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Jail Riots: Prevention and Response

The cure for riots in county lock-ups is a combination of watchful eyes and firm reaction.

May 22, 2012  |  by Ronnie Garrett

Greene, also a California POST instructor with the LASD Custody Division Headquarters Training Unit, says the department teaches deputies to look for indicators pointing to a potential uprising during these checks. Potential indicators include:

  • Stockpiling food. "Inmates understand that as soon as something starts, the first thing we are going to cut off is food," says Hughes.
  • Not talking to officers or getting quiet as guards walk by. "Typically inmates don't care what they're talking about when we are in there unless it's something they want to hide," says Greene.
  • Hoarding materials/contraband. Piles of excess clothing or stacks of magazines or newspapers may indicate a problem. Newspapers may be rolled up, wetted, then wiped with toothpaste or soap, and dried again to form a Billy club. Tube socks may be filled with hard items to hit someone in the head. Magazines may be taped to the body during a riot to add protection against less-lethal rounds and shanks.

"If you see several of these things happening at once, these are red flags indicating you may have a problem," Hughes says.

The Gang Factor

Greene also recommends keeping an eye on racial tensions, and reacting accordingly. "You need to balance the dorms so that one group doesn’t feel they have power over another," he says.

Look at each inmate as he enters the jail. Consider the gangs he may be affiliated with, the charge(s) against him, his race, and more. "We have to pay careful consideration to where they are housed and with whom," says Hughes. "We also have to pay attention to the climate among gang members and make sure they don’t have a beef with one another. Gangs can coexist in the jail just fine, but as soon as you begin to see larger numbers of one vs. the other, or one trying to control the cell, you have to do something."

Valdemar adds it's as important to cultivate informants in jails as it is on the street. The county jail houses inmates for a long time: before their trial, during their trial, and after conviction. Inmates have plenty of time to coordinate and act out an uprising. Not every offender balks at authority, however. Some individuals just want to serve their time without creating problems and may be willing to share information about disturbances in the planning stages.

"Bring them a cup of coffee. Talk to them," Valdemar says. "In the jail system because they think you're not trying to charge them with anything, they will tell you a lot about the criminal activity going on. But this has to be done carefully and you have to protect your informants. You can't label them as informants or other inmates might come after them."

He reminds deputies to remember the "firm but fair" lesson from the academy. "The best thing you can do is establish a firm but fair reputation with inmates. An inmate once told me, 'You run the outside, but we run the inside. Anytime we wanted, we could take this place.' And that is the truth. If they are motivated enough and willing to risk their lives to do it, they can. The only reason confinement works is because conditions are tolerable. If you treat them unfairly, isolate them, take away their yard time, or feed them bad food, you are cooking up a riot."

Confine and Contain

On July 9, 2011, a riot at the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Mass., went on for hours until deputies got inmates under control. Though it's unknown what sparked the uprising involving a dozen inmates who destroyed furniture and equipment, barricaded doors, and flooded a section of the jail, what is known is that the jail's tactical response team stopped the incident with pepper spray and less-lethal grenades.

Though riot-like incidents differ in scope, their common thread lies in officer response. "You need to confine and contain a riot, then react to it," says Valdemar. "Sometimes reacting is putting inmates on lockdown and waiting them out. If they can't hurt anything and are locked in place, we can wait a long time. But if they have hostages, then you have to figure out how to rescue them."

According to news reports, Franklin County assembled a specially trained team, comprised of on-duty and on-call deputies, who donned body armor and helmets and carried shields before entering the space seized by inmates. And less-lethal technology played an important role in their ability to regain control.

The appropriate less-lethal technologies are a must when responding to a jail disturbance, says Smith. He points out prisons house inmates in a 40- by 60-foot dayroom with auxiliary dorm-type rooms for prisoners to sleep, but local county jails typically cram everyone into a single 30-by-40-foot room that includes bunks, too.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

SAIDI ALI @ 1/31/2013 12:48 AM

Very applicable six factors to deal with Jail Riots,crime prevention

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