The Scars Tell All — A Tale About Wounds

For close to 29 years, I worked in a state prison system. To say I met some storied characters would be an understatement. I talked with inmates all day long, and one of the things I had many chances to ask them about was their scars. Many were more than willing to talk about the wounds and how they got them.

State prison in PA.
The establishment where I learned all about wounds and scars. The latter are among the most lasting reminders of interpersonal violence (barring death). This was formerly Pennsylvania’s largest prison (it is now closed). Photo: PA Dept. of Corrections

Rather than going into minute detail on specific cases, I’ll mostly speak in general terms. Most of this will be off the top of my head, as I didn’t take detailed notes on most of the people I spoke with. I didn’t need to—a lot of it is branded into my soul.

The remainder of the information here will be my personal experiences from what I witnessed on duty. I’ll confess that many of the things I saw were disturbing (to say the least). Reliving them is not always pleasant. The intent of this article is not to be graphic or to “gross the reader out”, so I’m not going to include photos of wounds here. It really serves no purpose to “gore up” this article. There are plenty of such ghastly sights on the errornet if you desire to look them up.

Personally, I’ve seen enough people skewered and chopped up to last 17 lifetimes.

An awareness of how people react to – or fail to react to – wounds they suffer should be a fundamental part of your soft skills suite. 

In The Beginning

My first exposure to real, up-close violence occurred in November 1990. I was a rookie, fresh out of the training academy. I’d been working inside the prison for several weeks by this time, and had seen numerous violent incidents. On this day, however, it was my turn to be directly involved.

Prison shanks.
A variety of prison shanks. These are everywhere in most prisons, despite what management will tell people. (Photo: Corrections1)

I’ll focus on the wounds received rather than the entire story so as to save some space here. The inmate whom I was escorting in a back corridor of the prison was attacked and stabbed by another inmate. I saw the stabbing occur at a range of less than two feet (I was nearly stabbed myself).

The subject received four stab wounds in the back. Both shoulder blades were penetrated, as were both lungs. The man’s heart was grazed by the homemade knife, which had a blade of approximately ten inches in length (possibly even a bit longer).

He did not know he was stabbed for about one minute, until his lungs were filling with blood. During this time, the victim was quite animated and was taking vigorous evasive action to defend himself.

To make a long (and terrifying) story short, we dealt with the attacker and got the victim to medical care. Amazingly, he survived!

The Aftermath

Later, the victim spoke to me about the attack. He related that he did not know he’d been stabbed; he thought the other inmate had punched him in the back. There was no pain until much later.

This is a common theme in injuries inflicted by firearms and knives—victims often feel no pain for a time. Eventually, it comes. Sometimes it’s immediate but seems more often to come, later on, either minutes or fractions of an hour later.

Scars

It seems that nearly every inmate has at least one scar. Most have a collection of them. You can see them as they’re heading to the showers or when they’re lifting weights, both occasions where they’re normally wearing shorts with no shirts on.

Corrections officers and other staff spend all day inside with inmates. As a result, we are often on a friendly basis (no, not friends, but we often get along amiably/amicably). It wasn’t uncommon to ask an inmate, referring to a scar, “Hey, what happened there?”

We’d often get a response like, “Oh, that’s from a 9mm. We was gang warrin’ and dude shot me.”

Cell block in a state prison.
A lot of knowledge is learned on cell blocks by talking with the people who live there. (Photo: author’s collection)

Up until entering law enforcement, I’d led a relatively sheltered life in the country, having no exposure to urban settings. So speaking conversationally with people who’d been shot and/or stabbed throughout their lives was something of a novelty for me.

It wasn’t long before I found myself asking more questions as long as the subjects were willing to share. You see, I’d been an avid reader of gun magazines as a teen, and the debates of “stopping power” and such were always hot, and the subject interested me. Well, here I had willing participants with information at my fingertips! Why not ask them about it?

I had nothing to lose, all the time in the world for “research”, and knowledge to gain!

People are damn difficult to stop once they’re engaged in idiocy. You can shoot them, stab them, bludgeon them, and otherwise traumatize their body, and they are still fairly likely to continue to engage in violent activity. 

Informal Interviews

Most criminals, once they know you, will talk freely about their lifestyle. That includes their wounds. You just have to know how to sort through the BS, if there is any. I got pretty good at that, since reading people was something that my life depended on daily.

There were a few main questions that I’d ask inmates about their wounds:

  1. What caliber or type of weapon made the wound?
  2. What were you doing at the time of the wounding?
  3. Did you stop what you were doing when wounded, and why?
  4. Did you feel pain?

