Veteran gang specialist and retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department sergeant Richard Valdemar remembers fighting for his life after an inmate attacked him at an L.A. County jail.
The incident occurred after an inmate suffered an epileptic seizure. Valdemar and his partner followed department policy and handcuffed the affected man before administering medical care. An inmate watching accused them of hurting the man and instructed other inmates to "get them." And get them they did.
Though sheriff's deputies gained control of the incident before it progressed to a riot, Valdemar warns these situations can happen in an instant. "We have to expect every time we work custody that a riot could occur," he says.
Capt. Charles Smith from the Forsyth County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office says disturbances in the local county jail are as common as they are in prisons because, while the setting is smaller, the inmate population is the same.
"Every prisoner starts out in the county jail," he explains. "We house murderers, rapists, child molesters, and we also have the local DUI offender who messed up once and won't do it again. Many of our inmates are really hardcore people who are going to prison and we have to control them until the state finally picks them up."
While many jail-based incidents may never escalate to riot status, smaller disturbances occur frequently and must be quelled quickly, according to Valdemar.
"Jails are a powder keg waiting to go off. There is so much potential for things to go wrong," agrees Sgt. Kenny Hughes, Forsyth County training coordinator. "Once things start to happen, there isn't time to come up with a plan for how to handle the disturbance. That plan needs to be in place already."
This includes developing a special operations response team (SORT) that trains regularly on tactics and technology. It also includes prevention by setting departmental policies on everything from how often to check on inmates to gang control measures and riot indicators.
In the case of jail riots, planning and prevention are worth a pound of cure. A proactive approach to disturbances and prevention keeps small incidents small and resolves them quickly, according to Smith.
Small Size, Big Problems
"Jail incidents are going to be much smaller in scope, but you have to use different tactics [than a prison] because of the environment," says Hughes.
Jails offer less room for officers to maneuver and fewer places for inmates to hide. Inmates and guards inevitably come in close contact with each other at some point.
"There is not as much room for the element of surprise. Inmates know we are coming. A lot of times they will even see or hear us preparing," says Hughes.
The smaller sized jail staff also complicates matters. Prisons or larger jail facilities, such as those found in L.A. County, are equipped with dedicated response teams. But places like Forsyth County, which houses fewer than 200 inmates, lack the manpower to maintain a full-time team. Forsyth, for example, puts a few members of its 16-man team, organized in 1999, on each shift. "A lot of times that dilutes the effectiveness of the immediate presence that comes from a true dedicated reaction team," says Hughes.
The best defense against a riot is a heap of prevention.
Deputies can glean a wealth of information from hourly inmate checks if they know what to look for. "While we are doing hourly checks on inmate safety and well-being, we are also in there looking around," says Dep. Ben Greene, an LASD Bonus-1 level deputy sheriff.