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Why you should consider attending the Mock Prison Riot

By Luke Whyte,
C1 editor

(Photo courtesy of www.mockprisonriot.org)

By the time it happened, things at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia had already started to slip out of control.

Four years earlier, in 1982, the prison had been found in violation of the 8th amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Cells were overcrowded, officers were understaffed and – due to issues like bad plumbing and insect infestation – disease often lingered in the stifled air.

At 5:30 p.m. on January 1, 1986, a group of 20 inmates – calling themselves the Avengers – stormed six guards and a food service worker in the mess hall, putting knives to their throats and locking them into their own handcuffs.

It only took a matter of seconds.

During the next 24 hours more than 125 of the 740 inmates at Moundsville got involved. Six more hostages were taken. The event made national headlines. Not only did the 1986 riot sound a warning cry to facilities across the country, but it marked the beginning of the end for W.V. State Penitentiary. It took nine more years, but in ’95 the doors closed for what most assumed would be forever.

Riot reincarnation

In 1997, W.V. Congressman Allen B. Mollohan had an idea:

Rather than let the decommissioned penitentiary rot into the earth, Mollohan suggested it be used to make sure an uprising like the 1986 riot never happened again.

The idea grew into what is today the annual Mock Prison Riot, a tactical training event like none other in the country, using volunteer inmates and the real hallways and cell blocks of the old Moundsville facility.

May 3, 2009 marked the first day of the event’s 13th year. Almost 1,700 people pre-registered for the event and the number of exhibitors doubled from the year before. By 8 a.m. on Monday morning, the hallways of the penitentiary echoed once again with the sounds of CERT teams marching, prisoners rioting and all the nerves, adrenaline and action of a real-life riot.

“It’s the best training you can get,” said Michael Leardi of the Passaic County Sherriff’s Department in Paterson, N.J.

At 1:30 p.m. on Monday, the Passaic County team was negotiating a hostage situation in cell block L, while 500 yards away in the North Yard, the North Dakota State Penitentiary team responded to an officer assault call. Half an hour later, the dining hall exploded to life as the Suffolk County N.Y. Sheriff’s Office disabled an uprising of inmates armed with kitchen utensils.

“This is some of the better training we get to do all year,” said Federal Bureau of Prisons, FCI Ashland’s scenario leader after defusing a group of chair-throwing inmates in the Dining Hall. “It’s hard to do this in an institution that already has inmates.”

Why you should consider driving to West Virginia next May

Cindy Barone, a project manager at this year’s MPR, explained how the event’s hosts try to create an environment where lifelike scenario training is coupled with the opportunity to test the newest technology.

“The idea is to introduce new law enforcement technologies to the practitioner and to let them train with these new technologies from within the penitentiary walls,” Barone said.

This as achieved through the development of detailed scenarios, specifically tailored to fit participating teams’ needs.

“When team leaders register for the riot online, they are automatically allotted two scenarios,” said Sharon Goudy, an MPR project manager. “I work with the teams year round to develop those scenarios. They know their training issues so we leave that to them. For instance, if they have significant issues in the dining hall at their facility then that is what they are going to want to practice when they are here.”

Another major draw, Goudy said, is that the event is free to registered teams. “There is no cost for this,” she said. “These teams are often on very limited budgets.”

All of the inmates are volunteers (other officers, college students or curious locals) and the staff at the MPR undertake monumental efforts to ensure their safety.

“We’ve been doing this for 13 years so we’ve had a lot of time to refine (the process) and to make things as safe as we possibly can,” Barone said.

“We supply (the teams) with volunteer inmates and they have to deploy technology and force,” Goudy said.

“They have to actually prevail. This is the only environment they can do that in.”

The riot raged from May 3 to May 6 this year. You can watch scenario videos, read exclusive articles, and check out new technologies in CorrectionsOne’s Mock Prison Riot Special Report.

To register for next year’s event, which is scheduled for May 2-5, log on at http://mockprisonriot.org.

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