For 51 years, a family in upstate New York has closely guarded one of the most explosive, and unusual, secrets any family could have: Its late patriarch, Dow B. Hover, was New York State's executioner. Hover held the job in the 1950s and 1960s and was the last man in the state to activate the electric chair. He left behind evidence of his workletters from Sing Sing's wardenhidden in a filing cabinet in his house.
Hover, who lived in Germantown and worked as a deputy sheriff for Columbia County, took extreme precautions to ensure no newspaper would ever reveal his identity. On the nights he drove to Sing Sing to carry out an execution, he employed a novel strategy in order to elude pesky reporters: He changed the license plates on his car before he even left his garage.
Hover worked in the infamous Sing Sing death house, where 614 people perished between 1891 and 1963more people than at any other prison in the nation during that time. New York's last execution took place almost 42 years ago, yet the debate over the death penalty continues. Last summer, the Court of Appeals ruled that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional, and now the public debate has grown even louder. Just in the last week, the state assembly convened two public hearings, in Albany and Manhattan, on the future of New York's death penalty.
Maintaining public support for the death penalty has long depended on keeping the act of killing prisoners shrouded in secrecyno television cameras, no interviews with the execution team, no revealing of the executioner's identity. Conversations about the death penalty often remain abstract, focused on issues like "justice" and "deterrence." Rarely do they focus on how the death penalty affects those most intimately involved, transforming everyday people into professional killers. The voices and stories of the people who carry out executions are almost never heard.
Dow B. Hover had two children, both of whom are now in their 70s and still live in Germantown. They have not paid much attention to the political debate swirling around the death penalty. In fact, neither likes to think much about the issue at all. But on a recent Saturday, Hover's children finally decided to discuss their family's secret. They spoke to the Voice about their father, his execution work, and his own life's end.
One afternoon last week, Randy Credico sat in a friend's apartment in the West Village and sifted through a plastic bin packed with photos. There were hundreds of them – each representing another chapter in his seven-year struggle to convince New York legislators to change the state's ultra-punitive drug laws. There Credico was, holding a press conference in front of City Hall, protesting outside a Pataki fundraiser at the Yale Club, rallying on the steps of the state capitol in Albany.
"I don't like looking at these pictures," he says, "because I realize how much time has gone by." Indeed, Credico, now 47, looks much younger in these early photos – fewer wrinkles and more boyish features.
"Who thought it was going to be seven years?" he says. "I thought it was going to take a year, and the laws would be changed. I was naive. I thought it was crystal clear that the laws needed to be changed."
He knew little about New York politics in early 1998, when he helped organize his first vigil to protest the state's drug laws, which were named for their creator, Nelson Rockefeller. Scheduled to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the laws, the event was held on the sidewalk in front of Rockefeller Center. Some of the rally's organizers thought it should be a one-time event; Credico disagreed. He packed up the posters and banners, brought them home, and over the next several years, organized more than 100 events.
On Dec. 7, the state legislature finally voted to change the laws by softening some of the most severe penalties. While other activists received more attention in the media – most notably Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Recordings, who organized an anti-drug-law rally in the summer of 2003 – Credico played a crucial, behind-the-scenes role. "Randy Credico really, really, really deserves a lot of credit," says State Sen. Thomas Duane, a Democrat from Chelsea.
News of the modest changes in the laws did not put Credico in a jubilant mood. "The whole thing was a small payoff for seven years of street work," he says. He supports full repeal of the laws – dismantling mandatory sentencing and allowing judges to determine the severity of each defendant's punishment. For now, mandatory sentencing remains intact, with judges handing out prison time based on the weight of the drugs involved.
Will Credico continue his battle? Duane hopes so. He called Credico last week and told him, "Please don't give up." To keep chipping away at the laws, Duane says, "We're really going to have to ramp it up." Credico, a stand-up comedian, insists he plans to quit being an activist and instead revive his comic career. (He was once a regular at clubs in Las Vegas, and performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at age 27.)
But giving up his addiction to the political fight will not be easy. All last week, his cell phone was buzzing with reporters looking for prisoners' relatives to interview, and with relatives asking when their loved ones will get released. For some, the news was good. If a first-time inmate is serving a sentence for an A-1-level felony, the changes are retroactive. Inmates with sentences of 15 to life can now apply to a judge to have their minimum sentence reduced to eight years.
The news for others was not good; prisoners convicted of a lesser B-level felony cannot be resentenced. Credico knows many mothers of inmates in this predicament. "It's hard to leave women like Flora King and Cheri O'Donoghue, both of whom were up in Albany this year," he says. "I hate to tell them that it's all over, that I'm not going to be able to do this next year. I always say it's all over, but I guess it's like being in the mob: You're in for life."
