Thankfully, inmates don’t have the freedom to send letters without them being screened for contraband. Law enforcement can copy these letters and use their words against them. And we should: Mail holds have many potential advantages to officers conducting gang investigations. They can help identify monikers of individuals, identify current gang alliances and rivalries. They may also identify potential harm to victims, witnesses, officers or prosecutors; help solve unsolved or open cases; help identify alibi witnesses and false stories; and undermine the credibility of alibi or character witnesses that your gangster will produce in court on their behalf.
Remember: Human beings are social creatures, we tend to need to be around others and communicate with each other in many ways and on many levels. Gangs have placed a major emphasis on communications, and their use of codes and ciphers help ensure that critical communication can take place, even in environments where messages are filtered by law enforcement. Many codes are very sophisticated, while others are crude and easily decoded.
Gangs have placed a major emphasis on identifying themselves and their gang affiliation. They use a variety of methods to communicate with each other and carry out their gang-related business. Communications are critical to any human endeavor, including criminal activity, and many forms of identification and communication have been developed by gangs. Regardless of the specific type of identification or communication involved, all of the primary methods illustrate the individual gang member’s commitment to the gang and the necessity for him or her to tell the world who they are and what they represent.
Check It Out
Jails across the country require an official request to monitor a specific gang member’s mail. When a mail hold has been requested, it’s critical that the mail in question be reviewed and good copies made. The copy should be dark enough to read: Many jails only provide small pencils to the inmates, many of whom write lightly.
The mail also needs to be identifiable to be admissible. It’s important for the jail deputy or prison investigator copying the mail to put their name and ID number on it. Also include the date and time the letter was copied, and the jail or prison facility in question.
Codes & Ciphers
The terms “codes” and “ciphers” are used interchangeably but they are significantly different. Ciphers have a code or algorithm that can be used to translate symbols. Find the code, and you can understand the cipher. Codes, on the other hand, are memorized messages. For example, codes employed by local law enforcement include a "ten code" i.e. 10-7 (out of service), a “10-4” (acknowledge), or a "signal code" i.e. 211 in progress (armed robbery).
In essence, the code/signal represents a command, instruction, or reply regardless of the length of the command. In codes such as these, what is represented is not a letter of the alphabet but a whole word, phrase, sentence, several sentences or an entire message. Therefore, codes must be worked out in advance and memorized. The student will understand the importance of monitoring the mail, visits and telephone calls of gang members while in custody and identify the use of codes. Breaking the code may be the key to solving a crime or in some cases preventing a future crime from occurring.
Three common cipher codes, including “tic-tac-toe,” “pig pen,” and “telephone number dial” codes will be used to translate a simple message. These codes place letters of the alphabet in a matrix and assign it a space, such as on a tic tac toe board, then the symbol takes the place of the letter in communications, so you end up looking at a bunch of symbols rather than words. This exercise is designed to make the reader think outside the obvious forms of communication, such as tattoos and hand signs, and look for covert communications as well. It is important to not under estimate the intelligence potential of correspondence in the possession of gang members.
The key learning points for this activity are to evaluate the basics of codes and ciphers, considered the most challenging types of communications to understand. Although difficult to break, codes and ciphers need not present insurmountable barriers to monitoring gang activities. Knowledge of fundamental rules can help readers understand a great deal about these forms of communications. Since the beginning of man's existence, there have been compelling needs to communicate with others in secrecy. This need manifests itself in war, espionage and business. The methods for such communications can be crude or extremely sophisticated.
Regardless, when dealing with codes and ciphers (cryptography) some basic rules usually transcend all encryption efforts. Although glamorized as an area requiring especially talented technicians, the fact remains that given an understanding of the basics and enough time, virtually anyone can understand coding utilized to convey information. Following are some tips.
The following letter may seem inoccuous enough. But the lines have been numbered for a reason. Read every odd-number line and see what the message really says.
1. Joe Jones, my office assistant, can always be found
2. hard at work in his cubicle. Joe works independently, without
3. wasting company time talking to colleagues. Joe never
4. thinks twice about assisting fellow employees, and he always
5. finishes given assignments on time. Often Joe takes extended
6. measures to complete his work, sometimes skipping coffee
7. breaks. Joe is a dedicated individual who has absolutely no
8. vanity in spite of his high accomplishments and profound
9. knowledge in his field. I firmly believe that Joe can be
10. classed as a high-caliber employee, the type which cannot be
11. dispensed with. Consequently, I duly recommend that Joe be
12. promoted to executive management, and a proposal will be
13. executed as soon as possible.
Keep your eyes open for codes and ciphers and use the power you have as a law enforcement professional to gather the legal evidence you may come across. This means gangster mail--a treasure trove if you can read through the lines.