The Riot Academy

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

One attendee at this year's Mock Prison Riot hopes that the event's focus will shift as it continues to grow. "I think it's a terrific event, but I think we need to move to the next step," says Bert Useem, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico and the coauthor of States of Siege: U.S. Prison Riots 1971-1986. "This is mainly about how these tactical units operate, but we need to know how to manage and control and best deploy them. Whether inmate assault is advisable is a difficult tactical, moral, and strategic question."

That question was barely on the agenda at this year's Mock Prison Riot. Useem tackled it during a workshop titled "What Causes Prison Riots?" which drew several dozen prison guards and managers. But almost all of the other events at the Mock Prison Riot concerned how best to employ force.

Looming over any conference about prison riots is the memory of the 1971 uprising at New York's Attica prison, which left 43 people dead. This riot was part of a wave of inmate revolts that swept through the nation's prisons in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Another wave of riots occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the nation's prisons have been relatively quiet, with about a dozen riots each year, according to Useem. Still, the Mock Prison Riot continues to grow, and so do sales of weapons like the PepperBall gun, all fueled by rhetoric about avoiding another Attica. During each scenario enacted at the Mock Prison Riot—and throughout the exhibit hall set up for the event—the goal was the same: to perfect the art of breaking a prisoner's will without taking his life.

In the prison's South Yard, no one following the football-match-turned-brawl was surprised that the gun-wielding officers quickly seized control. Before the carefully choreographed scenario concluded, though, one inmate torched a station wagon parked nearby. An army helicopter landed inside the prison's walls to pick up an injured inmate. And the tactical officers escorted the prisoners from the yard by jamming the barrels of their guns between the inmates' backs and cuffed wrists.

Six prisoners in this scenario were actually guards from Colorado, and afterward they sat on the sidelines comparing notes. Everyone said they liked Pennsylvania's strategy for escorting inmates, which they dubbed the "chicken-wing technique," and they discussed using it on their own prisoners. "It's effective, and you're not going to cause injury to the individual," said Jim Romanski, commander of the Special Operations Response Team for the Colorado Department of Corrections.

As a team of local firefighters doused the flaming car at the far end of the football field, the crowd began to pack up. A full day of wrestling prisoners, capturing escapees, and rescuing hostages seemed to have tired everyone. The Mock Prison Riot was winding down, and soon the crowd would depart—their spirits lifted as they headed home armed with business cards, brochures, and plans to ask their bosses for the latest "less than lethal" weapons.

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