PRISON RIOTS - January 6, 2003 - Why they happen, how to avoid them, and what to do in case there is a riot.

 News: CERT Alert: Column RIOT
Four letters that say so much!!
By James Topham, Contributing Writer

Small or large county, state, or federal correctional facilities can experience a riot. Riots are destructive and violent reminders of the dangers we face dealing with the sometimes unpredictable behavior of the inmates we incarcerate. When I began my career in corrections, and more specifically on the day I graduated from the corrections academy, the department I worked for had a riot. It was the ultimate baptism into the corrections professional and an ordeal to this day, some 14 years later, I will never forget. The following are some other incidents that have happened across the country.

At abut 6:30 p.m., August 31, 1999, two inmates begin fighting in the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility (NM) prisons gymnasium. One of the inmates is stabbed during this fight. As correctional officers move to break up the fight, they order the other inmates to lock down. Many inmates refuse, and the uprising begins to build momentum. At this moment, Officer Ralph Garcia enters the pod to urge the inmates to return to their cells.The inmates close and lock the pod door immediately after Garcia enters and as many as nine inmates attack him. Officer Garcia dies as a result of his injuries sustained. As the attack unfolds inmates in other pods join in the uprising. Ceiling panels are ripped down, televisions are smashed and small fires are set among other things. The inmates have also moved vending machines and placed them in front of the pod doors so entry cannot be made. Tactical teams regain control of the pods by 11:30 p.m. and damage to two pods is extensive.

In Crescent City, California on Feb. 23, 2000, a riot between 200 hundred black and Hispanic inmates at Pelican Bay Correctional Facility broke out at about 9:30 a.m. in an exercise yard. The riot was over in about 30 minutes after nearly 75 officers used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and final deadly force to end the violence. The fighting which sent 28 inmates to local hospitals was strictly between inmates. Besides the 13 inmates shot, one fatally, 19 suffered stabbing or beating injuries. No officers, including the 20 who were in the three-acre yard when the riot erupted, were injured. According to officials, the latest uprising was the most forceful and intensely violent outbreak in the facility's history.

On April 24, 2000, in Lamesa, Texas, an inmate was apparently killed with a pickax stolen from a utility closet during a prison riot that took 300 officers to bring under control. The Smith Unit received heavy damage during the uprising including the gutting of a kitchen facility by fire. In addition to the one death, about 31 inmates were injured, some critically. About 300 black and Hispanic inmates were involved in the racially tinged riot. Also during the riot, some inmates attempted to escape by taking their clothes off, throwing them over the security fences and trying to climb over the razor wire. The attempts were unsuccessful and many of the inmates were caught in the razor and received serious lacerations. One corrections officer received minor injuries when a gas grenade exploded in his hand. The uprising started around 6:30 p.m. and was under control by midnight, according to officials.

Riots are nothing new to corrections and it has become commonplace for many to read about these dramatic and serious events. Of course, as we read the news articles we are saying to ourselves "thank god it was not facility." The real question should be "is my facility prepared." To say that a riot can be the most devastating incident to happen to a facility would be an understatement. This type of event can bring with it millions of dollars of damage, possibility of death and serious injury to inmates and staff alike, lawsuits, and the mental and emotional trauma that can accompany being taken hostage during a riot.

According to A History of Correctional Violence, published by the American Correctional Association, the first American prison riot occurred in 1774 in Simsbury, Connecticut. The prison had been constructed over an abandoned mine in 1773.

This riot does not make the mark, except for possibly being the first recorded, that other uprisings have. If we sit back and think about riots, certain ones will come to mind right off. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary May 2, 1946, Attica Correctional Facility September 13, 1971, Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe on February 2, 1980 and the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, Lucasville, on April 11, 1993 have all left their mark in ways that should never be visited again.

These riots are forever imbedded in our minds because of the damage caused, the lives lost and the shear violence involved in the riots. The correctional environment can be ripe for riots in that facilities can have crowded cells, poor ventilation, confined space and movement and hostility create an atmosphere that is unsafe or ready to explode. Taking this into account and the fact that over the past 25 years, the United States has built the largest prison system in the world - locking up more of its citizens than any other nation - has stretched many correctional systems to its breaking point. This has not only increased the number of convicts, but also changed the character of prison and jail culture.

