Trending Topics

Inmate communications: An investigative resource

Inmate communications are too often underestimated and sometimes overlooked during an investigator’s quest for information

As investigators, we are always seeking vital criminal information in order to clear and successfully prosecute our cases. We have quite a few of investigative resources and tools at our disposal including informational databases, physical evidence, informants, mobile phones, as well as other electronic media to include computers, laptops/tablets, the ubiquitous social network, and more.

One investigative resource often underutilized as a source of good information, is our correctional system. I know many investigators who have had — and continue to have — great success tapping into this wellspring of information. Correctional facilities offer a few different resources for us to take advantage of. Inmate communications within a correctional facility is an area that offers a vast array of information worth exploring.

“Jail mail” is one form of inmate communication. Within this category, I include mail sent via the U.S. Postal service to and from an inmate as well as correspondence sent within the jail from inmate to inmate — also know as “a kite” or contraband letter. Written communications can be a great source of information. In several cases inmates used this as their preferable means of communication rather than talking on the telephone due to concerns that telephone calls were being recorded. Information including knowledge of a crime, presence at a crime scene, other people or locations that may be involved, weapons used or hidden, and confessions are examples of what can be obtained by examining inmate jail mail.

Make a Specific Request
The legal requirements of each jurisdiction will vary, but many places simply require a court order or subpoena to obtain copies of an inmate’s postal service mail. Access is usually granted for a specific but limited timeframe (30-60 days on average) but can be extended in some cases or re-applied for in others where additional time is needed and good cause is shown. Be sure to specify the inmate’s name, identification number, as well as the desired span of time and that you wish to examine both incoming and outgoing mail.

It may take the correctional facility a short time to respond to your request but once they comply, investigators should receive copies of all the inmate’s mail to review for case relevance.

With regard to inmate-to-inmate correspondence or “kites,” investigators will need to contact correctional staff directly. Some correctional facilities have specialized units, such as Intel or Gang Units that may be particularly willing to lend a hand in intercepting communications sent between inmates because they are also interested in the content. Often, correctional staff are able to “toss” an inmate’s cell — on the basis of probable cause — but without a search warrant or prior warning.

Check with your local jurisdiction to see if this is possible, if so it could reveal some interesting Intel for you to consider.

Inmate-to-inmate correspondences are sometimes discovered written in code. Therefore, don’t be quick to dismiss a seemingly benign note or letter from one inmate to another — it may contain a coded message. Other notes will be more obvious coded messages because they will be difficult to read. These types of notes usually require “a key” to decipher the code (although some inmates have it memorized). The “key” also might be discovered during a search of an inmate’s cell. Gang or jail codes can be challenging but think of it like any other investigation’s a puzzle that needs solving.

Pictures Are Worth...
Tattoos and graffiti are a more subtle — yet significant — source of inmate communication worth examination. Personal tattoos, depending on the number, can be helpful in learning a lot about an inmate. There are the tattoos we know to indicate gang affiliations and weapons of choice, but tattoos may also indicate inmate aliases, as well as names of family, friends, or associates. They may show areas where an inmate lives, lived, or frequents, as well as past crimes committed and/or prior incarcerations.

If the proper time is taken to scrutinize them, some of the more heavily tattooed inmate’s tattoos can tell quite a story. Most tattoos have a meaning to the person they are on and it is just a matter of determining what that is and whether it is meaningful to you and the case you are investigating.

Graffiti can provide investigators information similar to that gleaned from tattoos and like tattoos, graffiti usually has underlying meanings and requires some time and a discerning eye to understand them. Most graffiti contains scripts and symbols that are hard to figure out but if an investigator looks at it long enough or in sufficient quantity, he or she will be able to decipher and understand, perhaps not all, but a lot of it. If you have trouble, I would recommend consulting a correctional or gang investigator who is accustomed to interpreting graffiti. Some of the things we can learn from graffiti are gang affiliations, a “roll call” of gang members (usually street names only), gang territories, rivals and elements of a story.

