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Riot Act

The annual Mock Prison Riot is a law enforcement and correction training opportunity unlike any other.

August 01, 2007  |  by - Also by this author


R Block of the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville. Inmates are holding a hostage. His hands are bound with a strip of cloth that's tied around the crossbars of one of the cells.

A negotiator has been called in to hear the inmates' demands and to try to secure release of the hostage. The ringleader of the riot, a young loudmouth called K-Dog, yells at the negotiator who is on the stairs above the showers, "You better take care of your boy!"

K-Dog comes back into the cell area. He grabs the hostage by the chin and yells in his face, "They don't care about you, man!" He hits the hostage a few times with a board.

"We want a pizza!" he bellows at the negotiator. Then he pauses for a moment and adds, "And some Hot Pockets!" The rest of the rioting inmates pick up

K-Dog's chant; the cry for Hot Pockets rings through the cell block.

But K-Dog and the other inmates will not get their Hot Pockets.

On the fourth tier of the cell block, four officers of the Gwinnett County (Ga.) Sheriff's Office Rapid Response Team are preparing to rappel down to the floor and rescue the hostage. Out in the hall, the rest of the RRT team has assembled. They carry shields, batons, and PepperBall guns.

Ropes drop down, over the rust encrusted railings of tier four, and the vertical insertion team follows.

Almost simultaneously, a flash-bang skitters onto the floor of the cell block from one of the doorways and detonates. Both elements of the RRT are now in action.

The hostage is freed, and the rioting inmates are now face to face with the RRT. Screams and curses fill the air. Some of the inmates fight back. Some comply.

PepperBall rounds fly toward K-Dog and some of the other ringleaders who stay aggressive. The PepperBalls take the fight out of them, and they all start to comply.

RRT has now taken control. The inmates are ordered to turn around so that they are lying on their stomachs facing away from the officers. PepperBall-wielding officers maintain aim on the prisoners. Other officers order them to crawl backward into the waiting hands of an arrest-and-control team. The inmates are flex-cuffed and removed.

Moments later, these same inmates will be "rioting" somewhere else in the facility, as they role play in another scenario at this year's Mock Prison Riot.

Riots on a Schedule

Held each May inside the foreboding confines of the Moundsville Penitentiary, the Mock Prison Riot is one of the premier corrections and law enforcement training events in the world.

There are two reasons why this event offers such a unique training opportunity. One, there's the location itself. Two, there's the staff of the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC) and the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center that plans and executes the program.

Moundsville Penitentiary is a massive complex. The prison, which was closed in 1996, has multiple cell blocks, a dining facility, two exercise yards, a chapel, and dozens of other areas that can be used for training. It even has a residential area—the Apartment—that was built by the Mock Prison Riot staff. Designed for law enforcement tactical team training, the Apartment is essentially a two-story house. It has common areas downstairs, a staircase to the second floor, and multiple bedrooms.

Kevin Maloney—aka "K-Dog," the infamous inmate riot instigator—is OLETC's project manager for the Mock Prison Riot. In this capacity, he oversees a team that develops the scenarios for the riot. And he is the first to say that the Moundsville Penitentiary offers a rich environment for training scenarios. "We have been able to accomplish everything that the teams who train here have suggested," Maloney explains with great pride. "We've even been able to do some outside-the-box things like secret scenarios and special scenarios."

Maloney and the Mock Prison Riot project team put in some long and arduous hours preparing for the event. They research disturbances and riots in operating prisons, and they create scenarios that allow the participants to game those incidents inside the Moundsville Pen. "We don't want to put a scenario out there that's outlandish or something that wouldn't be seen in the correctional environment," Maloney explains.

The team also works with the participating teams and the makers of products that exhibit during the event's Technology Showcase to provide training opportunities that involve new or improved products.

Despite all of this advanced planning, there are still some elements of surprise for the participating teams. Everything isn't choreographed to the extent of a dance; it's more like an improv exercise. The team is sent to a specific location in the prison, and told generically what they're about to face and what tools they will need, but there are still some surprises. In some scenarios, the responders have only a vague idea of how many inmates are involved. In some, the inmates roll over quickly. In others, they fight hard.

The Inmates

Of course, this performance requires two sets of players: the responders and the rioters. Some of the rioters are corrections and law enforcement officers from teams attending the event, and some—especially the leaders—are OLETC and NCLETTC personnel, but most are students pulled in from local colleges and high schools.

"The students really make the event," Maloney says. "They are more scared than the officers, so when the team comes in there is actual fear present. This gives the scenario a more realistic flavor."

Maloney knows all about the fear that the students experience when they face off against the heavily armored officers. He started participating in the Mock Prison Riot 11 years ago when he was a student at nearby Wheeling Jesuit University.

Today, "K-Dog" would like to retire his orange jumpsuit. Unfortunately, he has discovered that the "inmates" need a leader to direct them and urge them on. "I tried to phase myself out of the riot a few times. But when I do, the inmates become less and less aggressive and less and less abusive of the officers," he says.

Safety First

The "inmates" are only allowed to go so far. And the same rules apply to the officers. Consequently, injuries are uncommon at the Riot, mostly amounting to bruises and scrapes.

Great care is taken to keep it that way. Safety monitors are positioned at each scenario, and they have ultimate authority to force "inmates" to comply and officers to cease their response. They even have a safety word that when uttered requires everyone in the scenario to stand down.

Safety is another reason that the scenarios are planned in detail. For example, responders are told where they can deploy flash-bangs and where to fire their baby powder-filled PepperBall training rounds.

"We really pride ourselves on our safety record," says Maloney.

Unique Training Opportunity

The organizers of the Mock Prison Riot have even more reason to be proud that no one was significantly injured at this year's event. It was a massive undertaking. A total of 38 teams participated in 75 scenarios during the event, which was attended by more than 1,600 officers.

Major Carl Sims of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office provided insight into why it was important for his team to make the trek from suburban Atlanta to Moundsville. He explained that his Rapid Response Team is responsible for both street and corrections duties, including tossing cells and riot response, and that training for corrections operations is complicated.

"We really can't train very well in our jail because it is occupied," Sims says. "And that's a problem because a cell offers a unique environment that's difficult to duplicate outside of a corrections facility."

Tags: Corrections, SWAT Training


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