The American Correctional Association defines Riot, Disturbance, and Incident in thefollowing manner: 
1. Riot: When a significant number of inmates control a significant portion of a facility for a significant period of time.
2. Disturbance: A step down from riot because there are fewer inmates involved, and there is no control or minimal control of a portion of the facility by inmates.
3. Incident: A step down from a disturbance because only a few inmates are involved and there is no control of a portion of the facility for any period of time by the inmates.

So what do we do about riots? First, we have to look elements that can tend to promote or assist in causing a riot or disturbance. There is no one element in the following list that guarantees that a riot is immanent, but put them all together and you could be facing some serious problems. If the majority of these are present, then all it may take is a "spark" - one related or unrelated event that starts the chain of events to ignite the inmates to riot. 
1. Shortage of Staff
2. Overcrowding
3. Lack of training
4. Corruption
5. Lack of Consistent Policies
6. Staff brutality
7. Lack of Programs
8. Lack of Medical Aid
9. Lack of Education
10. Poor Food Quality
11. Poor Grievance Policy
12. Lack of Concern/ Poor Communication
13. Staff and Administrative Turnovers
14. Racial Tension
15. Drastic Changes In Policy and Procedure That Directly Affect Inmates Routine

Interestingly enough, if you were to look at the inmates' demands from the Attica riot of 1971, you would see an incredible similarity between their list of demands and the 15 elements listed here. The list can go on and on, but these 15 elements are the basics that tend to promote a riot or disturbance.

Along with these elements, there are indicators that can be present throughout a facility such as:
1. Persistent rumors that something is "going to go down"
2. Persistent complaints from inmates about unresolved situations
3. Unusual congregating of inmates
4. Hoarding of food and canteen supplies
5. Continual hostile verbal exchanges between inmates or groups of inmates
6. An unusual unwillingness to talk
7. Low program participation
8. Increase in dangerous contraband i.e., weapons
9. Diminishing personal property
10. An unusual number of inmates feigning illness to remain in their cells

Staff as well can show indicators of potential problems such as:
1. Rumors of possible problems
2. Tension among staff
3. Increase in sick leave
4. Increase in inmate disciplinary reports
5. Confrontations with inmates both verbal and physical
6. Staff members agreeing with the inmates' complaints
7. Poor staff morale
8. "Sixth Sense" Factor

So how do we help prevent or institute pre-riot steps? Again, the list is endless and there are many experts in the field that can tell you what a correctional system needs to do, but what can we do today and right now to put out the "lit fuse on the powder keg."

Staff morale must be kept positive and this is extremely tough in a sometimes thankless job. We need to work on retention of our veteran officers and not spend so much time on the hiring. If we could retain good, professionally trained officers that in and of itself would be of a benefit to any department. Everyone needs to act in a professional manner during times when things are at a breaking point.

Not only program attendance should be monitored, but also the caliber and content of those programs should be reviewed to ensure the inmates are getting the assistance they need. By monitoring the entire program system and reviewing it regularly, it will assist the correctional system in adding new, needed programs and ending ones that are not working to anyone's advantage.

Communication needs to be open from the inmates to the staff and all the way up the chain of command. Incidents need to be followed up on and staff needs to be kept informed at all levels. In having a good communication system, you need to have a good workable inmate grievance system and policy that is fair, firm and consistent to the policies and procedures of the institution.

The facility needs to be kept clean. Even some of the oldest correctional institutions in the country, if they remain clean, will help with shortcomings of its age. In having inmate work details cleaning and doing general maintenance serves two purposes. One, it keeps their living environment clean and orderly and two, it keeps them busy working instead of planning problems. The old saying "an idle mind is the devil's workshop" is so true in a correctional environment. The dining areas need to be kept clean and orderly and the meals have to be nourishing and adequate.

We must have an effective and proper classification system that is fair and timely. Properly placing inmates in the correct classification will assist in better control of the institution as well as making it a safer living environment for the inmates and working environment for the staff.

Quality training for all the staff on riots and disturbances, including practical exercises and drills to better prepare your staff as well as understanding the staff needs in such a situation, will only help your facility. Review and update security and riot plans if needed. Train the supervisory staff on the incident command structure and its proper implementation and operation during such an incident.

Most correctional systems require institutions to develop and make readily available emergency plans for riots and disturbances. Staff must have plans that can be used either to protect or control inmates and protect staff. The size and complexity of the facility, will, in part, determine the nature and detail of the plans. Although plans are custom-tailored to the particular facility, all plans have general characteristics in common that assure efficient implementation.

