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Rumors of a Riot or Disturbance
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 06/01/2009

Riot police Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.

In June 1943, racial tension was close to the boiling point in Detroit, Michigan. Following a race-related fight at an amusement park, false rumors whipped both blacks and whites into a murderous rage. In the black community, the word was that some white men had thrown a black woman who was holding a baby into a lake. Whites repeated news that a mob of blacks had assaulted a white woman.

To understand how corrections institutions control riots, first we need to understand how a riot gets started in the first place. A riot is a crowd of inmates that takes violent, illegal actions, reacting out of fear or anger. The crowd of inmates takes on a mob mentality the inmates making up the “mob” do things they normally would not do because the crowd makes them anonymous; this anonymity, combined with the actions of the rest of the crowd, makes them feel like they can smash, burn or beat whatever and whomever they want.

There are different kinds of riots, but almost all riots can be described in general terms as being like a fire. For a fire to start, two things are needed: fuel and a spark. The fuel for a riot builds up over time. In many riots, the fuel can be years or even decades of racial prejudice, perceived unfair treatment of the inmates or antagonism between an administration and a resident. If inmates have no effective way of dealing with these problems or changing their situation, an undercurrent of anger and frustration grows stronger and stronger.

Once the fuel has built up, almost any spark can set it off. An incident that angers one group can turn them against another group. In many cases, an actual incident isn’t even required, just a rumor can spread through a group and turn deep-seeded anger into a violent outburst. Some riots are centered on grievances or conditions either losing privileges or perceived rights. In this case, the fuel doesn’t build up for a long time it’s mostly the result of beliefs and criminal mindsets.

On April 11, 1993, Easter Sunday, approximately 450 prisoners in Cellblock L of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, in Lucasville, Ohio, rioted. The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison. The riot apparently occurred for several reasons. Chief among these reasons was a fear among Muslim inmates that correction officials would force the prisoners to have tuberculosis vaccinations. Taking these vaccinations would have violated the prisoners’ faith. It also appears that some inmates desired to settle old disputes with other prisoners.

The riot lasted ten days. On the first day, some rioters beat five other inmates to death and placed their bodies in the exercise yard. Over the next several days, four other inmates died at the hands of the rioters. The rioters had also taken eight prison guards hostage. On April 15, the inmates strangled guard Robert Vallandingham to death, hoping to convince state officials to take the prisoners’ demands seriously. The inmates also caused more than forty million dollars in damage to the prison. After officials agreed to review the prisoners’ twenty-one demands, the rioters surrendered on April 21, 1993.

The rumor is the characteristic mode of communication in a collective behavior setting. Rumors can be defined as communication through inmates caught up in an ambiguous situation trying to make meaningful sense of it by relying on their perceptions and intellect. A prison riot can be triggered by simple rumors. The truthfulness of the rumor is not important; it is the perception of the rumor by the inmates who hear it. I am a big advocate in what we will call walking management. If the superintendent or administrators are seen walking through the institutions several times a day, speaking to inmates and especially the officers they can get a feel for the mood and intensity of the facility. If inmates and officers have access to ask questions as well as inquire about things they heard and get results they will be less likely to start or believe in rumors.
  • A rumor is a progressive distortion of an originally accurate statement.
  • Rumor plays a major part in crystallizing institutional opinion.
  • No riot takes place without a build-up through rumor.
  • Animosity is gradually intensified preceding a riot by stories of aggressive acts on the part of the opposition.

Rumors often follow controversial encounters between a member of a minority group and a white corrections officer. These rumors are often more important than the incident itself. Race is often the initiating factor in a prison disturbance. Minority inmates often view themselves as political prisoners, victimized by an unjust society.

Example: The Watts Riots of the 1960’s began because of a rumor “the police were beating a pregnant black woman.” The facts were that an arrest had been made, but the arrestee was neither pregnant nor was she beaten. Subsequent confrontation between citizens and the police lead to further confrontations where the police either withdrew because they were not prepared to deal with the crowds, or they were made to appear helpless.
  • The role of the media must not be underplayed here. With today’s live coverage, rumors and corrections action or in-action will influence the situations much more quickly. Inmates will listen to media reports of the disturbance that they will be causing as a sort of badge of honor.
  • Rumors must be countered immediately! When a rumor begins to surface, every effort must be made to communicate the truth or explain the reasoning for the act.
  • Effectively using institutional inmate contacts and well liked staff, to get the facts out into the institution can accomplish this.

