The Riot Academy

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

Lunch break during a long day of thwarting escape attempts and rescuing hostages (left)
Correction officers from Kentucky broadcast their favorite motto. (right)
Photos by Andrew Lichtenstein

A Sampling of the High-Tech Gear on Display at the Mock Prison Riot

Product PepperBall
Description Automatic and semi-automatic rifles shoot three-gram, marble-size balls, which explode into a cloud of pepper spray upon impact.
Purpose to subdue prisoners at a distance without using bullets
Cost $555 to $1499 each
Months on the market three
Agencies testing the equipment New York City Department of Correction, New York City Police Department, San Diego Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
Manufacturer Jaycor Tactical Systems of San Diego, California

Product Lazershield
Description A laser attached to a 30-inch-by-19-inch plastic shield flashes an extremely bright red light.
Purpose to disorient inmates, forcing them to shut their eyes and turn their heads away so they cannot fight back
Cost $995 each
Likely future customer New York City Department of Correction
Slogans "Laser Persuader" or "Laser Dissuader"
Manufacturer Science & Engineering Associates Technology, Inc., of Albuquerque, New Mexico

Product Radarvision 1000
Through Wall Surveillance

Description Specially designed pulsing radar sees through walls to detect the presence of humans.
Purpose to locate hostages or missing inmates
Cost about $10,000 each
Slogan "The Pulse of the Future"
When prisons are expected to begin testing technology October
Shortcomings Product is big and clunky and weighs 16 pounds.
Manufacturer Time Domain Systems, Inc., of Huntsville, Alabama

Product Hydro-Force Correctional Facility Water Restraint System
Description A 38-inch nozzle mounted on the wall of a prison yard shoots a high-pressure stream of water. For more volatile situations, prison officials can inject pepper spray or tear gas into the water.
Purpose to subdue inmates rioting in a prison yard without shooting them
Cost $100,000 each
First facility to install product Calipatria State Prison in Calipatria, California
Manufacturer Hydro-Force, Inc., of Pine Valley, California —J.G.

At times, the mock prison riot seemed to be as much about boosting morale as it was about practicing high-tech responses to inmate rebellions. "For a long time in corrections, we were the stepchild of law enforcement—and the emphasis had been on street officers," says Captain John Kingston, the coordinator of Pennsylvania's Western Region CERT. Now, he says, correction officers are receiving the attention they deserve with a conference—and a booming industry—specially tailored for them. "They like to come here and see what's hot," Kingston says of the 70 guards he brought here. "Tactical officers are just like soldiers—they love new toys."

For this event, organizers transformed the Prison Industries Building into an exhibit hall. Where inmates once made license plates, prison officials now strolled around carrying plastic bags stuffed with glossy brochures advertising the latest high-tech gear. Here, vendors sprinkled their sales pitches with the vocabulary of this burgeoning industry: "pursuit management" equipment to track escapees, "compliance technology" to subdue unruly prisoners, and—the industry's favorite catchphrase, used by every other salesman—"less than lethal."

Ironically, the most popular piece of equipment at the Mock Prison Riot was neither new nor for sale. Parked in front of the exhibit hall sat an armed personnel carrier bearing the logo of the New York City Department of Correction. A captain had bought the 40-year-old carrier at a military surplus sale a couple of years ago, and it made the 12-hour journey from Rikers Island to West Virginia aboard a tractor-trailer.

This 26,000-pound machine became a magnet for prison guards with cameras, eager for memorable snapshots to bring home. Some officers even climbed inside so they could pose for a photo with their heads poking out the hole in the top. "We'd like New York to let us use it for a month," joked Darcy Regala, the director of operations at Cambria County Prison in Pennsylvania. Regala admitted he did not need an armed personnel carrier to handle his facility's 430 inmates, but he said he would love to park it in front of his jail. "Just to let people know corrections is high-tech now," he said. "When you see equipment like this, you know corrections is not playing anymore."

Some participants at the mock prison riot sounded like veterans swapping war stories as they traded their own tales of quashing inmate protests. The crowd included guards who had worked at the West Virginia Penitentiary in 1986, when prisoners seized control for 53 hours. They held 17 employees hostage and killed three fellow inmates who they believed were snitches.

Today, this penitentiary is a tourist attraction and this bloody revolt has become one of the many stories tourist guides tell as they lead visitors around inside the prison's 30-foot sandstone walls. The West Virginia Penitentiary shut down a few years ago after the state supreme court ruled that imprisonment here qualified as "cruel and unusual punishment." By today's standards, the cells are tiny—just five feet by seven feet—and each cell held two or three inmates.

The West Virginia Penitentiary will soon add a new chapter to the nation's penal history, as OLETC plans to transform it into a year-round training center for correction officers. Already, Congress has allocated $1.4 million. And the Mock Prison Riot, cosponsored by the Moundsville Economic Development Corporation and the West Virginia Department of Corrections, has already proven to be a moneymaker. This year's participants injected about $625,000 into the local economy, eating at restaurants, renting cars, and filling nearby hotels.

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