Prison crime scene preservation: Is your team prepared?

A prison is like a small city, and its crime scenes should be treated the same as though they were happening out on the street; this will make investigations easier to conduct and complete

We, as correctional officers, are a very important part of the criminal justice system.  We are the eyes and the ears, the “law enforcement,” if you will, of our prisons and jails.

As professionals, we must maintain a high standard of training in all areas of corrections and law enforcement.

In this article, I discuss the importance of being properly trained to respond to in‑custody death incidents in an expeditious and methodical manner. 

Photo Tom Kirsch/

Bloody Saturday
Several inmates were in the dayroom of “H Dorm” watching television on a Saturday morning. Inmate Calderon sat quietly with a stone face, watching a cartoon showing no emotion whatsoever. Inmate Chapiton began mocking Calderon and making jokes about him in a teasing manner. Caldron stood up and quietly walked back to his cell and retrieved a “shank” he had hidden in the ceiling vent. Calderon concealed the weapon under his winter issued long sleeve shirt and walked back to the dayroom. Calderon then stood behind Chapiton and grabbed him around his head with his left arm and drove the shank into the right side of Chapiton’s abdomen, quickly pulling it out again.

The wounded Chapiton attempted to escape further injury by running down the hallway, but ending up having to hold onto the wall, leaving a trail of blood on the floor and wall. Calderon followed Chapiton and stabbed him again, this time in the lower back area. Chapiton managed to make it to the dorm officer yelling, “Auxilio, auxilio!” (“Help me, help me!”) Chapiton then ran outside the dormitory and fell dead, face first into the dirt. Inmate Calderon buried the shank in the sand near the dorm and returned to his cell. Calderon placed his headphones in his ears and listened to music until officers arrived to apprehend him.

An in-custody death has just taken place in less than a minute.  A calm Saturday morning has now turned into a frenzied emergency requiring many hours of work. A very large area inside and outside of “H Dorm” is now a major crime scene.  

Our prisons and jails are small cities that involve many of the same crimes as we see on the streets. Correctional officers must know what to do in this type of situation. A prison crime scene is just as important as a crime scene on the street.

What You Should Do
The crime scene must be secured properly; the suspect must be located and isolated from everyone as quickly as possible; and the chain of command and proper liaisons must be notified immediately.

Here’s a breakdown of the response that should happen in an event like this:

The “H Dorm” officer called for back-up and notified her supervisor via radio of the critical incident occurring in her dorm and requested medical assistance. Officers arrived on the scene responding to their fellow officer’s call. The dorm officer briefed responding officers with information regarding the incident. A complete lockdown of all inmates was initiated by the captain in charge. All non-essential persons were evacuated from the area.

A physical barrier was quickly erected around the entire crime scene from the day room to outside of the dorm and around the entire dormitory building. An officer was quickly assigned to begin a written log listing all parties entering and exiting the crime scene. All medical staff and officers were advised by the incident commander, (in this case the shift captain) not to move the body or any items within the crime scene.

A search for the suspect inmate did not take long. Inmate Calderon was found lying in his cell bunk with headphones in his ears listening to music. Officers handcuffed inmate Calderon behind his back and took him directly to the medical department. All of his clothing was removed and photographed. Each item of clothing was separately placed into a brown paper evidence bag. Each bag was marked with time, date, and location and sealed with red evidence tape.

Photographs of Inmate Calderon’s bare body were taken from head to toe from several angles. He was not allowed to shower and was given a paper gown to wear until the prison inspector arrived.

Officers with Geiger counters searched the outside area for the weapon used to kill inmate Chapiton. The diligent efforts of the correctional staff paid off and the weapon was located, buried under the sugar sand under the hedges next to the dorm. The blood stained weapon was photographed in its resting spot, picked up with needle nosed pliers, photographed once more and then placed into a brown paper evidence bag, marked with time, date and location.

The bag was then sealed with red evidence tape and the officer who recovered the weapon marked his initials over the red tape and evidence bag. An evidence chain of custody was now established. The captain had also assigned one officer to video tape the entire crime scene and all events taking place. While all of these critical steps were simultaneously being conducted the prison medical doctor pronounced inmate Chapiton dead.

The medical examiner’s office was on the way to pick up the body and the prison inspector and state attorney investigator were in route. When the prison inspector arrived on the scene he was very pleased to learn that the suspect was located and removed to a location away from everyone and the weapon was located and preserved.

The inspector’s job would now be much easier due to the officers responding in an expeditious and methodical manner.

The above scenario is based on a true incident in a Florida prison. The correctional staff in this case did an excellent job preserving the crime scene and preserving the evidence. No damage was done to the crime scene and no one was allowed to eat, smoke or chew tobacco in the crime scene area. The prison inspector was briefed properly upon his arrival.  The captain and his shift worked like a well-oiled machine, a sign of good leadership and good training. The great police work conducted by the correctional officers in this incident resulted in the successful prosecution of Inmate Caldron.

What You Shouldn’t Do
Inmate Jones gave no signs to anyone that he had ever contemplated committing suicide; at least none that anyone had observed. When Inmate Jones’ cellmate went out to the recreation yard on Sunday afternoon, Jones stayed back in their cell and used a blade from his shaving razor to cut both his wrists.

He then took the bed sheet he had previously tied into knots and proceeded to tie one end of the sheet around his neck and the other end to the bed rail at the top of his bunk, and then stepped off the top bunk. When officers found Jones, they started CPR and called 911. The officers deployed a defibrillator and made lifesaving efforts, but unfortunately Jones had already expired.

Jones’ body was moved to the infirmary and inmate orderlies were instructed to clean the bloody cell with bleach water. The soiled and bloodied bed sheets had been thrown into a hazardous waste bag and put aside for disposal. The razor blade was thrown away during the cell clean-up.

In this day and age, the above scenario may seem incomprehensible to most, but I have responded to prison crime scenes only to discover that staff had contaminated and disturbed the crime scene before it was properly processed.

In the Jones case, we realize that staff did not intentionally try to conceal any wrongdoing. They did however disrupt and contaminate the crime scene. Lack of proper training was obvious. In cases such as this, the prison will be scrutinized closely.  Also resultant will be the high probability that members of the deceased inmate’s family will accuse the officers of trying to cover up mistakes. The media will more than likely publish the fact that the crime scene was destroyed. This is definitely a situation all prison managers want to avoid.

Here are some actual media headlines from events that we, as correctional officers, need to prevent from reoccurring:

As is evident from the news stories above, in order to prevent mistakes and the negative media reporting that goes along with them, we must implement crime scene preservation training into our training curriculum. It is proven time and again that training and implementing proper procedure works.

During my tenure at the Inspector General’s office, a crime scene preservation training video was developed. A local prison and their correctional staff was used and several staged prison crime scenes had been set up to be videotaped as the crime areas were being sealed off with barriers and as the evidence was preserved. Auditory instruction was given throughout the video.

Regional inspector supervisors reviewed the footage to ensure the training video met the expected requirements. A copy of the videotape was sent to each of the 54 prisons in our state. Each prison was then asked to show the one-hour training video to all officers. Most notably, after this training was given we did see an improvement in crime scene preservation throughout the state.

There will be occasions in which correctional officers will be called upon to testify concerning the prison crimes we have witnessed and our role regarding the manner in which crime scene preservation was carried out or how the recovery of evidence was handled. We must have crime scene and physical evidence awareness.

At any given moment, on any given day – and when you least expect it -- you and your staff will face an incident with an in-custody death. Is your team prepared?

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