Again, I’m going to make some generalized statements as to the answers to the questions above.

  1. Bullet wounds and stab wounds seemed to be fairly evenly split. There are a lot of guns and knives on the street, and criminals use lots of both. Knives are easy to get anywhere, and guns aren’t much harder to come by.
  2. Most of the inmates were either robbing people or engaged in gang wars when they received the wounds. Drugs played a role in about 95% of every crime I have ever dealt with or reviewed in my entire career, violent or otherwise.
  3. Many did not stop what they were doing when wounded but continued their activity.
  4. The majority voiced that they did not feel much, or any, pain at the time of wounding.

What’s It All Mean

Essentially, it means that people are damn difficult to stop once they’re engaged in idiocy. You can shoot them, stab them, bludgeon them, and otherwise traumatize their body, and they are still fairly likely to continue to engage in the vigorous (usually violent) physical activity that they were originally engaged in.

Shot Placement

It seemed that more people who were shot in the torso ceased their actions when once wounded when compared to people who’d been shot in the extremities. Again, this is generally speaking. Shot placement still seems to be paramount.

One man, in particular, had six bullet scars clearly visible in his midsection. I asked him what caliber caused the scars, which looked like a pencil was being pushed into his skin, they were pockmarks that ran deep. “A .38,” was the answer. I asked if he felt immediate pain. He responded, “HELL YEAH, IT HURT!” At that point I asked no further questions. He didn’t seem to want to discuss the matter further. That was the first time I’d seen someone so shot up.

I spoke with another man who’d been hit 12 or 13 times with a 9mm. All the hits were in his extremities; arms and legs. He reported feeling pain, but that he was able to run away and escape his attacker.

S&W 642 .38 Special.
Handguns just aren’t generally great at stopping people who are attacking. Snub-nosed revolvers, such as this S&W 642 in .38 Special, are popular on the street.

Another man had all the muscle of his calf missing. He advised me that a 12 gauge had removed the muscle. He walked with a marked limp and said that he was not able to continue functioning after he’d been hit. I can’t recall whether or not he indicated the presence of pain. From the look of it long after, I’d guess there was.

Over the years, I spoke with people who were hit with every caliber under the sun. .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, .38 Special, 9mm, .40 caliber, .45 ACP, .357 Magnum, 12 gauge, and some rifle calibers (although the rifle calibers were far less prevalent). I’m guessing rifle calibers were less prevalent for two reasons: first, because pistols are more abundant in high-crime areas. Second, fewer people survive rifle wounds.

One man was hit by a .45 ACP in the hand and then took a .357 Magnum just below his left shoulder blade. That .357 round found its way up under his right cheekbone (yes, it traveled all the way up there through his neck without hitting anything vital). There it lodged and was removed by doctors. He did not feel immediate pain, nor was he stopped from being physically active at the time of wounding (incidentally, he was trying to murder a couple of state troopers). He said the most irritating long-term effect was that his sense of smell had been affected by the round under his cheekbone; he was not able to smell certain things, including smoke.

I’ve concluded (both from my interviews and other sources) that pistol bullets suck at stopping bad guys unless solid torso hits or headshots are achieved. And even then, it’s a dicey proposition.

Knives

Judging from interviews with inmates who had knife scars, knives are somewhat less successful at stopping bad guys than pistol bullets. Most continued functioning after they were stabbed.

prison shanks
There never seems to be a shortage of knives in prisons. (Photo: New York Times)

The knife attacks that I’ve witnessed bear this out as well. I’ve seen far more than I’d have liked to.

One inmate I recall being stabbed walked from his cell to the cell block bridge, about 40 or so yards away. There, he collapsed and was thrown on a stretcher by officers. They ran him down to the prison dispensary and I saw him in transit. He’d been stabbed in the neck and shoulder region, and had a hole in the center of his forehead; I could see into his skull.

It didn’t look like he was engaged in the consumption of oxygen at that juncture.

I walked down the corridor to investigate the scene, and all along the way, it looked as if someone had been running a garden hose. But instead of water coming out, it was blood. I could see where he’d been stabbed in his cell and where he’d walked to the bridge of the cell block.

Up until that point, I had no idea exactly how much blood the human body holds. It was a startling realization.

The bridge on a prison cell block.
The bridge area of a cell block. The stairs are leading up to the bridge, which is the halfway point of each block. Photo: Author’s collection.

Another incident I recall is an inmate had been lying on a weight bench doing bench presses. Attackers came up and threw a pillowcase over his face and then cut either his jugular or carotid artery. Apparently, they were having a difference of opinion over a certain matter. A quick-thinking lieutenant grabbed a towel and applied direct pressure to the man’s now-wildly-spurting wound (it was pumping all the way across the main corridor of the prison, which is about 15 feet wide) and quickly walked him down to the prison’s dispensary.

