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Survival Tips If You Are Taken Hostage
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 07/27/2009

Blindfold women
    2 hostages taken June 30, 2008
    According to the governor’s office, two people have been taken hostage by a prisoner with a knife at the Maine State Prison in Warren. The incident began mid-afternoon and a negotiating team has made limited contact with the prisoner. Official have not identified the inmate but say he is in jail for robbery and aggravated assault. One hostage is a prisoner and one hostage is prison staff. Family members of the hostages have been notified.

    Female Calif. Prison Staffer Taken Hostage
    Posted on: Saturday, 6 May 2006
    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A state prison was locked down Saturday after an inmate took a female guard hostage, authorities said. Officials at California State Prison, Sacramento were negotiating with the inmate, who took the guard hostage in a prison dining hall around 7 a.m., according to prison spokeswoman Lt. Joyce McClendon. The 41-year-old inmate, whose identity was not immediately released, was armed with a six-inch metal knife made in the prison, state corrections officials said. He took the woman into an office area of the dining room.

    Woman Taken Hostage at Wis. Prison Freed
    Wednesday, November 14, 2007
    A prison dental technician was taken hostage early Wednesday by an inmate doing life for murder, but the woman was released unharmed shortly before the inmate surrendered, authorities said.

    Inmate releases hostage, surrenders
    prison standoff ends peacefully after 11 hours

    Saturday, May 6, 2006;
    An inmate who used a homemade weapon to take a female guard hostage at a maximum-security California prison Saturday surrendered peacefully after speaking to a family member, prison officials said.
When I was first employed by the department in a maximum security juvenile prison I wanted information on what to do if taken hostage by inmates. This topic however, was a taboo concept and as I have found during my research is taboo across the correctional society. This is like the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room; everybody knows it’s there but nobody wants to talk about it. We as correctional officers can no longer have the mindset that “it will never happen to me,” because, it just might. How you react and what you do will be a result of your training, experience, or lack of it. No matter how confident in our abilities we all need more information on survival skills if you are ever taken hostage.

Everyday the news reminds us of how vulnerable corrections officers are to the threat of being taken hostage. Inmates may feel that they need to take a hostage in an attempt to coerce the administration to give them even more liberties than they already have. This hostage taking is one of their only ways to gain the attention of the media and other civil liberty advocates to understand their plight and problems that they cannot resolve in a normal civil manor. Inmates all feel as if the prison system victimizes them even though they were sent there by society for victimizing others. Most hostage situations develop according to the following stages:
  1. The Capture
  2. The Victimization
  3. The Waiting and Negotiation
  4. The Release or Rescue

Fear of death is an inmate hostage takers most important tool. They use it to control, intimidate, and wear down the hostage as well as the negotiators. The fear of death is usually the greatest during the first few hours of capture. Inmate hostage takers may induce fear by weapon play with the hostage, displaying excessive aggression and rage, resorting to physical abuse and rape, and staging mock executions which are “mercifully” stopped at the last minute. As this fear subsides the inmate hostage takers may start verbalizing that the hostages themselves owe their lives to them as they have allowed the hostages to live during this incident. Anticipate isolation and the inmate’s efforts to confuse you. The fear of dying is real, and it can become overwhelming, especially during the first stage of captivity.

The Capture Stage: Most inmate hostage situations take no longer than 1 to 2 minutes to evolve. The purpose of the inmates is to take as many live hostages as possible. They attempt to do so by shocking everyone with yelling, beating, and threatening all authority figures within range as sort of a shock and awe attack. Their goal is to overwhelm the security of the institution and place the captives into a defensive submissive reaction rather than to fight or flee. With more live hostages their demands or plight will gather more media attention so that negotiations will take front page. This was evident during the Attica Riot in 1971 where 42 officers and civilians were taken hostage. There may or may not be improvised weapons involved depending on the amount of pre-planning for the uprising.

  • Attract attention to your situation. Do not think that you can resolve all situations because of your skills of de-escalation. Immediately call for assistance or activate your man down device. Your radio and other corrections tools will be taken by the inmates for control so if at all possible break off keys in door locks or break radios so they can’t here institutional communications.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings and remember who the ring leader of the situation is.
  • Create a rapport with your hostage takers, but you must do so with dignity and self respect. Inmates will view frailty and feebleness as weakness and will show you no respect or favor. This rapport may save your life but weakness may lead to victimization.
  • Make eye contact with the hostage takers sparingly, use the hostage takers first names if you know it, and talk to the hostage takers especially about your family and show them family photos if you have them. Create feelings of a bond so that the inmates will spare you.
  • Determine if you have similar interests as the inmates e.g. sports, food, hygiene etc.
  • Listen to the hostage takers. If they want to talk about their cause, act interested. You may explain that you understand and might not agree, but you’re interested in their view points.
  • Avoid appearing overly attentive or interested in what is taking place with the evolving situations, the hostage takers may view this as patronizing or insincere.
  • Do not refuse favors offered by the hostage takers, this may aggravate them and further harm your health and safety.

