Tactical Review: Prisoner Retention Techniques

By Lt. Paul Patti (ret.)  |   Nov 8, 2020

The everyday experience of cuffing and transporting prisoners can make that often-repeated exercise susceptible to tactical complacency, which can increase the risk of prisoner escape. A “lost” prisoner obviously comes with serious officer and community safety issues and possibly severe legal ramifications.

A handcuffed prisoner on the way to a police station, holding facility or jail may desperately grasp at any small crack in the officer’s awareness. An incorrigible sociopath may have a preformulated plan of escaping during the first mistake an officer makes. The condition they leave the officer in will be of no concern.

Prisoners watch us. They observe what we do, how we do it and how aware we are. Prison inmates teach each other how to spot and exploit gaps in an officer’s technique or awareness.

Arresting criminals, placing them in handcuffs and putting them in patrol vehicles are commonplace occurrences in our law enforcement careers. To the prisoner, though—whether habitual criminal or first-time offender—the incident is a highly emotional intrusion into their lives. Their adrenalin and thoughts are racing. They feel subdued, caged and often desperate. You are the enemy, the intruder who caged them. If they perceive you are sloppy or inattentive, they will eventually try to beat you.

When we become complacent, when the job of transporting a prisoner becomes routine, we stand the greatest chance of creating the opportunity for an escape. We are given the equipment to effectively handle and transport prisoners. It is a matter of how consistently we exercise common sense, basic training and some prisoner retention techniques that can be effectively used to prevent an escape attempt.

Let’s review some of the basics:

— Always handcuff.

— Always handcuff behind the back.

— Always search thoroughly.

— Always glance intermittently at the prisoner, letting him know that you are aware.

— Always keep hold of the prisoner’s handcuffs at all times they are outside of the vehicle.

Although these are basic concepts, the majority of escape attempts are prompted by one or more violations of these basic principles.

Placing prisoners into, or taking them out of, vehicles are critical points for an escape attempt. Officers can be lulled into a false sense of security by a prisoner’s friendly, cooperative attitude or because of proximity to a police station or other facility. If you’re removing a prisoner from a vehicle, you can use car doors, yourself, backup officers and buildings as barriers to escape. The tactics used will depend on specific circumstances, but the following techniques can be readily applied in most cases:

Before opening the back door, glance at the prisoner to ensure that he is actually still handcuffed and not just simulating that he’s cuffed. If he has slipped the cuffs, or the handcuffs have been brought around to the front, keep the door closed until you have backup on scene.

Open the door with your weak hand, keeping your gun side away from the prisoner. Position your body close to the door to present the first barrier. As the prisoner begins to exit, place a hand on his shoulder to guide his head and torso movement. Keeping this hand in place can help effectively monitor any sudden movement or increased tension.

As the prisoner emerges, grab the handcuffs firmly with your strong hand., keeping your weak hand positioned near the elbow/arm area of the prisoner. Now, if an escape attempt is made, you have the advantage of two barriers; yourself and the car door and you have instant leverage and pressure on the prisoner’s arms. A swift movement up the arms will lead to a quick takedown.

The backup officer, if one is present, should add to the barrier between the primary officer and the patrol car door. This backup officer should be alert and prepared to quickly take the prisoner down should there be an escape attempt. If there is more than one prisoner, shut the door and secure the first prisoner while having your backup watch the others, then repeat the process with the next prisoner.

Many jails and holding facilities are equipped with sallyports which utilize lowered gates to preclude any possibility of escape. If this is not the case in your facility, the following technique, which utilizes a combination of the building and the patrol vehicle’s doors, can be used as an almost foolproof barrier:

Pull your patrol vehicle 3 ½ to 4 feet from the wall of the building your prisoner will be entering, positioning the prisoner’s door just in front of the door to the facility. As you exit the vehicle, leave your driver’s door open against the building. Now open the prisoner’s door and stand directly next to the open door with your gun side away from the emerging prisoner. You have now created a virtually impenetrable set of barriers—the building, the patrol unit, the open car doors and yourself. With some practice, it becomes easier to judge the distance between the building and the doors to make the doors an effective barrier. This vehicle-to-building technique can also be used in the reverse, from building to vehicle, when loading a prisoner into your unit.

Thoughts/comments to add? Please e-mail them to: [email protected]

[This article appeared previously in The Police Marksman and is reprinted with permission from the author.]