The Riot Academy

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

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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.

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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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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.

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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