For years, it seemed Credico would do just about anything to get the drug laws repealed. Take, for example, his most recent trips to Albany. When 10 state legislators met this summer to hold public discussions about the drug laws, Credico made six or seven treks north – showing up with family members in the hearing room every day. He sat prisoners' relatives in the front row, a few feet from the legislators, and armed each of them with a poster.
It was a sympathetic sight – elderly women, some hobbling in with canes, another in a wheelchair, all clutching oversize pictures of their imprisoned kids. When Credico had trouble collecting a crowd for these trips, he didn't cancel. Instead, he recruited two older blind women he knew, both African American, and he parked them in the front row too, with a poster on each of their laps. Never mind that neither of them had a relative in prison.
"I thought it would add to the panache," Credico says. "All's fair in love and war, and this was a war."
He works for the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice and helped start the Mothers of the Disappeared, a group of prisoners' relatives. But he has no staff, no office, no job description. All he really has are his zeal and his tenacity. In the past, activists fought against the drug laws using words and numbers: op-eds, reports, editorials, statistics. Credico brought families into this public debate.
Over the last seven years, he has generated more than 100 media stories about drug prisoners serving at least 15 to life. He can rattle off the cell phone numbers of reporters at a dozen news outlets, including The New York Times, El Diario and the Times Union of Albany. Now, however, some of his best examples of injustices have been eliminated.
"You're not going to get these heartbreaking, gut-wrenching stories like Melita Oliveira anymore," he says. Oliveira, a single mother of five children, was sentenced to 15 years to life after she got caught at JFK International Airport with a package of cocaine. She said she thought the package contained diamonds. Credico convinced the Times and El Diario to cover her case.
Now Credico says that if he continues his work, he will shift his focus to people convicted of B-level felonies, who are 5,156 of the state's 15,600 drug prisoners. Sale of just one vial of crack constitutes a B felony. The new mandatory minimum sentence for this crime is three and a half years – down from four and a half to nine years – for individuals with a prior nonviolent felony on their record.
In recent years, Credico has been collecting cases of individuals he thinks are doing too much time for a B felony. These include John Martino – 59 years old, first-time offender, Vietnam vet – who is in prison with a sentence of 15 to 30 years for selling drugs. Martino's case stands out, but Credico admits it's hard to find sympathetic cases of people convicted of B felonies.
"How do you keep the fire burning here?" he says. "Now that they took out a lot of the steam from this movement, how do you keep the fire going? You have to look for these B cases, and they may be few and far between. Let's be honest – who's going to be sympathetic to someone doing three to six years for selling drugs? I'm sympathetic, but I don't know if it's going to get a lot of people off their asses and up to Albany to demonstrate."
New York's laws remain the toughest in the nation. Politicians eager to see more reform hope Credico will continue his activism. On Jan. 6, Sen. Duane is convening a hearing in Albany to assess the state of the drug laws. Its success will depend in part on whether Credico shows up with a busload of good examples of how the laws are still unjust.
"I really don't know what I'm going to do," Credico says. "Obviously this needs a lot of energy. I thought it was going to be a one-year job, and it turned out to be seven fucking years. I don't know what direction to go. I'm at a huge fork in the road."
When Assemblyman Richard Gottfried proposed a bill legalizing marijuana for sick people in 1997, his odds of success seemed slim. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, vowed to defeat Gottfried's bill. And even Gottfried, a Democrat from Chelsea, admitted that turning his bill into law would be "an uphill battle." Back then, only two states permitted sick people to smoke pot legally.
Fast-forward seven years and the cause of medical marijuana has become a full-fledged political movement, with two national organizations running campaigns across the country. Medical marijuana is now legal in 11 states. And in New York, the cause has grown in popularity. Now even Bruno, who battled prostate cancer last year, has begun to sound much more receptive.
The battle over medical marijuana was back in the news again last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of two sick women from California. Their case seeks to stop federal law enforcement agents from arresting pot-smoking patients who are obeying the laws of their own state. A ruling is not expected for months.
Even if the court decides against the two women, the medical-marijuana laws in states like California would not change; they would still permit patients to smoke pot (though these patients would be vulnerable to arrest by federal agents). "Nobody ever expected this case to get this far," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped finance this lawsuit as well as medical-marijuana campaigns in eight states. "If we win this, it would be a very significant step forward. If we lose, it's just a tiny step backward."
Whatever the court's final decision, it will certainly affect the movement's momentum, and may determine the fate of Gottfried's bill in Albany next year.
For New Yorkers with long memories, the debate over medical marijuana may feel like old news. During the 1980s, New York was one of seven states in the country that distributed marijuana cigarettes. The pot came from a federal farm down South. Through a research program, it was dispensed at hospitals around the state to people with glaucoma or cancer. (According to doctors and patients, marijuana relieves eye pressure in glaucoma sufferers and fights nausea induced by chemotherapy.)