1. Written and Available: Because this type of situation occurs infrequently, it is difficult for the staff to remember the details of such a plan. These plans need to be written and readily available at a moment's notice. Having these updated plans available on a moment's notice will allow the staff to quickly review the plan's details and begin its implementation. The plans have to be easily understood and written in such a way as the staff can quickly and appropriately follow them. 

2. Authoritative: Establishing an Incident Command or Centralized Command post enables administrators and staff to determine the nature and extent of the situation swiftly and with the least possible confusion. This arrangement may only have one individual on any given shift that has the authority to declare an emergency situation. The staff on duty knows from whom orders are to be accepted and exactly what to do when plans are implemented.

3. Action-orientated: Staff need to be aware of the specific action that must be taken in detail such as:
a. Where and how to secure inmates
b. Which doors and gates may need to be secured
c. Whether to remain on post or report to another location
d. When or to whom a report of effective action taken is to be made
e. What types of communication should be used and the appropriate codes or signals
f. Safety procedures to follow

4. Clear and Efficient: Clear, concise instructions and efficient lines of communication are essential for safety and security. Pre-arranging lines of communication will insure clarity and efficiency. You cannot rely on only one form of communication in riots and disturbances. If inmates control or gain access to a certain communication system, you need to have another form of communication at the ready. Plans should address this issue and advise staff of the possible alternatives: 
a. Locate and identify the area and type of situation by means of radio signals, codes, intercom systems, phones, or audible alarms. This should make all staff aware of the situation and its location - actions may differ depending on what the situation is and its location
b. Enable staff the ability to continually advise the control room, supervisors, or command post of updated information securely.
c. Locate and identify signals and checkpoints so staff can verify conditions at various places throughout the facility safely.
d. Ensure that staff in control rooms and/or command posts can make immediate contact either via radio or telephone with outside agencies and the procedures to do so.
e. Establish procedures that will disseminate official information to outside agencies and the news.
f. Make sure the proper structure is in effect to ensure that termination notices of the emergency riot or disturbance plans can be received, understood, and acted upon by staff

Overall security during the beginning stages of a riot are crucial to say the least and can be confusing. A general plan for maintaining security must be established, tested and regularly reviewed. At a minimum this type of plan should cover:
a. Methods for notifying personnel to institute the plan
b. Methods for notifying outside agencies and administrative personnel
c. Fixed series of actions for all on duty staff taking into account their post locations
d. Immediate securing of pods, tiers, cell blocks etc., as well as gates, doors and other equipment
e. Immediate lock down procedure of inmates not involved
f. Procedures or signals for efficient reporting of the situation

Staff needs to be familiar with this plan and their responsibilities, including the following:
a. Actions expected of them
b. Chain of command structure
c. Total physical layout of the facility
d. Areas of concern in their immediate area or post assignment

In a riot or disturbance, staff needs to be able to efficiently and in a safe, timely manner be able to:
a. Contain rioters
b. Localize the problem
c. Cut off access to escape
d. Prevent spreading
e. Assess the situation and take appropriate measures to:
* Prevent hostage taking
* Plan the operation, including the necessity of using force
* Allow time to assemble reinforcements
* Consider staff safety
* Move non-participating inmates
* Ascertain cause of the situation
* Identify leaders

Perhaps the most important aspect of implementing a riot or disturbance plan is the element of time. Measures must be effective, immediate and operate efficiently. There should be back up procedures to follow if "Murphy's Law" prevails. The plan must be as detailed as possible and rehearsed until all of the staff can execute his/her responsibilities as though it was an automatic action. 

Riots are destructive, violent, dangerous, and above all, fluid situations. We must pre-plan and practice for this type of correctional nightmare even in the best-run facilities. This training and practice has to be as realistic as possible and have built-in situations that will test our staff and plans to ensure we are realistically ready to face just such an incident. By having our entire staff trained in the proper recognition of a riot, its elements, indicators and response procedures will only make the institution safer for inmates and staff alike. We should also remember that all the training and planning in world will not prepare us for the element of fate. We must recognize and plan to deal with the reality that some things are out of control and no matter what the planning sometimes "Murphy's Law" will prevail. That is the true reality of riot. 

Be Safe.

This article was put together with the assistance of Capt. Jeff Noyes of the NHPSTC and NIJ training materials and lesson plans materials.