The technological advances of the past 20 years make it instantly possible to know who is in our jail. We need only open our jail management software and start pointing and clicking away. We’ll get a neat, alphabetized list of everyone who is in our custody. If we delve further, we can view an inmate’s current charges, bond amount, housing location and a host of other information. All that being said, do we truly know who we have in custody at a given moment?
I’m reminded of a situation that took place when I was a young deputy sheriff working in a jail in South Florida. Officials from Puerto Rico paid us a visit one day to pick up an inmate who we had in custody awaiting extradition. The previous year, this same inmate had served eight months of a one-year sentence for a non-violent offense at our minimum-custody facility. The inmate was assigned as a motor pool “trusty.” Five days a week, for eight months, this inmate boarded a bus and rode, unrestrained, with 15 or 20 other inmates, to work in our agency’s motor pool. There he was supervised by the mechanics and other “non-sworn” staff as he performed minor repairs and oil changes to the agency’s fleet of patrol and specialty vehicles.
This inmate did his time without any problems, earned his “gain time” and was released without incident. Months later, he was arrested on an active National Crime Information Center (NCIC) “hit” out of Puerto Rico … for first-degree murder of a Puerto Rican police officer.
The murder had taken place before the inmate began his sentence at our facility. Due to a lengthy investigation and process to obtain the warrant, it wasn’t until after he was out of our custody that the NCIC warrant entry was made. Had we known about this situation, do you think we would’ve given this inmate free rein around police vehicles, deputies, tools, civilian staff members and minimum-custody housing? Of course not! But as the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Consider a more widely known and more glaring example: Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Just 90 minutes after the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, McVeigh was arrested and booked for having no tag on his vehicle and for carrying a concealed firearm. He was taken to the Noble County, Okla., Courthouse and Jail, which at the time housed a maximum of 19 inmates, where he remained on a $5,000 bond before federal authorities pieced together his involvement in the bombing. There is no way that the deputies who had him in custody knew (or could have known) that he was the most prolific domestic terrorist to date during his short stay at the jail.
We know the current criminal charges an inmate is facing. We know an inmate’s documented criminal history (in the U.S. at least). But have you ever given thought to how many crimes inmates may have committed that didn’t lead to arrest or conviction? The inmates themselves are certainly aware of what they’ve “gotten away with.” Other inmates probably know too. Our motor pool trusty certainly knew what he had done and what he was capable of—but we had no clue.
The point here is that we must be careful about assigning labels (such as trusty) to inmates. We must resist the temptation to let our guard down based upon someone’s custody level, job assignment or even their behavior while incarcerated. In my experience, many murderers and sex offenders are the best-behaved inmates. I’m not saying that everyone should be treated as a maximum-custody inmate, but we do need to have policies and practices in place to help us minimize these risks—e.g., requiring the use of restraints on all inmates during transports, or including sworn or certified staff in supervising inmate work details.
In corrections, we never truly know who gets booked into or who stays at our facilities. We must remain vigilant and do what we can to ensure that security, housing and classification issues are resolved in our favor.