The Mock Prison Riot: Where guards play jail

by May 20, 2014 5:00AM ET

Weapons, biceps and burgers on display at the annual West Virginia event

West Virginia
Volunteer inmates in the prison chapel stage a protest meeting that gets rowdy upon the arrival of a team from the Hazelton U.S. Penitentiary for the Mock Prison Riot in Moundsville, West Virginia, May 6, 2014.
Melissa Golden for Al Jazeera America

MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. — Inside a white chapel in the sprawling green exercise yard of the decommissioned West Virginia State Penitentiary, some prison guards are watching Paul Clark explain the mechanics of a head butt.

Behind their semicircle, a cross-shaped lectern made of black wire mesh stands at the front of a stage. A metal plaque showing Jesus performing the miracle of the loaves and fishes leans against the rear wall, and light from a cross-shaped window casts a pattern on the group, where Clark is grappling with a volunteer.

Clark lowers his buzzed head and taps the top of his skull, the hard bone he advises his pupils to avoid. Instead, he says, bash the top of your head into your opponent’s face or, if nose to nose, strike their jaw or temple from the side.

“I knocked a guy out like that one time with the headgear on and everything,” he says as the men begin to lock arms.

A European film crew documents vendors from the company ReadiMask demonstrating their product with a full can of pepper foam.
Melissa Golden for Al Jazeera America

Clark, a West Virginia Division of Corrections employee who runs a training business on the side, has arrived in Moundsville, population 9,300, for the annual Mock Prison Riot — a kind of arms show, training seminar and prison guard beauty pageant rolled into one over the course of four days in the spring.

Since 1997, the event, which until recently was funded by the Justice Department, has attracted hundreds of guards and sheriff’s deputies from across the country, and in past years, teams have traveled from Israel, Japan, Italy, Brazil and elsewhere to attend. It is now run by the West Virginia Division of Corrections.

For these men and women, who see their lives as a constant and hidden struggle with the worst of the worst, the Mock Prison Riot offers a rare moment of public camaraderie and international solidarity.

“They show us that it’s a fight globally, in the family of corrections officers,” says Sgt. Foster Ferguson, who’s on a team from the Bahamas.

Members of Florida’s Orange County Corrections team and a volunteer inmate playing dead during a scenario.
Melissa Golden for Al Jazeera America

On New Year’s Day in 1986 — on the same grounds where guards from Alabama and Florida now joke over grilled hamburgers while a sales representative fires a gas grenade at a human-shaped target — prisoners rose up, protesting what they described as filthy living conditions and restrictive visitation rights.

They took more than a dozen staff members hostage and killed three inmates before giving up three days later. The state Supreme Court — which had been hearing a class action filed by the prisoners before the riot — ordered the state to find a way to increase cell size and, roughly a decade later, ruled the prison uninhabitable.

The year of the Moundsville riot, U.S. jails and prisons housed roughly 530,000 people. Since then, that population has ballooned to 2.3 million. About 53 percent are nonviolent offenders.

While budget-busting overcrowding has prompted legislators to rethink and occasionally even roll back some of the country’s harshest laws and to experiment more with alternatives to incarceration, corrections officers seem to have become more militarized.

Most prison systems now employ SWAT-like special response teams that specialize in riots and cell extractions — subduing and pulling out uncooperative prisoners. Those teams are better armed than normal guards and are sometimes staffed by officers with military backgrounds. These are the kinds of officers who attend the Mock Prison Riot.

A member of the Orange County Corrections team engages volunteer inmates in a school bus.
Melissa Golden for Al Jazeera America

The martial atmosphere extends to the relationship between guard and prisoner. More than one attendee refers to inmates as “the bad guys.” “You talk to all the alpha dog guys here, and they just want to throw [criminals] in and let them rot,” says David Mason, a broad-chested Canadian with the parted hairstyle of a 1960s adman, who oversees Ontario’s special response teams.

Mason used to lead a team and has responded to seven violent prison incidents. Reflecting on the expert tactics that another Canadian team recently employed to quell a hostage situation, he calls it a “beautiful disturbance.”

“Corrections officers around the world are very proud of what they do, of how they maintain the system,” he says. “People don’t want to know what goes on inside our prisons.”

A quick glance at the Mock Prison Riot suggests that much of what goes on in prison is violence. During its final two days, teams run through confrontation scenarios, often of their own invention — prisoners have taken over a bus, inmates in a cell block refuse to obey orders, a dining hall needs to be cleared with tear gas and dogs, guns are dropped off inside the prison walls by a drone.

Or more accurately, by two quadcopters.

A drone system and a toy firearm on the ground at the Mock Prison Riot. Droneshield attended the four-day event as an exhibitor to demonstrate its drone detection technology. Drones are an increasingly common problem for prisons, where they are used by connections on the outside to deliver contraband to prisoners.
Melissa Golden for Al Jazeera America

This is DroneShield’s first time at the Mock Prison Riot, and the organizers are so excited, they have put out a press release. Founded a year ago by Brian Hearing and John Franklin, who between them have 25 years of experience in the defense and aerospace industries, DroneShield has as its main product a mountable device that detects the approach of unmanned aircraft by the sound of its propellers.