  • Avoid struggling if threatened with weapons. Only you will have to decide if by resisting the hostage takers will aid in your escape, each person’s assessment of the circumstances will prevail. Remember, the hostage takers in front of you may not be the only ones involved, and other inmates out of sight may jump in once they realize the overthrow is successful.

The victimization stage: This violent stage comes next in the ever evolving situation. The hostage takers must make it known that they are in charge and they will use force to prevent any escape attempts or rebellion. They will pick out officers whom they have had problems with or officers that seem that they feel will create problems for their aggression. If you are a female or male you may be sexually violated at this point because the situation presents them with the false sense of institutional control. I must get you to understand that to resist or to submit to the sexual assault is your decision to make. If you submit though, this may send the wrong message that you are open to other sexual encounters from other inmates.

  • You may or may not be bound or blindfolded at this point. Being taken hostage is the most devastating experience that a staff member will ever go through. The first 15 to 45 minutes are the most dangerous as it relates to victimization. Follow the instructions of your captors and remember, they are in a highly charged emotional state as well. Your job is to survive.
  • Immediately, when the victimization stage starts take a deep breath and try to relax. Fear of death or injury is normal, recognizing your reactions may help you adapt more efficiently.
  • Keep a low profile; avoid the appearance of studying your captors. You should however, make mental notes about their mannerisms, clothing and apparent rank structure. They may take your uniforms at this point and clothe you in inmate uniforms to disguise your appearance.

  • Do not be a hero; do not talk back or act authoritative. Accept your captive situation. Any action on your part to rebel may bring a violent reaction from your captors.
  • Do not make threats toward your captors or give them any indication that you will testify against them in court later. At this point you are not the authority anymore.
  • If inmate hostage takers are attempting to conceal their identity, do not give any indication that you know who they are.
  • Don’t fight the isolation but anticipate this action. Hostage takers may attempt to disorient you. Your watch may be taken away so that you are unable to determine if it is night or day.
  • Don’t attempt an escape unless you are sure that you will be successful. If you are caught your captors may use violence or death to teach you and the others a lesson for this action.

“It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or
how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is
actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly;
who errs and comes up short time and time again; who knows the great enthusiasms,
the great devotions, and spends himself a worthy cause;
who if he wins knows the triumph of high achievement;
and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with
those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Capture entails overwhelming, mind numbing fear. Uncertainty and apprehension are therefore prevalent in the daily routine of capture. The stressors associated with capture are a mixture of internal and external.

Internal: Internal stressors are usually self induced and are the most corrosive to your morale. All stem from fear and the induced feelings of failure; lack of needed direction or purpose; worry for yourself, friends and family; intense guilt; mistrust of the captors and possibly other hostages; mind crashing boredom; loneliness; and the perceived need for a constant alertness.

External: External pressure include the inmate captors attempts to dominate and disorientate you and make you dependant on them by removing your control and knowledge of what is happening. Enforced idleness and confinement in cramped, unsanitary conditions in an atmosphere of ruthlessness and unaccustomed discipline are likely, and so is a poor diet and probable starvation. You may be subject to sensory deprivation and lack of sleep and rest. You may be moved frequently within the captive setting to confuse would be rescuers.

Remember, your captors are also under a huge strain; hostage taking is not for the fainthearted. They will fear attack from you or your rescuers and must therefore maintain constant state of vigilance; this will then lead to their tiredness, irritability, and frustration. Many involved hostage takers may feel unsure of what to do or how to treat you and if you establish relationships with them this may create problems with the inmate hostage taking leaders.

While developing a relationship and cooperating with your captors may be beneficial during the period of captivity, it is not without risk and may jeopardize your safety, particularly during any attempted release. This relationship has been termed the Stockholm syndrome after a 1973 bank raid in which all of the hostages resisted efforts to rescue them and refused to testify against their captors. A woman hostage subsequently became engaged to one of the captors. The outcome is the captor’s positive feelings toward their hostages, which can aid a hostage’s survival. Inmates who are aware of this syndrome will endeavor to dehumanize their hostages.

The optimum conditions during captivity for the development of the Stockholm syndrome are:
  • Hostages and inmate hostage takers share the same accommodation, conditions and language.
  • Hostages believe their captors will act on the threats of violence or execution.
  • Escape is impossible with constant pressure and applied fear.
  • Hostages are isolated from the news updates and situation perspectives other than those allowed by the captors.
  • Small acts of kindness occur randomly in a context of terror.

Waiting and Negotiation Stage: The negotiation stage is used to get as many hostages, especially elderly staff and women released from captivity as well as for gathering intelligence data on the situation. During negotiation and emphasis is put on placing the inmate terrorist at ease so that they do not panic and act out aggressively. The longer the negotiation takes the more anxious, tired and worn down the inmates will be once the rescue force attacks if they are given the green light to do so.

The inmate terrorists and the hostages are likely to be in a highly agitated emotional state. You must resolve to stay as calm as possible and be very patient during this stage. Remember, the administration has a lot of procedures and notifications to go through and most administrators will have to dig through policies and procedures to even know what they are supposed to be doing. This will not be a quick process that will end as quickly as it happened. It may be hours before the first contact it attempted with the inmate captors.