The inmate survived.

Weight pile in the main yard in the prison.
A weight pile in the prison’s Main Yard area.
Main corridor in the prison.
The Main Corridor of the prison, where the blood was spurting across from the inmate whose throat had been cut. (Photo: David Goodwin)

During another attack, one inmate grabbed clothing shears from a garment shop inside the prison. As a conflict-resolution tactic (he was defending himself against a larger inmate), he began stabbing another inmate in the midsection with much gusto. I’m not sure how many times he stabbed him, but it was a lot.

Large scissors fashioned into a weapon.
A clothing shears, similar to the one used during this incident. (Photo: Quora)

Undaunted, the man who was stabbed kept going after the stabber (note to self: this is not an advisable tactic). The stabber played along and continued to deliver more strikes. The wounded man’s intestines were spilling out, but his rage continued to drive him on the attack.

Officers responded and pulled him out into the corridor near where I was working.

As blood poured out of him, he kept trying to get back up to attack the other inmate. They threw him on a trash cart, where he looked like his birth certificate expired.  Officers began the run down to the dispensary as they were calling for a Life-Flight helicopter to evacuate him to a hospital. A few moments later, I heard a radio call: “Cancel the Life-Flight, we no longer need it.” He had, indeed, succumbed to his wounds — but not before demonstrating an astonishing drive to stay in the fight and continue the violence.

Area where an inmate was killed.
This is the area of the corridor where I saw an inmate bleed out from a stabbing attack. (Photo: author’s collection)

The amazing part was that he should have been dead minutes before he actually was, but his rage and determination kept him fighting. Let that be a lesson to us all: rage and determination can carry us through some horrific injuries. Even if it looks hopeless, keep fighting.

It is not only “convicts and villains” that might realize they are hurt, or are able to push through a potentially fatal wound. One of my coworkers was breaking up a fight between inmates on a cell block. Things had seemingly gone fine until another staff member pointed out that he was bleeding from a wound on his back. Unbeknownst to him, he’d been stabbed in the back during the festivities. He had felt no pain, and thankfully, the wound was not bad.

Let that be a lesson to us all: rage and determination can carry us through some horrific injuries. Even if it looks hopeless, keep fighting.

Just A Small Wound

The reverse can also be true, however. Small wounds that “don’t look like much” may prove fatal.

One day I entered my unit manager’s office. He was talking with an inmate, and I thought nothing of it. After a few minutes, I noticed that the inmate had a stab wound in his forearm. I could see where the knife had entered and traveled under the skin; there was a furrow in his skin. He appeared to be in very little pain and was talking quite normally. After a short time, officers came in and escorted him to the dispensary. I didn’t think too much more of it, as it was such a common occurrence.

I found out the next day that he’d died.

Knife Wounds In General

Stab wounds are far more likely to kill people than slash wounds. I won’t tell you that slashes cannot kill, because they obviously can. It’s just that I never personally saw a person die from being slashed (and I’ve seen a lot of people carved up).

Also, stab wounds appear more likely to stop a person from continuing his or her actions. Certainly not 100%, but more so than with being slashed.

Other Stuff

On two occasions, I’m aware of inmates (Emotionally Disturbed Persons) slicing off their own genitals. One must assume that mental illness was the motivator, as sane people do not engage in such extracurricular activities as these.

One of these, I only saw the aftermath, which consisted of a large pool of congealed blood on the floor of the cell. A small pile of flesh was in the center, and I assume those were the….uhhhh…well, you know….

However, the other fellow who did this offered a more dynamic treat, as I observed him running down the top tier of the cell block being pursued by a half-dozen corrections officers. His eyes were wide and blood poured from his crotch. He did not appear to be slowed down any from his wounds and might have even set a new track record in the process.

To this day, I’m not sure how to process some of the things I’ve seen, nor what lessons I was meant to learn from them.

Getting to the Point

My point is that wounds are really weird things, as are people. What stops one person will be shrugged off by another.

Springfield M-1A Scout Squad rifle.
Want to stop a bad guy? A rifle is one of your best bets! This is a Springfield Armory Scout Squad Rifle.

Don’t assume pistols or knives are going to stop an attacker. They may. They may not. Rifles and shotguns still seem to be the best bet, but we can’t always have them with us (and they too might fail to stop an attacker.

Again, Situational Awareness and the use of other soft skills is paramount to our survival.

Being well-armed doesn’t hurt either.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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