New Yorkers had former assemblyman Antonio Olivieri to thank for this program. In 1979, Olivieri discovered he had a brain tumor. He underwent chemotherapy, and smoked marijuana to battle the side effects. Along the way, he became an outspoken crusader for legalizing medical marijuana. From his hospital bed, he lobbied the chair of the senate health committee by phone. The bill passed in 1980, and Olivieri died shortly afterward.
Between 1982 and 1989, the New York State Department of Health handed out almost 6,000 joints, to more than 200 people. Eventually the availability of Marinol capsules – which contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana – decreased the demand for the cigarettes. (Many people do prefer marijuana, however, which they say is more effective.) At any rate, by the end of the decade, New York's medical-marijuana program had shut down, as had all the programs in other states.
California kicked off the recent wave of medical-marijuana victories in 1996, when Proposition 215 prevailed, with 56 percent of the vote. Now, with a doctor's recommendation, people in California who suffer from AIDS, cancer, or glaucoma can legally grow and smoke marijuana. Over the next four years, several states followed California's lead: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Colorado, Nevada. Each state put the issue on the ballot, and every time voters approved it. Last month, voters in Montana approved yet another medical-marijuana ballot initiative, this time by 62 percent.
Meanwhile, in 2000, Hawaii became the first state to remove criminal penalties for medical marijuana by using a different method: passing state legislation instead of putting an initiative on the ballot. Campaigns for ballot initiatives can be incredibly costly; given a choice, medical-marijuana activists usually prefer to achieve their goals through legislation. While it can be much more difficult to win over state legislators than regular voters, this strategy has begun to work. The Maryland state legislature passed a medical-marijuana bill in 2003, and Vermont did the same earlier this year.
A legislative victory in New York State – getting Gottfried's bill through the assembly and the senate, and then signed by Governor Pataki – would represent yet another substantial victory for the pro-pot movement. The Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that spent $3 million on campaigns this year, will be targeting New York in 2005, as well as Rhode Island, Illinois, and a few other states. Already, the group has a lobbyist working in Albany.
Gottfried's bill would permit people to smoke marijuana legally with a doctor's certification if they have a "life-threatening condition." These include cancer, HIV, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and hepatitis C. Doctors who certify patients to obtain pot would be required to send a copy of their certification to the state health department. Patients would be allowed to receive a month's supply of marijuana at a time.
The bill has 45 sponsors in the assembly; seven are Republicans. One of the first Republicans to join the cause was Patrick Manning, who represents Dutchess County. A close friend of his has cancer, and has been smoking marijuana to battle the effects of chemotherapy. "If this could help someone make their life a little bit better, a little more pleasant, while they're going through such a horrible disease, then it would be wrong for me not to stand up," Manning says. "I started talking to my colleagues and asked them to join me, so we can really make it a bipartisan bill."
The talk show host Montel Williams traveled to Albany to lobby legislators in May. Williams, who uses pot to combat the pain caused by multiple sclerosis, met with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Bruno, and others. In June, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau met with Williams, then announced his support for legalizing medical marijuana. A few weeks later, the New York City Council passed a resolution supporting Gottfried's bill. And in September, Williams returned to Albany to have a meeting about the issue with Governor Pataki.
For any state that does legalize medical marijuana, the crucial question is always: Where does the pot come from? The federal government grows marijuana on a farm in Mississippi, and supplies joints to seven patients across the country through a research program run by the University of Mississippi. But this farm does not supply pot to new patients in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. These patients must either grow their own weed, or else buy it on the black market.
One idea that has been floating around for years is to redistribute marijuana that has been confiscated by the police. In past years, in New York State, this pot has been handed over to the state health department. Workers placed it on a conveyor belt, which delivered it to an incinerator. (The process wasn't always seamless; in 1986, workers took 63 pounds of marijuana for themselves, lifting it off the conveyer belt.) Gottfried's bill suggests a few possible sources of medical marijuana, including the state's confiscated stash.
While some legislators will likely want to wait to make a decision about Gottfried's bill until the Supreme Court makes its decision, Gottfried is pushing for faster action. "I think the fact that the Supreme Court decision is pending creates one argument for passing a bill at this very moment, because state action helps send a message ... to the Supreme Court," he says. That message, of course, would be that the public wants to permit sick people to smoke pot without having to worry about a phalanx of police officers bursting through their front door.
Cheri O'Donoghue usually spends her days inside an office in Manhattan, working as an editor at a glossy magazine. But last Wednesday, the mother of two took the day off from work and at 7:30 a.m. boarded a bus to Albany, NY. Almost every passenger on the bus had a family member who had been imprisoned for a drug crime. Cheri settled into a seat near the back.
