightly jaded, and other life experiences have made me downright cynical. I learned a lot during my time there. Other corrections officers would know terms that the general public rarely, if ever, knows – duck, keistering, fish, hooch, cellie, dog, SHU, soldier, PC, shank, etc. Oh, I almost forgot every officer’s favorite – gassing! Ask your local CO what that one means. None of those words mean what you might think they do “on the outs”.

One of the most important things I learned was that you want to be very, very careful who gets in and what they bring with them.

Inmates have all day to come up with amazing ways to smuggle contraband into a facility. In the past year or so, it hit the news that even Charles Manson was able to get a cell phone and call a reporter. Cell phones are a huge no-no in prisons. No staff are ever allowed to bring cell phones into a facility. If an inmate gets his hands on one, he can do unbelievable damage. He can take pictures of weaknesses in security, run his black market deals, and stalk his victims. I’ll never forget being out on the perimeter in a truck with the 12-gauge at 0200 one VERY cold morning in 2007 when, all of a sudden, I slammed on the brakes at what I heard. I was listening to the only hard rock/heavy metal station in Southern Arizona when the DJ played a caller who said, “yeah, I’m an inmate at such-and-such facility in Florence…”

A cell phone will be kept hidden in pieces by several inmates, who will reassemble it and pass it around. Each inmate pays to use it – they trade whatever they have of value, sometimes commissary items (food), most often contraband or favors. If even one piece is discovered, the whole operation goes down and they have to find an inventive way to get another one. If a guy is actually caught using it and the phone itself is confiscated, everyone involved goes down for it, and the guy who gets caught – which, in this case, was a new guy looking to show off on his favorite radio station – will catch hell for a very long time. That morning, we shut down the facility, and another officer took the truck while I marched into the housing unit where the inmate who owned the familiar voice was housed. You wouldn’t believe the look on that inmate’s face when he refused to rat his accomplices out and Sarge announced to the entire block, “gentlemen, one of your neighbors has just gotten himself caught using a cell phone to call a radio station. Officer Maguire was good enough to listen to that station and catch the call tonight! Until that phone appears in my hand, you will ALL be locked down!”

And wouldn’t you know it? The very next thing we heard was, “hey, Maguire! You listen to the heavy shit! You’re alright!”

It took two days to find the few pieces that remained of the phone. One inmate admitted breaking his part into tiny pieces and flushing them. No evidence of who was contacted would ever be retrieved.

The Supreme Court finally ruled today on Florence v. Burlington. Albert Florence was arrested on a warrant during a traffic stop by a New Jersey state trooper in 2005. Back in 1998, he fled a traffic stop; by 2003, he fell behind on his payments and skipped a parole hearing. A warrant was issued for his arrest. Within days he appeared, paid the fines and worked everything out, but a clerical error left the warrant sitting open – two years later he was taken to jail. He didn’t have bail money. He was strip-searched twice – once at the initial holding facility, a second time at the transferring facility.

Florence sued, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure had been violated. The National Constitution Center took on his case. Their entire argument revolved around the fact that he shouldn’t have been arrested, and once he was, jail officials had no reason to be suspicious of contraband – thus they were wrong, according to the suit, for strip-searching him.

I never liked doing strip searches, even on females (I simply cannot refer to inmates as “women” – it’s not a dehumanizing thing, it’s just my professional way of mentally separating inmates from people I might mingle with in my personal life). If you had to strip search an inmate who hadn’t showered or you could tell felt awkward, it was just an unpleasant experience, particularly if your subject actually did have something hidden in a body cavity. Women can hide some pretty unbelievable objects. You just kinda went robotic when you pulled that duty.

Officers don’t enjoy it, but we’d do it because it could have a serious impact on our own safety if we didn’t. Inmates considered low-risk have been caught with razor blades taped under their testicles and all manner of objects you wouldn’t believe stashed in a place that God never intended for that particular purpose. Every inmate, no matter what their risk, has to be searched. Thankfully, SCOTUS agreed on a vote of 5-4.

I find Florence’s argument patently ridiculous. He says, “I was no danger, they didn’t have any reasonable suspicion, so they had no right!” Five justices disagreed, thank God. Yes, it was wrong that Florence was arrested. He absolutely had a right to sue the court. To claim that he shouldn’t have been strip-searched is dangerous at best. Every inmate is treated the same, lest a mistake be made and the wrong person manage to smuggle a very deadly weapon into the facility and wreak havoc. For instance, low-risk inmates are allowed to work as “trustees” – they are loosely supervised workers who do various jobs throughout a facility, including collecting trash. Those trustees also collect trash from outside the gates, where visitors dispose of their garbage – and more frequently attempt to disguise dangerous contraband as trash for trustees to collect and deliver to high-risk inmates.

Yes, there’s a litany of very good reasons why every single inmate is strip-searched when entering any facility. Even seemingly innocuous items such as bobby pins, toothpicks, bubble gum, and ball-point pens (all of which are contraband) can pose a serious security and safety risk. I’ve seen nunchaku (lesser-educated people might spell it “num-chucks”) constructed of tightly rolled magazines, masking tape and less than one foot of bungee cord. I’ve seen inmates hollow out the soles of their shoes to sneak narcotics in with. Shredded sheets and t-shirts could be used to wrap the handles of carefully-sharpened pieces of glass and metal, making very impressive knives.

What I find humorous is the dissenting opinion – not surprisingly written by Justice Breyer and joined by Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor, four of the most embarrasingly liberal justices to hold seats in the Court. The very first thing Breyer does is cry about strip searches being an invasion of privacy; the next thing he does is prattle about what constitutes a reasonable search. The entire dissenting opinion completely ignores the fact that we’re talking about jail and prison inmates. These are people who have broken the law. When you go to jail, quite a few liberties are taken away. Jails routinely restrict inmate access to newspapers and news programming on TV to avoid bragging rights among inmates when their case hits the news. Inmates are required to wear jail uniforms, adhere to wake-up and lights-out calls, follow strict meal times and court schedules, and keep their cells clean. Breyer wails that strip searching is degrading to inmates; if that’s going to be your argument, the next thing you’ll hear is, “they can’t search our cells! That’s our private property!”

And, really, if this is going to be their argument, then they’re setting the stage for convicted violent felons to sue for the right to own firearms once they’re freed from prison. Hey, if there’s no reason to be suspicious, why would anyone have a right to tell them they can’t have a weapon? Background checks are degrading! I should never have to disclose to anyone that I’ve been incarcerated!

Bottom line, the safety of officers and other inmates is vastly more important than the comfort of someone who is in jail for a reason. Police and corrections officers are not there to determine the legitimacy of a warrant; those are issued by judges, and it is the courts that have to answer for mistakes on warrants. I feel for Florence because he shouldn’t have had a warrant out for his arrest, and yes, the county and courts should have been sued for their error. If the liberal four really want a reason why they’re wrong, they can talk to the families of corrections officers who have been killed in the line of duty by inmates who managed to obtain or make weapons despite these searches.

You know what the hilarious part about this is? The same liberals who would side with Florence have no problem at all with TSA agents groping us in airports. That is a regular laugh riot, I tell you.