This Call Is Being Recorded
Inmate’s telephone calls and visitations within many correctional institutions are recorded and for investigators this can be an evidentiary goldmine. Most facilities that record inmate’s calls or visitations play a preliminary recorded message informing the inmate that their call or visitation will be recorded.

One would think that this would eliminate any references to criminal acts, actions, knowledge, or involvement. Despite this very clear warning to the inmate, they still talk! I cannot begin to describe for you the amount of evidentiary information that has been obtained from this means of inmate communication. I suppose that this is a lot like the Miranda phenomenon, despite the warning, confessions are still regularly obtained.

Here are some circumstances that I have experienced from inmate phone calls or visitations: In several instances inmates get wrapped up in their conversations and forget the call or visitation is being recorded. In others, inmates who are scared try reaching out to anyone they can and in their haste while trying to seek help say something meaningful. It might be an inmate asking someone for an alibi to cover their tracks or hide potential evidence, it could be an “apologetic” confession to a parent, relative or boyfriend/girlfriend, it could be an argument between an inmate and someone else where the inmate says something valuable in the heat of the moment or it could be some disparaging remarks about the police investigation. Whatever their motivation and despite the given warnings, I assure you inmates talk and as an investigator, if you are not taking advantage of this investigative resource, you really should!

If you do not have direct access to your local detention facility (in some locals, investigators can gain access from their work computers) then your local correctional facility should be able to provide you a recording of the calls that are relevant to your case. The only downside of this investigative resource is time. Many of these calls need to be listened to in “real-time” so that nothing important is missed. The average length of a jail call or visitation is 30 minutes. Consider the inmate who while incarcerated does little else but talk on the phone — this can translate to quite a time commitment for an investigator.

Two other points are worth noting with regard to jail calls: First, in order to introduce the calls as evidence in court, you or your local prosecutor may need to have the calls certified by the correctional institution’s telephone service provider. Second, due to attorney/client privileges, investigators are not permitted to listen to or use any correspondence between an inmate and his or her attorney. Some correctional institution telephone service providers have the ability to program local attorneys telephone numbers into their phone system and blocked them to the extent that inmates can still speak with their attorneys but law enforcement will not have access to those calls when scanning or scrutinizing recordings.

Don’t Forget HUMINT
Just as important as what an inmate says is who an inmate is calling or who might be visiting. Like cell phone records, when examining the incoming and outgoing phone numbers associated with a particular inmate, jail and visitation calls as well as visitation logs can help investigators link other people and locations to the inmate or a particular crime.

Some correctional facilities have more elaborate phone systems than others. The size and sophistication of your local system will determine the extent of the information you can obtain and the speed in which you can access it. Obviously, not all correctional facilities have the ability or system in place to record inmate calls or visitations. Those who don’t should really consider the investigative and prosecutorial benefits.

One last resource worth mentioning is the correctional staff within your local detention facility — the human intelligence, or HUMINT — you can develop. Correctional staff are in the unique position to speak directly with inmates or “jailhouse informants” and/or overhear and intercept a variety of inmate communications. As good investigators, we should always be looking to establish those relationships that have the potential to provide good case information. Getting to know the correctional staff in your jurisdiction is another great way to generate or obtain investigative leads.

Inmate communications are too often underestimated and sometimes overlooked during an investigator’s quest for information. I encourage all investigators to make this invaluable resource a regular part of their investigative repertoire.

I wish you all a safe and successful 2012.

Detective Morris Greenberg serves as a proud member of the Baltimore County Police in Baltimore, Maryland. Most of his career has been spent conducting criminal investigation in specialized units including Robbery, Violent Crimes and Homicide. He has also served on the department’s Hostage Negotiation Team. Detective Greenberg possesses a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University, Division of Public Safety Leadership and teaches within the Criminal Justice Programs at two local colleges.

Contact Moe Greenberg.