Negotiations in other domains, especially labor-management bargaining, tend to follow a common cycle. Initially, both parties make exaggerated demands. This is followed by a period of withdrawal and a return to negotiations with more moderate demands. When parties try to circumvent this ritual, negotiations tend to break down. Even concessions made too early in the negotiation process can be counterproductive because parties need the opportunity to experience exhaustion of their demands before they can be satisfied that they had drained what was there to be had. Premature movement robs them of this experience.

  • Cooperate with the inmates in preparing meals, tending to the injured and generally looking after all the hostages.
  • Try to reassure any hostages showing signs of strain or excessive emotion. Make allowances for their behavior caused by the stress. Comfort others if possible.
  • If a rapport can be built with the inmates, ask if the conditions can be improved – ask for food, water, blankets etc.
  • Be prepared for difficulty with sanitation, particularly in a correctional setting. The power and water may be cut off for bargaining chips with the inmates during the negotiation stage.
  • Keep your mind occupied with pleasant thoughts and keep yourself mentally alert.

  • Do not behave aggressively and do not make long uninterrupted eye contact with inmates.
  • Do not make yourself stand out by drawing unnecessary attention to yourself; you increase the chance of being singled out and victimized.
  • Do not befriend the inmates; such an attempt will result in the inmates exploiting you.

Release or Rescue Stage: The only way to effectively escape the captors is a collective and organized attack by as many hostages as possible against the inmates. Do so only after studying the opposing force and waiting for the right opportunity when they are not as alert. If you are successful in such a plan you must understand that getting out of a particular building may be for not, as the control center may now be under orders not to open any doors for anyone.

If you attempt to escape you must be combatively ferocious and as aggressive as you can and such an attempt should only be made when it is clear that all other options have been exhausted and all the hostages are willing and understanding of their peril if the escape fails. While attempting your rescue, special tactical teams may attempt an assault to take out the captors. This however will only be done when all negotiations have either broken down or appear unfruitful. Attack will be the last thing on the minds of the administration as a peaceful resolve will be exhausted. If a rescue attempt fails, they will be roasted alive by the press and the public for their incompetence. If a rescue is attempted keep your hands above your head and drop to the floor. Do not attempt to be a hero and do not move until your rescuers tell you to do so. Once released or rescued, seek medical and psychological attention.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


  1. hamiltonlindley on 03/24/2020:

    He has blue eyes. Cold like steel. His legs are wide. Like tree trunks. And he has a shock of red hair, red, like the fires of hell. His antics were known from town to town as he was a droll card and often known as a droll farceur. Hamilton Lindley with his madcap pantaloon is a zany adventurer and a cavorter with a motley troupe of buffoons.

  2. Neal on 08/12/2009:

    What kept me alive was the ability to connect with and engage my hostage-taker in a real, honest conversation, listening to his rationale for his actions, and expressing appropriate empathy for his situation. He ended up placing the knife in my hand.

  3. Mae on 07/22/2009:

    My agency (South Carolina DOC) has an excellent, on going training program for all types of emergencies, including hostage situaitons. We also have an extremely well trained hostage negotiation team. I found your article very interesting and accurate. Two things, however have been left out. First, Try not to have your face or head covered. If necessary, pretend you are claustrophobic, cry, do what ever you need to keep your face visible. Covering the face enables the inmate to de-humanise the hostage. It is easier to hurt some thing instead of some one. Secondly, all hostage situations will eventually come to an end. My agency has had several hostage situaions during my 29 years on the job. We are fortunate that we have never had a hostage killed. It is the hostages job to Stay Alive. You do what is necessary to achieve this goal. Do not be deceptive, lie, or play word games. Inmates wrote that book. Don't try to beat them at their own game. Do not volunteer information. Speak only if spoken to. If the hostage taker(s) tell you what to say, say that and no more. Be prepared to answer “yes” and “no” to questions posed by the negotiator. If negotiations break down completely and the hostages are being injured, the SORT team will assault at the request of the commander. If this should occur: Get on the floor; stay there. If you cannot get on the floor, close your eyes, do not move or shout. You will be handcuffed before you are taken out of the area until a positive identification can be made. You will be afforded immediate medical examination. DO’S AND DON’T DEALING WITH FORMER HOSTAGE Do: Be Supportive. Be Encouraging. Be a Friend. Don’t Tell them how you would have done it. Minimize victim’s reaction. Compare victim’s reaction with others. Talk behind their back(s). If they walk in when you are talking, don't stop -- include them in the conversation. Treat them with “kid-gloves”. Force over-familiarity. Avoid/Ignore the person.

  4. Mae on 07/22/2009:

  5. Chuck on 07/22/2009:

    A very good description of a hostage situation. The Indiana Department of Corrections does wrestle with the eight hundred pound gorilla during staff orientation. I am sure there is nothing to prepare one for the physical and psychological onslaught of a hostage situation. The adrenaline that may keep you alive in this type of situation, also works to exhaust you after a while. There is a fine balance between the need to stay alert and the need to maintain a reserve of energy in case an opening for escape appears.

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