Friday, February 24, 2006

Lie Detector Lies

Major and minor rule infractions in the penitentiary setting are handled through the Disciplinary Process. Inmates are guaranteed what the courts have termed “limited” due process rights. Those rights include the right to confront their accusers, the right to call and examine witnesses, and the right for the case to be heard in front of an Adjustment Committee (commonly referred to as “Court Call”) comprised of staff not involved with the incident. One of the main limitations of an inmate’s due process rights involves the standard of proof required for a conviction. The standard of proof in a criminal case on the streets is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The standard of proof in most civil cases is “a preponderance of the evidence.” The standard of proof in a corrections disciplinary hearing is only “some evidence.” Some evidence is not a high standard to meet. For example, I can issue a disciplinary report, or “write-up”, against an inmate for threatening me. The inmate shows up at Court Call with three other inmates who swear they were with the first inmate and testify he never threatened me at all. My write-up and my testimony still constitute “some evidence,” and the inmate in most cases would be found guilty.

Any staff member who observes or is made aware of an inmate’s rule violations can issue a write-up. After the Disciplinary Report is filed, the Shift Captain has two hours to review the report. The Shift Captain’s review is to determine if any immediate action needs to be taken and to insure all pertinent information is contained in the report. The Shift Captain then forwards the write-up to the supervisor in charge of investigations. All write-ups must be investigated within 24 hours of the Shift Captain’s review.

In the investigation stage, the investigator interviews the inmate, the inmate pleads guilty or not guilty, the inmate lists any witnesses he would like to call, the inmate picks a Legal Aide to represent him if desired, and a date for Court Call is set. The investigator may also interview any staff members involved. I’ve given you all this background to tell you a little story.

I was working investigations one day. I picked up the stack of Disciplinary Reports that had been written in the last 24 hours and set about calling each inmate to the yard office to interview them. I was near the bottom of the stack of reports when I came across one written by Sgt. Hagar, the internal affairs officer. Sgt. Hagar was an old hand. He was disliked by the inmates and not trusted by other staff members. This was primarily due to the fact that he was good at his job. He had a network of informants that kept him apprised of the major happenings at Probity. He was an expert at sifting through this confidential information and he took great pains to protect his informants. The write-up stated that inmate kitchen worker Carl Ray had stolen a fifty pound bag of sugar from the kitchen. The report didn’t say that Sgt. Hagar witnessed the theft, but it did say that inmate Ray had confessed. This aroused my curiosity because most inmates would never confess if the Warden himself caught them with the bag of sugar on their shoulder.

I called Carl Ray to the yard office. I read him the write-up and asked him if he agreed with it. He said, “I wouldn’t have admitted to stealing the sugar if it hadn’t been for that new Lie Detector Hagar had.”

I was confused. I knew that we didn’t have a polygraph machine. We transported inmates to a different facility when a polygraph needed to be administered. Plus, there was no polygraph report attached to the write-up. I didn’t want the inmate to know all of this so all I said was, “I see. So you do admit that you stole fifty pounds of sugar from the kitchen?”

Ray said, “Yeah, there ain’t no sense denying it now.” I got the rest of the information I needed from him, set the date for his Court Call appearance and went to find Sgt. Hagar.

I found him in the Internal Affairs office drinking coffee and reading inmates’ mail. I said, “Hagar, tell me about this new lie detector machine we have.”

Hagar choked on his coffee and started laughing. He said, “You’ll get a kick out of this.” Then he told me what happened.

Hagar had obtained information through one of his informants that inmate Ray had stolen the sugar to make up a big batch of “hootch.” Hagar didn’t have any corroborating evidence to go along with his confidential source. Since nobody witnessed the theft and Hagar couldn’t reveal the identity of his informant, inmate Ray was going to get away with the theft unless Hagar could get him to confess.

Sgt. Hagar went to “F” block where Ray was housed. First Hagar conducted a cursory search of Ray’s cell. Then he went to the “F” block office and had Ray paged from the yard. Hagar questioned Ray for about a half hour. Hagar tried to bluff him with bogus witnesses, lies, and half-truths. Ray was steadfast in his denials.

Hagar was about to give up when he noticed the institutional environmentalist, Lt. Bradley, making rounds. Lt. Bradley was in charge of checking and documenting the living conditions in all the cells in the institution. Lt. Bradley had to check cell temperatures, air flow, and available light because there are certain standards that living quarters must meet. In order to make these checks, Lt. Bradley carried several pieces of equipment with him.

When Sgt. Hagar saw Bradley, he got an idea. Hagar said, “Bradley, I’m in here.” Bradley stopped at the door looking a little puzzled but he kept quiet. Hagar asked him, “Did you bring that piece of equipment from the control center for me?” Hagar reached out his hand toward Bradley.

Bradley replied, “Yeah, sure. Here it is, Sarge.” Bradley handed Hagar what was in his hand at that moment which turned out to be an infrared digital thermometer. The thermometer looked like a space-age ray gun. It shot an infrared beam like one of those annoying laser pointers and recorded the temperature of whatever surface the beam touched on its digital display.

Hagar took the high tech thermometer and fiddled with some of the dials. “Let’s get this thing calibrated,” Hagar said to no one in particular but totally for Carl Ray’s benefit. He pointed it at Ray and triggered the beam so that it landed on Ray’s forehead. “Now, for the record, state your name.”

“Carl Ray.” Hagar nodded and flipped a switch and tweaked one of the dials.

“What is your number?”


