To stop a prison riot, rescue hostages and prevent an ambush, nearly 1,000 law enforcement and corrections officers from around the world convened in West Virginia this week.
The three-day Mock Prison Riot, a tactical scenario training event showcasing non-lethal technology, ended Wednesday in the decommissioned West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville.
Between 1876 and 1995, this Gothic prison was the site of many escapes and riots, including a notorious two day riot in 1986 where 20 inmates stormed the mess hall and took 15 corrections officers hostage, ultimately leaving three inmates dead.
The event gives law enforcement and corrections officers the chance to train under the most realistic conditions possible with the newest, cutting-edge less than lethal technologies.
Twenty-seven teams tackled fifty-eight tactical scenarios and had the chance to test the very latest in non-lethal technology from more than forty companies.
Participants represented a mix of local, county, state and federal officers, from U.S. SWAT forces to the highly trained elite Singapore Prisons Emergency Action Response (SPEAR) team, who specialize in close quarters riot control, transportation of high risk inmates and dynamic entry.
After 16 years of consistently excellent results, federal support was yanked for this world-class training program that officers often paid their own way to attend. The West Virginia Department of Corrections stepped in and sponsored this year.
Whenever there is a group of prisoners in one place, there is an opportunity for a fight or a full-blown riot to break out. In the dining hall, tables and chairs can be overturned and utilized for mayhem and utensils seized to cause damage.
Non-lethal munitions are one key tool for crowd control. PepperBalls, one very popular less than lethal option, work sort of like a paint ball: They’re small plastic balls filled with a variety of agents.
If there is a disturbance, balls stuffed with dye packs can be used to ID a problem inmate later. If something stronger is needed, they company suggests a powder similar to pepper spray. Upon impact the little plastic balls break, making the perpetrator’s eyes water and forcing him to cough -- stopping whatever he’s doing.
The Custom Carbine PepperBall launcher is semi-automatic, accurate to 60 feet, and can accurately saturate an area with pepper powder agent from up to 150 feet away.
Distraction and diversionary devices are another crowd control option; some law enforcers use “bangs” to get the crowd to disperse. The ALS Hornets Nest Sting Grenade is a two-for in this regard.
It works by combining the powerful concussive effects of a significant low explosive propelling a charge with the painful impact of approximately 60 .45 caliber rubber balls and the irritating effects of OC (the technical term for pepper spray).
Where would a prison be without restraints? Mil Spec Plastics brought a new model that’s a real twist on standard handcuffs.
The company’s two-ounce Cobra Cuffs are “virtually unbreakable” and are far more flexible, resistant to cold weather and to cracking or breaking. Cobra Cuffs are a disposable zip ties that’s a very quick method of restraint and a modern alternative to handcuffs; the riveted straps give leverage and provide more complete control and distance than standard metal cuffs.
Another common riot event: an inmate disguising herself in an officer’s uniform.
The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology team has devised a handheld mobile biometric device that can scan irises and fingerprints to defeat this classic escape tactic.
Last year it was tested against several scenarios, and the DHS group returned this year to gain further operational feedback.
Faking illness to get transported to the infirmary -- along the way grabbing a hostage and making an escape -- is another common prison break method.
In such a situation, corrections officers face a heightened threat from anything the prisoners turn into weapons. This year Safariland and other vendors brought body armor, helmets and gloves in a range of new materials and configurations to better meet this specific threat.
Mike Coleman, director of security for the West Virginia Division of Corrections, describes the dramatic evolution of the field over the past two decades from “old-fashioned cardboard cards to inkless biometric scanners that scan and instantly submit and receive data from various agencies.”
The Mock Prison Riot not only gives teams from around the world the chance to test new less than lethal technology, but to learn from each other’s tactics and experiences.
Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz might be a little harder next time.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.