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March|April 2004
The Problem of Prison Rape By Daniel Brook
Captive of the System By Jennifer Gonnerman
Lifers By Sasha Abramsky
The Last Supper By Brian Price
The Cuckoo's Nest By John Douglas
The Tinderbox By Don Cabana

The Tinderbox

By Don Cabana

MANAGING A LARGE MAXIMUM-SECURITY PRISON is something like running an air-control tower. Each day, the crowded skies over America's busiest airports may be the site of a "near miss." In prison, the equivalent of the near miss is the threat of a riot.

For the most part, prison riots are uncommon. That is a testament to the vigilance of prison staffs and the begrudging acceptance by most inmates of the need for some semblance of order. And it's the result of a healthy dose of luck. Most prisons are pretty boring places in which to work. Think about it for a moment: How exciting can it be to sit up in a tower for eight hours at a time, staring at walls and fences? The hallmark of a well-run prison is months and years of routine—routine that is so staid, so monotonous and unchanging, that it dulls the senses. This creates a serious dilemma for prison officials. It's called apathy. Among prison staff, it can be fatal.

For a warden, the need for both routine and vigilance means experiencing radical swings in emotion several times each day. I never felt that range of emotion more acutely than one oppressively hot summer day 16 years ago at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. About mid-morning, five inmates in the dayroom seized a half-dozen officers as hostages. Within minutes, the prisoners had taken the officers' keys, cut the phone lines, unlocked other inmates, and gained control of the housing unit.

Wardens really earn their salaries in this kind of situation. When a prison explodes, my greatest fear is the infectious quality of the violence. Containment becomes the order of the day. Isolate the disorder to one small area, and chances are everyone walks away relatively unscathed. Otherwise, the riot will take on a life of its own.

I happened to be near the building where the crisis in the dayroom was unfolding. I went inside the room—violating the first rule of good management, which is that a warden should make sure he's not at risk of being taken hostage himself. Prison officials are usually willing to negotiate in hostage situations as long as no one has been harmed or is in imminent danger. I was ready to negotiate, but with one qualification. The ringleader of the inmates was psychotic, and at the first sign of serious deterioration in his demeanor, I was prepared to use force, if necessary, to stop him.

The inmates were standing with their backs to a wall. They stood with the officers in front of them as human shields, holding homemade shanks, or knives, to the officers' throats. We began negotiations, and they were rocky at best. The riot had occurred spontaneously—after an argument over the confiscation of an inmate's radio—and the prisoners didn't have any real demands to make, other than to complain generally that the officers had been unfair.

As the discussion stalled, the ringleader became increasingly agitated. I tried to appeal to the other inmates. Their initial emotional high began to subside and a couple of the hostage-takers started speaking reasonably—until, without warning, their leader began to lightly scratch the neck of his hostage with the shank. His hands shook and beads of perspiration poured from him. He threatened to cut the officer's head off, and began to nick the side of the officer's neck.

In an instant, I instructed an officer behind me to hand me a shotgun. I pointed the gun directly at the inmate's head. "Let the officers go and let them go now, or I'll blow your damned head all over the wall," I said. One of the other inmates yelled, "This is crazy!" But the leader laughed. "Kill me, I don't give a shit, 'cause when you do, you'll off the pig here too," he hissed.

"Then get ready to die, you bastard," I blurted. The officer with the shank to his neck looked horrified. The sound of steel could be heard as the other four inmates threw down their weapons and pushed their hostages away. For another second or two, their leader stood his ground. Then he dropped his knife and shoved the officer toward me.

A few hours later, another officer who'd been held hostage told me he would never forget how calm I seemed to be throughout the ordeal. He said it was like I had ice water in my veins. He didn't know how badly my knees were shaking.

By afternoon, things had pretty much returned to normal and I was sitting on a bench talking with an inmate. All of a sudden, he quietly started to cry. The chaplain had told him a little earlier that his mother had passed away. I found my arm around his shoulder, as I tried to console him. We talked for a long time.

Don Cabana teaches criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the author of Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner. He was the warden at the Mississippi State Penitentiary for five years.

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