Jail Riots: Prevention and Response

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.

Photo: iStockphoto.comPhoto: iStockphoto.com

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.

Red Flags

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.[PAGEBREAK]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.[PAGEBREAK]"Tools like Stinger grenades and other long-distance less-lethal tools can't be used. When we enter the room, we are right in the middle of 40 inmates," Smith explains. "Less-lethal options such as 37mm multi-launchers might work great at 40 feet, but when you are 15 feet away you can't use them."

Technology at the Forsyth SORT team's disposal includes PepperBall launchers designed for shorter distances that enable officers to fill an area with PAVA (Capsaicin II) powder. LASD employs 40mm launchers that utilize five approved munitions inside the custody division. "We have munitions for unique situations," Greene says. "If you need to impact somebody 90 feet away, we have munitions for that. We also have munitions that can be used in close quarters incidents."

Two munitions at LASD release a powder, be it OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) or CS, which Greene says work well in area treatments. The department’s PepperBall launchers are useful for dormitories, which are 90- to 100-feet deep. Officers shoot rounds against the wall and let the PAVA powder fall onto inmates. Aerosol agents, be it OC or OC/CS blend, are also often sprayed into crowds to break them up.

"We also use CS hot gas under certain circumstances and in restrictive situations we also deploy TASERs," Greene says. "For officers to use these less-lethal weapons, they must obtain primary certification from the Custody Division Headquarters Training Unit."

When selecting the tools to use, Greene recommends starting at the lowest use of force possible and moving up the continuum as needed.

The first question to ask, he says, must be: "How can we stop this with the least level of injury to inmates and staff?" Typically this involves employing OC spray, PepperBalls, and OC/CS blend chemical agents. "These things cause pain and panic but do not cause any lasting injury or side effect," he says.

It is also important to protect officers working in the thick of a disturbance. Beyond stab-resistant vests, helmets, and shields, Valdemar recommends issuing breathing apparatuses. "Everyone gives these teams shields, sticks, and pepper spray, but they overlook breathing apparatuses," he says. "Team members need to breathe. Fires often start in confined areas during riots. Smoke will create some real problems for officers without breathing apparatuses."

Train, Train, and Train Again

Training cannot be overlooked because response tactics and technology deployment must be second nature before an uprising, says Greene.

The LASD puts new deputy sheriffs through a jail operations course that includes a section on using less-lethal weapons in jail settings. Here deputies learn about less-lethal technologies, when and why they may be used, and how to use them. "This gives them an understanding of what munitions to use in which circumstance," Greene says, noting supervisors generally determine which munitions to use but in life-threatening situations officers need to make these calls themselves.

Training must cover tactics too. The LASD trains officers about basic squad movements and formations, hostage rescues, and the anatomy of a disturbance.

"Our team gets more training because they are the ones who are going to respond to an incident," says Forsyth’s Hughes. "Our general staff gets trained to identify the indicators. They are the ones with the inmates every day and they can tell when something is a little bit off."

The Attica Prison Riot and the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot put large-scale prison incidents on the map. But while disturbances at the local jail may not make the national news, they can be just as dangerous to the officers responding to them.

Because of this, jail riot prevention and control is something all departments need to pay attention to, adds Smith. "You've got a lot of emotions going on in a jail. When you bring somebody into the jail, whether it's their first time or their fifth, at some point it hits them that they are not getting out. They can’t turn on the TV without asking and have to shower and go to the bathroom with people watching. Their wife or husband might leave them," he says. "All of these things come into play and it’s a volatile situation that could go off any time."

The words of the old English proverb, "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst," make complete sense in the world behind bars at the county jail.

Response Team Basics

Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sergeant Richard Valdemar offers a few tips for jail response teams.

Size. This varies by facility but a jail system the size of L.A. County might have 20 to 30 people on a single response team while smaller systems might only have 10 to 15 members. Large facilities typically have dedicated response teams while smaller institutions do not.

Members. Response teams should be comprised of physically fit, experienced officers known for keeping their cool in the heat of battle.

Training. Teams should train weekly and the entire staff should participate in daily briefings that cover everything from riot indicators to what tactics or technology can help things calm down.

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.

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