How a rumor is spread? Within the institutional organization a communication chains exist. The chain used by formal communication may be very rigid, following the chain of command or authority. However, the chain used by the grapevine tends to be very flexible. Four different rumor applications appear to dominate the grapevine network in a prison:
  1. The step by step pattern is a simple concept to follow, A tells B, who tells C, who tells D and so on. Each person passes the information on to the next person. The longer the strand the more distortion and filtering affects the information being passed until the last person in the chain may find the information unrecognizable from the original message. Most inaccuracies occur in this chain.
  2. The Gossip way is an illustration such as A simply tells everyone with whom they come in contact. This pattern is considered to be somewhat slow in moving the information.
  3. The Cluster pattern is such that A tells contacts, B and F, who may work with A. They may tell two or three other persons with whom they usually have close contact. Most predominant pattern is the cluster pattern. Selectivity is the basis for this pattern. In any organization, individuals will generally feel more comfortable with some fellow employees than with others and therefore only relay information to those in their informal social groups. This flow pattern results in information missing some individuals completely.
  4. The Bogie rumor comes from employees’ fears and anxieties causing general uneasiness among employees such as during budget crunch. In this case, employees will verbally express their fears to others. These rumors are sometimes damaging, such as a rumor about possible lay-offs, and need a formal rebuttal from management.
  5. Inmate Terrorism Rumor is a set of rumors designed to alienate certain officers or position them for administration retribution or future assault for their failure to look the other way or allow criminal activities by inmates while on their shift.

Responses to Riot Rumors or Warnings

If there appears to be a high probability that a riot is imminent, administrators may take an administrative or diplomatic actions to prevent it. Administrative actions include a lockdown of a unit or the entire facility; transfer of suspected instigators to a segregated unit or another facility; cancellation of activities that give inmates the opportunity to congregate, such as recreation, religious activities or work; an increased presence of correctional officers who, by posture and words, convey that they will not permit a disturbance; and a search for weapons and other contraband.

Diplomatic actions include efforts to convince inmates that a riot would be costly to them personally, counterproductive to reform, or unnecessary because their grievances will be fully addressed and given due consideration in the future.

Administrative and diplomatic actions can be used in combination. Potential instigators may be removed from prisons and the issues around which they are mobilizing resolved. Sometimes, however, strategies conflict. Whichever strategies is chosen something must be done to quell rumors and talk of disturbances immediately. Just because you look the other way and do nothing does not make the problem go away. You only allow further festering of the rumor itself and the staff will loose confidence in your ability to ensure a safe environment. At the same time, a lockdown might further inflame already angry inmates and precipitate “the very riot a lockdown was intended to prevent.”

Safety of prison employees, inmates, and community residents of the area in which the facility is located, plus the financial cost of prison riots makes their prevention and containment a critical issue. All institutions have directives and policies directly related to the prevention and reaction to disturbances. However, do all employees know what and where these policies are, and where they are located? It is irrelevant if you have the best policy if the staff does not know it and observe its meaning and direction everyday. Your policy and daily practice should include proactive planning and preparation training along with reactive problem solving as this is the most effective approach to prison riot resolution. A prison riot plan should include:
  • A disturbance control plan should be a realistic, working document.
  • A command structure with well-defined lines of authority.
  • Clear guidelines on the use of force.
  • Interagency cooperation terms that specify the roles of such units as the State Police and the local fire department.
  • Training programs that address tactical strategies and mental readiness for emergencies. Strategies to prevent and deal with riots must address many factors.
  • Maintaining supervision of an experienced staff that follows sound security practices.
  • Ensuring the security of the physical plant and equipment.
  • Discerning the signs of a probable riot from false clues and relaying reliable information and how to get it up the chain of command.
  • Selecting the most appropriate means of resolving a riot: use of force, negotiations, or a combination of tactics.
  • Using strategies that range from immediate use of force to waiting until inmate leaders are ready to negotiate.
  • The plan must be adaptable. Deployment of staff and other resources will vary depending upon the time, location, nature, and extent of the disturbance. The plan must be sufficiently flexible to encompass a variety of contexts, including nights, holidays, and weekends.
  • Addressing issues of staff morale and emotional support during and after a riot ends.
  • Incorporating the lessons learned from experiences with disturbances into revised riot plans.

There is no single cause of disturbances in correctional institutions. The causes are complex, interrelated, and difficult to predict. Even the weather, especially hot weather, can become a factor that increases inmate unrest; most disturbances occur in the summer months. It is also important that they be aware of the general practices and conditions that can precipitate disturbances and that they address the causes, where possible. The “culture” of an institution is a crucial ingredient in determining whether specific conditions will lead to a disturbance. Situations that create no problem at one institution may precipitate a major disturbance at another.

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  1. hamiltonlindley on 03/24/2020:

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