I grew up in Texas and worked law enforcement there for a decade, considering myself pretty fluent in ‘cop Spanish’. When our youngest was seven, a Sunday school teacher once asked the class if anyone knew some Spanish words. My son raised his hand and said “Suelta la navaja o disparo—drop the knife or I’ll shoot.” Not sure if I made many points as a parent that day.
Anyway, I didn’t learn the esposas thing until I was on special assignment to the border area around McAllen, Texas. We were broken into teams of two or three, and then given a tall stack of warrants along with the admonition to go put as many of these fugitives in jail as we could over a ten week period. It was Deputy Marshal Heaven. During this trip, I was assigned to help with the extradition of a prisoner from the US back to Mexico. He’d already been convicted in his home country of murdering a prostitute by tying her to a bed and tracing the outline of her body with machinegun fire, shooting off bits of her as he went (a scene I re-imagined in a later book.) He was also wanted for the murder of a Mexican Federale. My team was to walk the prisoner across the Rio Grande on the pedestrian portion of the bridge near Roma, Texas. We’d meet Mexican authorities halfway over the river for the handoff while each of us stayed on our own side of the border. The Mexican consul asked if they could borrow the “esposas por las piernas.” Turns out he meant leg irons, not wives for the legs, as I first thought. He promised he’d return them the next day after they got their guy to prison. He returned them, but the locking mechanism was filled with dried blood, making us wonder if the prisoner even made it around the corner once he was across the border…
|Border Crossing at Roma|
Deputy marshals arrest more fugitives each year than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. We’re pretty good at slapping on the esposas. For long trips our policy mandates what some affectionately call a three-piece-suit—handcuffs, waist chain, and leg irons. There’s a display in front of the marshals office in Alaska with an old ball and chain (which, I should point out, are not called esposas), several types of handcuffs, some leather ‘mitts’ that strapped the prisoners’ hands to a belt, a leg brace to keep the prisoner from bending their leg and thus running away, and a few other restraints that lawmen used to use to transport prisoners to jail. Now, we have the three piece suit, a ‘black box’ that covers the key holes for higher level escape risks, plastic Flex Cuffs, electronic stun-belts, and hoods for spitters—though a pair of pantyhose works just as well with the added benefit of the little nylon leg ‘ears’ drawing the ridicule of other prisoners on the one who has chosen to spit on us.
When we first meet Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, he’s unloading his prison wagon in Ft Smith. I think one of the reasons deputy marshals like this show so much is that we see Cogburn, not only going after outlaws, but demonstrating two of our other duties in the Marshals—serving papers—“you can’t serve papers on a rat, baby sister” and transporting prisoners.
There is something supremely sad about a person who has lost their freedom. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no bleeding heart. I was glad to put outlaws in jail. But even after nearly thirty years, I still got a little chill when the jail door slid shut behind me and didn’t quite draw a full breath until I was back outside.
I already touched on having to spend a few weeks working at the jail when I was a rookie police officer. I hated it, but it taught me a great deal about human behavior. There is something about that odor of confinement—Lysol, urine and despair. To me, old bread smells like the inside of jail. I’ve picked up so many inmate lunches from jail kitchens that the smell of a bologna sandwich still makes me think of long van trips with a load of chained prisoners.
|old US Marshals cells in Ketchikan, AK|
Not all jail food is bad. Ardmore, Oklahoma served some of the best beans and cornbread I have ever eaten. In the early nineties, I spent nearly two weeks in the Lamar County jail in Purvis, Mississippi, guarding three ‘lifers’ who were witnesses in a Dixie Mafia trial in Hattiesburg. Back then the jail had no sworn officer on duty at night, with responsibility turned over to a “Key Man”. I gained several pounds during that assignment because the lady down the street, who did all the cooking, made us platters of good old Southern fried food every night. We played cards with the trustees, had pushup contests, and listened to stories—that I have since borrowed in some of my books. I remember one of the prisoners we were guarding told how he’d gotten into a bloody fight in Angola State Prison over a certain library book that a couple of other inmates wanted. Ah, the power of books.
In Adventure novels, it’s rare that the protagonist simply goes out to assassinate the fugitive—though I’ll admit this happens a little more frequently in my Thrillers that it did in my Westerns. Usually, the bad guy pushes the good guy’s hand, forcing some higher level of violence. Often, it’s an increased anxiety about going to prison that forces a showdown.
There is a paradigm that every deputy marshal is shown early in their training. Think of the mindset of the two parties during an arrest. The deputy (or officer, or sheriff, etc.) is at the highest level of anxiety leading up to the actual contact. The arrestee’s anxiety level might be extremely high at the time of arrest, but it goes up even further the closer he or she gets to the prison gates while the deputies' level of apprehension goes down. This is a dangerous time, and I’d bet it was doubly dangerous back in the day when lawmen were transporting on horseback and in prisoner wagon.
Years ago, my partner and I arrested a man on a federal parole violation of some white-collar crimes. He was a successful real estate salesman who’d done something to violate—I think maybe a DUI— triggering us to show up at his door at zero dark thirty and cart him off to prison. Federal parole has been abolished, but there were still a few like this guy who were on parole at the time of the new law and were grandfathered in. A parole violator went straight back to prison without a court hearing. Do not pass go. Do not collet two hundred bucks. This guy was kind of heavy set and a plodding Baby Huey type. He answered the door in his robe and seemed resigned to the fact that we were going to come for him sooner or later. He is, in fact one of two people I ever arrested who I allowed to give their family a goodbye hug. Such a thing is generally just asking for trouble—but that’s a subject of another essay.
The prisoner was talkative and seemed to be a genuinely nice guy so we bought him breakfast at McDonalds and had ourselves a good chat on the two-hour drive to the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville. About fifteen minutes from the gate, I glanced in the rearview mirror and noticed our ‘nice’ prisoner was beginning to look like a deviled toad. His eyes had gone dark and his countenance was seething and angry. I asked him if he was okay. He answered me in short gasps, as if he was holding his breath. “I’ve gotten soft since I’ve been out,” he said. “Have to put back on my prison face if I want to survive.”
In basic training to be deputy marshals, we handcuff each other and spend time behind bars role-playing as prisoners. Not sure if they still do it, but when I went through, we also strip-searched each other—not so much, I think, to teach us about searching—but to demonstrate how intrusive such an act is and how the prisoner being searched feels at that moment. A little empathy is never a bad thing in a lawdog—and as a writer, its imperative.
Lack of freedom—whether its being handcuffed, searched, or imprisoned— changes people. If you’re writing about an outlaw on the run or someone whose wrongly imprisoned, confinement has consequences and those consequences inform the character.
Prisoners and their behavior is fascinating stuff. I'm sure I’ll write a little more on this in the future, but for now, I need to take mi esposa to dinner.
Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He's published ten novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).
TIME OF ATTACK fourth in his USA Today Bestselling Jericho Quinn Thriller series, is the newest release from Kensington February of 2014.
Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
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