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Home > Mental Preperation > Understanding the Prison Riot or Disturbance

Understanding the Prison Riot or Disturbance

d2d38623631bed70I have been asked to write some information that presents to rookie officers that may not have been in the books or trained in the academy. This put a big smile on my face as that specific purpose has been my main mission for the past two years. I write specifically to officers who are still working in the field as, I am. I understand their plight and constant need for good purposeful training that may not be there or available. Not training that mirrors your policy. Policy training spends a lot of time telling you what not to do but never informs you should do and what you should be doing. This aspect is left up to chance. The chance you may make probation or the chance you may quit after your first week.

It is no mystery that I was a police officer for over ten years prior to a10a9c476029409c4 career change into corrections. I have attended a basic police officers academy at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy that was three and a half months long. In this academy they drilled us on step by step ways and tactics on how to do everything from traffic stops to death notifications. The way law enforcement creates these procedural steps is from a failure to perform that probably led to an officer’s death. The method I was instilled with was tried and true information that my instructors lived and died by. If I had a question on why we did something they would show you why, not say “We do this because.” Everything had a purpose and a reason that had been thought out by officers in the field who were experts in what they were doing.

I will never forget my basic academy training in corrections. It was generally policy driven; now remember what I said about policy training. There was a lot of, “We do this because.” And “you will find out when you get on your unit.” At the end of my training we had a talk from the Superintendant about how the training we just received was the best training and information that had ever been taught in our agency but he asked, “Dose anyone have any questions.” I raised my hand and asked one simple question, “When are we going to learn how to be corrections officers?” You know what the answer was, “When you get to your unit.” I have written a lot of training articles published all over the country and officers respond the same way about their training.

So now is my chance to relay some information to you about mistakes that I have made or observed others making around me. I want to project this information to you as they did in my basic police academy. I want to give you step by step information on how to control people; people who do not want to be controlled. But I have to keep it in the realm of disturbances and riots. So here we go. I guess the first question that I can ask is, “how do you prevent disturbances or riots from occurring?” The answer is, you cannot. Disturbances and riots have been occurring since there have been prisons. Think of disturbances within your institutions as you do contraband control. Have you stopped the contraband from getting into your institutions yet? If you have let me know so I can get this information out there for all to see.

c6313d9fe89a8614In all of my past published training articles I have intended to educate the officer in the arena or recognizing and understanding what they are actually observing as they walk among the predators. The best you can do is educating your line staff on these three areas:


1. Recognition and reasoning of an impending disturbance. This includes causes of inmate violence and triggering events such as:

 Corrupt or compromised staff
 The God Complex
 Institutional Food
 Racial Tension
 Security Threat Groups
 Inmate subculture and inmate stress

2. How a disturbances or riots evolve and manifest such as:

 Rumor of a Riot or Disturbance
 Mental preparation of officers
 Staff perceptions of prison problems
 Triggering events and signs an event is imminent

3. And Managing and Surviving a disturbance or riot such as:

 Emergency response planning
 Hostage survival and coping
 After event readjustment

It is our failure to educate our people that lead to operational mistakes, corrupted staff and eventually disturbances. We all need more money to update facility design, more time to prepare proper medical and dental care for the inmates. But when we discontinue educational programs, fast track initial academy classes in order to staff our facilities then we are a time bomb with a short fuse. As an administrator you are responsible for every action that goes on within your institution. You either knew, or should have known of the deficiency or problem that leads to the disturbance.

edfaced2a6a0cf6a“A disturbance takes place when collective inmate behavior threatens the normal functioning, control, and good order of the facility and cannot be terminated by the facility staff on duty.”  institutional disturbances have been an unfortunate feature of correctional operations throughout the history of such facilities. These disturbances have ranged from isolated incidents such as inmate-on inmate assaults to group actions such as large-scale violent events resulting in death, major injuries, and massive property damage. While any of these types of disturbances may create serious problems for institution administrators and staff, I will focus on those disturbances involving individual inmates or groups of inmates who threaten the security, safety, and order of a correctional facility. Such disturbances have become more frequent and more serious in recent years. The potential for such events exists at any institution at any time, regardless of security level.

It is important for everyone to understand the definition of a disturbance as well as a riot to assist them in their careers. I know when I was on a unit for the first time and an inmate fight broke out in front of me I thought It was a major disturbance and I couldn’t understand why the management couldn’t see it my way. Well only after I understood what the definitions were I could better judge the necessary response needed to my unit incidents.

In 1996, the American Correctional Association, in “Preventing and Managing Riots and Disturbances,” suggested there were three categories of violence and disorder that may occur within our correctional institutions. These are:

Riot: A riot occurs when a significant number of inmates control a significant portion of the facility for a significant period of time.

Disturbance: A disturbance is a step down from a riot in that there are fewer inmates involved, and there is no control or minimal control of any portion of the facility by inmates.

Incident: An incident is then a step down from a disturbance in that one or a few inmates are involved and there is no control of any portion of the facility for any period of time by an inmate.

Contrary to the belief of many, most disturbances are not due to inmate organization, but to institution disorganization. When administrative staff members are not visible and accessible to line staff and inmates, but are perceived as unwilling or incapable of responding to the concerns of the inmate population, the likelihood of inmate unrest is increased. Future articles will addresses fundamental line staff and mid level management strategies for recognizing and containing disturbances.

“If we cannot live as people, then we will at least try to die like men,” declared the prisoners. A thousand inmates had taken over Attica prison in upstate New York in September 1971 and held 43 hostages for four days. The eruption happened on the morning of September 9, when a group of prisoners resisted returning to their cells and badly beat three guards, stealing their keys. The violence quickly spread as prisoners flooded “Times Square,” where the four corridors leading to the separate cell bocks intersected. They started freeing other prisoners, beating more guards, and taking hostages.

“ISLAMIC prisoner extremists are using an al-Qaeda training manual to give them instructions for taking over the state’s toughest jails, Inmates are establishing an internal organizational structure to maintain morale, resist authority and recruit additional inmate members to Islam. Prisoners are setting up leadership groups in prisons, with their activities governed by the code outlined in the al-Qaeda manual for incarcerated followers. A number of Corrective Services staff has been targeted, some with violent threats by inmate groups. Other staff has been singled out for conversion to Islam.” Jihad Watch December 2007

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Tracy Barnhart Mental Preperation

  1. June 4th, 2009 at 14:51 | #1


    I was a Warden at the Orient Correctional Institution at the time of the prison riot at Lucasville. Just a clarification…the muslim prisoners thought that the TB tests that we were giving to both inmates and staff were cultured in a solution that was from a pig and anything from a swine was forbidden in theri religion. This was false, but this was part of the rumor going around in the prison system.

    Good article. I am going to share it with the students in my Correctional Administration class.

    John F. Littlefield, Ph.D.

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