Hagar made another adjustment to one of the dials. “Now I think we’re ready to get to the truth.” He looked up at Bradley for confirmation. Bradley nodded in agreement but didn’t say anything; probably afraid he would laugh.

Hagar turned back to Ray and began asking him about the sugar again. Carl Ray still denied any knowledge of the sugar at first, but his calm demeanor was gone and he was beginning to sweat. Hagar said, “I’d like to believe you Carl but this thing says you’re lying. Let’s try again.”

Hagar began the “calibration” process over again then resumed questioning Ray about the sugar. After a couple more rounds of questioning, Ray confessed to the theft and told where he had hidden the sugar.

At Court Call, Ray was found guilty based on the “some evidence” of his own confession and sentenced to thirty days in the hole. Ray was never told that he was outwitted by a clever officer and a fancy thermometer which dutifully displayed “98.6” when pointed at his forehead.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Phone Check

Sixteen two-man bunks lined three of the four walls in the cell at the county jail everyone called the bullpen. On the other wall are two stainless steel toilets, two steel sinks, and a shower in the corner. Everything is out in the open. There is no privacy in jail, even when nature calls. That is why, although he was beginning his third day in the bullpen, Brian Hunter had not yet taken a dump. But that is near the bottom of his list of concerns right now.

On a worn blue rubber mat located near the toilets is a weight bench with some free weights. Well they call them free weights but none of the weights is really free. There is a straight bar for bench presses, a curl bar, and two dumbbells, all with the weights welded to the bars. Posted on the wall above the toilets, a large sign with bold letters warns inmates not to remove the weights from the blue mat area. Along the same wall in the opposite corner from the shower is the community television. Below that and to the left is a phone. Above the phone is a small indicator light that when illuminated, signals that the phone service has been turned on for another day. The only other accoutrements in the cell are two heavily scarred wooden picnic tables placed end to end and taking up most of the remaining space. That small light above the phone is the focus of Brian’s attention this morning.

When the bullpen is at its design capacity of 32 men it is crowded. Today it houses 53 inmates, 34 of whom are black and the remaining 19 are white. The 32 beds are claimed on a seniority basis but only for those inmates who are strong enough to stake a claim. The rest are issued a mattress, sheet, blanket and pillow. Along with the beds, the best floor space is already claimed. Being the last person to be placed in the cell, the only floor space left for Brian is between the weight lifting area and one of the toilets. It’s the jail equivalent to the table in the back by the kitchen and the bathroom at a fine restaurant, but it suits Brian’s purposes this morning because he is nearest to the phone. After two days of being ignored, intimidated, and bullied whenever it was his turn, Brian was determined to get to the phone first. Brian needed the phone because he needed money; money to buy snacks to supplement the meager meals the jail served; money to buy cigarettes, the jail house currency; money to buy protection if the need arose.

Brian never considered himself to be prejudiced. He was an equal opportunity drug dealer. He didn’t care if a person was white, black, or purple. The only color he cared about was green. As long as their money was green Brian would sell anybody any drug they wanted. In fact it was his undiscriminating ways which landed him in jail. The undercover Drug Task Force Agent’s money was green, but his badge was bright shiny silver when he flashed it after Brian sold him an 8-ball of his finest coke. But after two days in jail with the blacks monopolizing both the television and the phone every minute of the day, Brian was starting to get a feel for racial hatred.

There was almost a riot yesterday when Brian, seeing that nobody was paying attention to the TV, turned the channel. He found out that was a no-no when he was immediately surrounded by black inmates who pushed him into the corner and explained to him the ways of the world. The same thing happened with the phone. Brian waited to use the phone but one black inmate handed it off to another black inmate all day long. Brian finally spoke up for himself and said, “Hey, I’ve been waiting for the phone all day.”

“You never said, ‘Phone check,’” a black inmate informed him.

“Phone check? What the hell is phone check?”

“Phone check means you want the phone next.” Then black inmates all around the room almost in unison said, “Phone check," insuring that Brian wasn't going to get to use the phone that day.

This morning was going to be different. The light went on and Brian grabbed the phone. While he is still dialing his girlfriend’s number, three black inmates walk toward the phone. One of them says, “Phone check.” While Brian was waiting for the operator to connect the collect call another inmate says, “Phone check!” Now there is a bigger crowd around him, all of them intermittently calling out, “Phone check!” And Brian’s girlfriend is not answering the phone. He breaks the connection and starts to dial his mom.

“Hey, you get one call. I’m next. Get away from the phone.”

Brian tries to reason with them. “Nobody answered. I’m trying someone else. I won’t be long.” Reason doesn’t work in the bullpen.

One says, “I said get off the fucking phone!” Then in unison, those that surrounded Brian began chanting, “Phone check! Phone check!” The chanting crescendos until Brian cannot hear what is being said on the phone.

Brian drops the receiver and leaves it dangling. He walks around the crowd who begin to disburse. Brian picks up the curl bar with 80 lbs. of free weights attached, and with a primal scream charges the phone and spears it straight through the heart. “There’s your phone check! And here’s your fucking TV.” He swings the weight bar through the picture tube of the TV and it explodes, smoke filling the air. He throws the curl bar, sending it bouncing across the floor.

The noise brings the guards and Brian is taken away and locked up in a solitary cell. He has his own bed. He doesn’t have to fight for his meals. He gets to make one 10 minute phone call a day and he gets to take a crap in private. Brian plans to get a “White Power” tattoo at his first opportunity.