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Correctional Criminal Investigators.

The New Cops on the Beat

To the public, when criminals get convicted and sentenced to prison, it means that society no longer has to worry about them. Unfortunately, this rarely proves true. As the big steel door slams shut behind them, many offenders merely graduate to a higher level in their criminal educations. In fact, today's new breed of criminal is more motivated, better organized, more dedicated to crime, and less fearful of punishment than ever before. Some of the offender's sophistication comes from the influx of organized gang activity within the prisons.

Correctional facilities traditionally have managed their own operations successfully. At the same time, they have depended frequently on outside police agencies to investigate felony crimes committed by their inmates. Yet, this arrangement can create problems for the prison and cause frustration for outside investigators for a number of reasons.

First, incarcerated offenders generate a huge number of cases. For example, in 1998, Colorado had about 13,000 inmates and recorded more than 14,000 violations. These violations ranged from minor infractions to murder. No outside agency would have the time or the resources to investigate all of these prison crimes.

In addition to the volume of crimes that occur, the prison's unique environment limits the ability of outside agencies to conduct successful investigations. Only correctional officers understand the physical layout and daily operations of the prison. Perhaps more important, the prison contains a subculture of hardened criminals that bears only a slight resemblance to what exists on the street. Even the most seasoned investigator would find it difficult to investigate a crime with uncooperative victims, witnesses, and, of course, perpetrators. On the street, people who witness crimes usually report them to the police, whereas in prison, inmates rarely report crimes. A code of silence, punishable by death if violated, keeps most inmates from talking to the police.

Additionally, outside the prison, witnesses usually give an account of an incident based on their honest perception of the event. Inmates, on the other hand, go to great lengths to make sure they serve their own best interests. Suspects and witnesses may even stage crime scenes. Even the most cooperative inmates will not give a complete account of what they have seen. They may answer direct questions but will not offer any additional information unless investigators specifically request it. Indeed, prison fosters an "us against them" society, where failure to cooperate remains the rule of the day.

Finally, experienced investigators know that intelligence gathering plays an essential role in solving, and possibly preventing, crimes. Thus, investigators who work in the prison full time stand in the best position to gather the information they need to combat prison crime.


Prior to 1983, the Colorado Department of Corrections, like most prison systems, employed outside law enforcement officers to investigate felony crimes. Because the approach generated few prosecutions, the department abandoned it. Next, the department tried using corrections employees with law enforcement experience to investigate some crimes within the prison. This approach, although surpassing past efforts, fell short of expectations. A lack of support from local law enforcement agencies and the district attorney's office presented a significant obstacle to the department's efforts.

To gain support from the criminal justice community, department investigators increased their contact with outside agencies. During these contacts, they shared valuable intelligence information. By demonstrating that they possessed considerable information that could benefit law enforcement officers outside the prison and clearing a large number of criminal cases, the investigative division began to earn credibility with local law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

In the early 1990s, officials from the Colorado Department of Corrections and the local district attorney's office approached legislators with a proposal to make correctional investigators certified peace officers, with the duty and authority to investigate all crimes associated with the prison system. Given this authority, and coupled with the dedication and experience of its investigators, the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) came into its own.

A New Cop on the Beat

CID has 34 employees, including 25 criminal investigators. CID investigators have extensive law enforcement backgrounds and hold certifications from the state's Peace Officers Standards and Training Board. In addition to detecting and prosecuting all felony crimes associated with the Department of Corrections, the unit also conducts background checks of new employees, manages the drug deterrence program, handles internal affairs cases, and investigates inmate and civilian complaints. Of all of the cases CID investigators handle, drugs represent the largest percentage.

Combating Drugs

Drug cases constitute about 70 percent of the CID investigator's case load, as literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal drugs flow into Colorado prisons weekly. Inside the prison, the street value of drugs increases tenfold. Accordingly, drugs satisfy the inmates' needs for power and money. Drugs also create a dangerous climate in the prison. Inmates on drugs pose a danger to themselves and others; drug debt collections generate serious assaults and homicides.

A number of law enforcement agencies have been working with CD in a concentrated effort to curb drug trafficking. In recent years, the DEA has solicited intelligence from CID and assisted with several complex drug investigations.

The CID K-9 unit also actively participates in drug interdiction programs. Canine crime fighters detect drugs inside the prison, at outside work crew sites, and in visitors' vehicles. The unit also works in concert with local prosecutors from the district attorney's office in drug deterrence programs within the prison. In recent years, several state and federal agencies have called upon the CID K-9 unit to assist in some very high profile cases. In addition to their work in drug cases, the unit's dogs track escaped prisoners and often help find missing persons in the community.

Monitoring Gangs

The Colorado Department of Corrections employs gang coordinators at each of its prisons to monitor the activities of gang members. The gang coordinators share intelligence with outside law enforcement agencies and maintain the Security Threat Intelligence Network Group, a regional database of gang information. CID generally becomes involved when the gangsters commit crimes, which usually revolve around drugs. The Department of Corrections' proactive approach to gangs has forced much of their activity underground. Any actions that surface, such as recruiting new members, subject inmates to administrative sanctions and, most likely, a transfer to a more secure facility.

Solving Other Cases

CID investigates a wide variety of crimes that occur both inside and outside the prison. These crimes include assault, sexual assault, felony theft, fraud, bribery, escape, bank robbery, and murder for hire. In the last 5 years alone, CID has investigated more than 20 cases in which inmates have hired undercover CID investigators to commit: first-degree murder. In September 1998, three separate cases came from one prison cell block. The successful resolution of these cases spared the lives of two judges, three district attorneys and two civilians. while resulting in three successful prosecutions with two other offenders awaiting trial.


Since its inception, CID has successfully resolved several hundred cases every year. In 1997, the unit's case load included 292 felony investigations and 133 internal affairs cases. The remaining 1,361 cases comprised 345 intelligence cases (a case initiated based on information received front some source), 295 agency assists (e.g., provide intelligence, help with a raid), 83 K-9 actions, and 638 complaint reports. In 1998, 1,460 investigations covered 240 felony and 177 internal affairs investigations. One hundred seventy-four intelligence cases, 328 agency assists, 37 K-9 actions, and 504 complaint reports made up the remaining 1,043 cases. In 1999, the unit handled 1556 cases--306 felonies, 188 internal affairs investigations, 232 intelligence cases; 303 agency assists, 27 K-9 actions, and 500 complaint reports.

The cases CID resolves represent more than mere numbers. While no real deterrent exists for inmates, prisoners in Colorado now must pay a punishment for the crimes they commit while incarcerated. As a result, a safer prison environment exists. Moreover, the improved relationship between outside law enforcement agencies and the Department of Corrections has enhanced the crime fighting efforts within the prisons and in the communities these public safety officials all serve.


Many people do not realize that prison inmates often belong to very complex crime organizations that spread throughout the country. Their crimes may initiate inside the prison, but they reach out into the community. The Colorado: Department of Corrections has recognized the need to better protect society by holding its inmates responsible for the crimes they commit in prison. As a result, a new cop has emerged on the beat. These seasoned investigators remain dedicated to protecting and serving the public by keeping convicted felons in check.

While the Colorado Department of Corrections Criminal Investigation Division is a relatively new addition to the law enforcement community, it has a great deal to offer any agency seeking intelligence and assistance in monitoring career criminals. This approach to law enforcement may well serve as a resource for other states to espouse.

Mr. Bell serves as a criminal investigator for the Colorado Department of Corrections in Canon City.
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Article Details
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Author:Bell, William R.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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