The Riot Academy

Guards Stage Mock Prison Riots to Test the Latest High-Tech Gear

A team of prison guards breaks up a cell block fight. (left)
Pennsylvania's Corrections Emergency Response Team quashes an inmate uprising in the prison yard. (right)
Photos by Andrew Lichtenstein

Moundsville, West Virginia—The prison guards climbed into their costumes—faded gray cotton jumpsuits held shut by a strip of Velcro. Pretending to be inmates, they tossed a football around the South Yard of the West Virginia Penitentiary. Last week, this defunct, Civil War-era prison was transformed into a classroom as prison officials from around the country came here to learn new tactics for subduing inmates. They packed the bleachers inside the penitentiary's yard on this afternoon, and some pulled out video cameras to record the inmate football game.

A disagreement over a call soon escalated into a fight. The mock prisoners targeted one inmate, who had ratted them out to the guards. "Snitch motherfucker!" they shouted at him. "Did you talk shit on us?" As the inmates pummeled the traitor, 30 masked men marched into the prison yard in lockstep. These men were guards assigned to Pennsylvania's Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT). In this skit, they played themselves, and each resembled a walking arsenal. Pump-action shotguns jutted from under their arms, revolvers bulged in their holsters, and grenade launchers hung across their chests. "Get on the ground!" the guards hollered.

The inmates refused to surrender. Instead, they reveled in their roles. Five prisoners stared down the approaching guards, gestured to their groins, and together shouted, "Suck this!" Laughter rippled through the bleachers.

This football-game-turned-mini-revolt was among the 20 scenarios staged during an event dubbed the Mock Prison Riot, held here May 14 to 17. This annual event is part training session and part trade show. Inventors and vendors set up booths to show off the newest law enforcement technology, everything from laser shields to guns that shoot pellets of pepper powder (see sidebar). To try out the equipment and hone their riot-quelling skills, tactical teams of prison guards staged uprisings inside the penitentiary's cell blocks and recreation yards.

The Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC) began organizing the Mock Prison Riot in 1997. OLETC is part of the National Institute of Justice, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. Attendance at the Mock Prison Riot has skyrocketed since the first year, when 107 people showed up. This year's event drew 1315 participants from 25 states and included 11 members of the Emergency Services Unit on Rikers Island.

The popularity of the Mock Prison Riot is a sign of the times. The nation's prison population has quadrupled over the last two decades, climbing to 2 million. At the same time, the law enforcement technology industry has also exploded. Its annual sales now exceed $1 billion, according to OLETC. (This figure includes stab-proof vests, helmets, shields, batons, and chemical agents.) All this new equipment for suppressing inmate revolts can create the impression that prison riots are on the rise. They are not. Rather, the hunger of companies for new customers in this post-Cold War era and the availability of government dollars have fueled a military-style buildup inside many of the nation's prisons.

Spectator sport: Guards captured and cuffed would-be escapees. (left)
Inside the 134-year-old prison: High-tech gear meets old-fashioned, four-tier cell blocks. (right)
Photos by Andrew Lichtenstein

"Gimme food!" "gimme food!" The inmates pounded the mess hall floor with their chairs. Unhappy about the day's lunch menu, they flung their paper plates across the room. "Gimme food, damn it!" they shouted. In this scenario, criminal-justice students from a nearby college played the prisoners. Only the foam plugs in their ears and the few inches of denim sticking out beneath their inmate jumpsuits made this scene slightly unreal.

An officer cracked open the cafeteria door and threw in a "flash-bang," a grenade that stuns by momentarily blinding its target while delivering an ear-piercing boom. The inmates clapped their hands over their ears as a team of officers stormed in. These men belonged to the "disturbance control team" at the Federal Correctional Institute in Manchester, Kentucky. They played themselves in this scenario and wore their usual uniform: padded gloves, plastic shin guards, Kevlar helmets, and flak vests.

Two guards wielded PepperBall guns, a new weapon they were trying out for the first time. The pellets in this gun envelop their target in a cloud of pepper spray, as they did when Seattle police fired them at World Trade Organization protesters last winter. But the student-inmates were spared a gassing; the officers had loaded their guns with inert pellets. Within a minute or two, all the prisoners obeyed the guards' commands and sprawled on the cement floor, their cheeks mashed against the beans, peas, and carrots they had earlier refused to eat. Officers bound each inmate's wrists with a pair of plastic cuffs before leading them out.

The officers gathered afterward on a grassy patch outside the mess hall and passed around the PepperBall rifle. "I really like this gun," said one officer as he stroked the 33-inch launcher. The team's leader, Jon Pell, a senior lieutenant, added, "We're really hoping to get some of these." Several steps away, the student-inmates checked their wrists for scratches and bruises. Not surprisingly, they were less excited about the PepperBall gun. "One of the balls hit me right in the toe," said a student-prisoner. "Boy, did that hurt. It felt like a baseball hitting you."

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