Remote-controlled flying machines, it turns out, have been causing problems at prisons for a while. In 2009 a toy helicopter was spotted flying over the wall of a prison in the United Kingdom, possibly to deliver drugs. Last year a quadcopter dropped contraband over a prison wall in Georgia, and another was spotted flying over a prison in Canada.

It’s not easy to stop a drone. The solution that often comes to mind — shooting on sight — remains illegal under federal law. It’s possible to jam the radio frequency used to pilot drones, but they can be set to autopilot. As a last resort, a prison could block the global positioning system in the area, but the problems associated with that are so numerous that no one has given it serious consideration. DroneShield sells a net gun, currently the only weapon considered safe to bring down a drone.

Hearing and Franklin concede that interest in DroneShield has been mostly limited to companies and private individuals. Government agencies don’t consider drones enough of a problem, they say, and corrections departments are strapped for cash.

Corrections officers sometimes say they feel like law enforcement’s forgotten cousins. They are chronically underfunded, compared with police forces, and the spotlight always seems to shine brightly on hero cops in their moments of glory. There are few stories about valiant prison guards.


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Men in the exhibition hall crowd around booths stocked with the latest assault rifle from Beretta or gas grenade from Safariland. There is one stall that advertises a computer system for prisoner services, such as refilling commissary accounts, but it sits empty. At an event dedicated to teaching guards how to subdue riots, there is little discussion here of why riots begin.

This year, for the first time, the Mock Prison Riot is offering a seminar on managing the stress of prison guard life.

Inside a darkened lecture hall at the rear of the technology and gun exhibition, Jennifer Myers is pleased to have drawn a small crowd away from the drone.

“I thought I’d have to pay people to come,” she jokes. Nine men and seven women — not the Mock Prison Riot’s usual gender ratio — have come for her Surviving Prison talk.

Myers, a psychologist in Morgantown, about 80 miles away, has worked in federal prisons and currently contracts with the U.S. Probation Office. She reels off statistics about the toll of corrections work. On average, prison guards live to age 59 and die within 18 months of retirement, she says. They don’t know how to cope with their stress. She projects stock images of alcohol, prescription drugs and a full plate of fast food on the screen behind her. She asks how many people eat in their cars.

The job, she says, is a constant struggle between guards and the prisoners trying to manipulate them.

“Is there anyone in here that has never had an inmate gotten over on them?” she asks. She brings up a well-worn corrections story, called downing a duck. Heads nod in the crowd.

Downing a duck is, according to the story, inmate slang for exploiting a prison guard. An inmate selects a vulnerable officer and flatters him, perhaps by praising how he seems to care more about prisoners’ well-being than the others.

At first, the prisoner convinces the guard to ignore small violations, like letting him keep more paper and pencils than allowed. Once the guard lets minor infractions slip, the inmate uses the illicit favors as leverage, threatening to end the guard’s career. Eventually, he convinces the guard to smuggle in a uniform and escapes.

The story’s subtext seems clear: You may think you’re being kind, but you’re just a sucker. Attendees insist it’s an accurate picture. Let down your guard and you’ll get hurt,  physically or mentally. The fear for many is that this mindset will seep beyond prison walls, into family lives.

“Most people don’t see people get stabbed right in front of them,” Myers tells her audience. “You see the worst of the worst every day, and you’re saying, ‘How can God allow this man to molest little kids, and I’m supposed to take care of him?’”

A team from the Broome County Public Safety Facility engages two rioting volunteer inmates during a scenario in the old prison infirmary.
Melissa Golden for Al Jazeera America

After the talk, two women move outside to sit on a bench, smoking cigarettes in the midday sun. Gina and Amber, who both asked to be identified only by their first names, met at this year’s Mock Prison Riot. Gina entered corrections at a time when few women did and worked in a state prison for nine years but is happy to have retired from the life years ago. Amber started a job as a supervising psychologist in a state prison in January.

It’s not easy to talk about stress with colleagues, they say.

“Especially in West Virginia,” Amber says. “This is a country state of mind.”

Like inmates, guards heed an unspoken code: Show no weakness. Betraying vulnerability in front of prisoners invites ridicule and abuse. Despite guards’ efforts, the prison attitude bleeds into their lives.

“My son says, ‘Mom, you can’t run this house like an institution,’” Gina says. The constant jousting with inmates means “you become very suspicious of people’s motivations.”

That wariness extends to co-workers. “Wherever you are in segregation,” Amber says of the isolation wing, “there is a point where sound ricochets wherever you are in the tier, so you have to be really vigilant in not discussing your personal life.”

“The whole criminal logic of it,” Gina says of how she first became interested in corrections. “Why do people do what they do? Why does society react the way it does? And not so much how do we fix them but how do we fix it?” 

Wesley Williams waits for Blitz the German shepherd to release his arm during a K-9 demonstration in the north yard.
Melissa Golden for Al Jazeera America

Melissa Golden is a documentary photographer based in Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @_MelissaGolden_.