Tour of jail shakedown
Finding weapons at Lee County jail
Six correction officers tear apart mattresses, dig through drawers, turn over tables, fish through hollowed-out table legs and scour shower partitions. Not even toilet paper rolls are safe from suspicion.
They are searching for contraband. They do this every day.
It's about 10 a.m. in mid-December at the Lee County Sheriff's Office's Ortiz Detention Facility, a medium-to-maximum security jail, one of three jails in the county. The shakedown division of the Correction Emergency Response Team (CERT) is searching one of the 50 housing areas in the jail system.
No one knows when they will strike. But when they do, no item is safe, no crevasse too secret.
The Daily News tagged along on a search of a women's direct supervision area.
"We show up on surprise. None of the shift supervisors know where we're going to hit on that particular day," said Sgt. G. DaRoss, shakedown team supervisor. "We like to make fast entries, catch the inmates a little off guard, so they don't have time to flush things or throw things in the garbage or hide them in certain areas."
Officers spend nearly three hours uncertain about what exactly they're searching for. But they know what inmates aren't permitted to have.
Previous searches yielded spoons and toothbrushes filed into shanks — homemade knives — threads woven into Voodoo dolls, faces of Jesus carved into soap, picture frames crafted from silver potato chip bags.
"Anything that's issued to them or if they have in the block that is changed from its original state is a contraband," Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. David Velez, a former jail employee, said while pointing to a pair of infant shoes made with Origami-like skill out of playing cards. "I mean, this could cause a huge fight inside a block only because somebody else might want that."
When DaRoss decides where his team will search, officers shuffle the inmates into a recreation room — a large, empty concrete space with narrow chain-linked windows. There, they sit on the cold floor, walk around, talk — just passing time.
The team systematically moves from the left of the housing area to the right, neatly organizing all items by inmate number. They mark that number on all items and photograph them.
The 64-bed housing unit smells like cleaning products — a source of pride for jail officials. The floors are concrete and the white walls are cinder blocks; ideal material for sharpening objects to create weapons, DaRoss said.
Fluorescent lighting casts eerie shadows from the metal bunk beds set up in a zigzag pattern. Metal drawers under the bottom bunk are the only places for storage. Black stone showers divide the space. Notes, books and clothing are sprinkled about.
That's because the officers are rummaging through the inmates' belongings.
"When you're in here, it's not like the outside where there needs to be probable cause for everything," DaRoss said. "Everybody is subject to search at anytime. The inmates in here don't have the kind of rights they would if they were citizens out on the street."
As the officers organize the belongings, they sort them into approved and unapproved categories, as determined by the inmate's code of conduct.
Officers take away dangerous items, like broken eyeglasses, which the inmates get back when they leave. They seal contraband in containers, which they place in black garbage bags and discard in a trash bin.
After the search, the inmates return to reorganize and clean their housing facility.
Doing time means there is plenty of time to be creative. As inmates discover clever ways to make weapons, officers respond by changing the items they provide, DaRoss said.
When inmates bought toothbrushes at the commissary and whittled them into shanks, officers began providing them with rubber toothbrushes that fit on an index finger. Rather than standard hard plastic pens, inmates now get small, childlike, pliable ones.
Despite scouring the direct supervision area during the search, officers didn't find any weapons. However, a day earlier officers uncovered a club fashioned out of pages ripped from library books wrapped in a sheet at the main jail in downtown Fort Myers.
"Male inmates tend to make more weapons," DaRoss said."Female inmates tend to accumulate more things ... have more paper, more love notes, more letters, more books. They're accumulators whereas men are more malicious."
The job is intensive and tedious, DaRoss said, and requires a certain type of person.
"It takes someone who likes a challenge. It's like, you don't want them to outsmart you. Like if I were an inmate, where would I hide things?" DaRoss said. "It's almost like an Easter egg hunt. Where are they going to hide things next?"