In the last row was Wanda Best, whose husband, Darryl, is in the third year of a 15-to-life sentence for his first offense. James Gantt, 84, sat near the front; his son Ronald was recently released after spending 14 years in prison. By now, most of these activists had made many trips to Albany. They greeted one another with hugs.
Cheri sat alone, her arms wrapped tightly around her waist. She had never imagined she would someday become an anti-drug-law activist. In fact, until seven months ago, she had never even heard of the Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate hefty sentences for drug sales or possession. She did not know these laws are 31 years old, or that they are among the toughest in the country.
But then her son, Ashley, was arrested, and she got her first lesson in how New York's drug laws work. Last October, Ashley, then 20, traveled from New York City to Oneida County with a package of cocaine. He planned to sell it to two students at Hamilton College. At the time, he didn't know they had been arrested a few days earlier with seven grams of coke. To reduce their own punishment, these two 18-year-old freshmen had agreed to set up an acquaintance: Ashley.
Outside the Amtrak station in Utica, the police arrested Ashley with 72 grams of cocaine. The two students did not go to prison; their cases have been sealed. Ashley pleaded guilty to a B-level felony and received a prison term of seven to 21 years.
Cheri heard about the Rockefeller drug laws for the first time when Ashley's lawyer mentioned them on the phone. To learn more, she scanned The New York Times and typed "Rockefeller drug laws" into Google. Then she sent letters to Governor Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Bruno, Assembly Speaker Silver and also to Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, who has led the charge to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws. Aubry's office hooked her up with a local activist group, and now she was riding along with the group to Albany.
"I'm a private person, and I don't like doing things like this," she said as the bus barreled along the New York State Thruway. "But because it's my son, I have to do it." About the state's drug laws, she said, "I never would've known about them if this hadn't happened."
At noon, Cheri and the other activists entered the New York State Capitol and filed into a hearing room with crimson walls and a royal blue carpet. Cheri found a seat near the front; her son's face stared up from the chair beside her. The night before, her husband had made a cardboard poster with their son's picture. It showed Ashley's hair braided in cornrows, and his lips curled in a smile. Cheri had written his name with a red marker at the bottom of the poster.
Ten legislators sat around a table at the front of the room. These five senators and five assembly members had been charged with trying to come to an agreement on a bill that would reform the drug laws. The hearing marked the first-ever convening of a conference committee to discuss the Rockefeller drug laws. Eighty-five people had shown up to witness the historic event.
The co-chairs of the committee were Assemblyman Aubry of Queens, who used to oversee a drug treatment program, and Senator Dale Volker of western New York, an ex-cop who has seven prisons in his district. Cheri listened as the legislators staked out their positions, paying close attention whenever the conversation turned to B felonies.
The debate during last year's legislative session focused largely on those drug prisoners with the longest sentences: people convicted of A-1 felonies. These men and women all have sentences of at least 15 years to life. Last year, state legislators created a new provision, which enables A-1 inmates to reduce their minimum sentences by up to a third if they follow the rules and take part in certain programs. As of last count, 56 A-1 drug prisoners had been released; 474 are still locked up.
This year, there is increased attention on inmates convicted of B felonies, who make up 5,263 of the state's 16,397 drug prisoners. "It's the issue of the class B felons that I think are really the tone and the credo of the need to reform the Rockefeller drug laws," said Senator David Paterson of Harlem.
The hearing lasted a little longer than an hour, and by 1:30 the room was empty. In the hallway outside, the activists held a press conference, with each family member telling his or her story. When it was Cheri's turn, she stepped forward, clutching Ashley's poster in front of her. "I just want to say that the Rockefeller drug laws need to be changed," she said, her voice strong and confident. "When you send someone to prison, you send their entire family to prison, in a sense. This is a young man who has a lot of potential. He doesn't deserve this."
The reporters scribbled down her words. Cheri felt a little better, and a little more hopeful, than she had felt in months.
Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer for The Village Voice, is the author of "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett."
Moundsville, West Virginia – The prison guards climbed into their costumes – faded gray cotton jumpsuits held shut by a strip of Velcro. Pretending to be inmates, they tossed a football around the South Yard of the West Virginia Penitentiary. Last week, this defunct, Civil War-era prison was transformed into a classroom as prison officials from around the country came here to learn new tactics for subduing inmates. They packed the bleachers inside the penitentiary's yard on this afternoon, and some pulled out video cameras to record the inmate football game.
A disagreement over a call soon escalated into a fight. The mock prisoners targeted one inmate, who had ratted them out to the guards. "Snitch motherfucker!" they shouted at him. "Did you talk shit on us?" As the inmates pummeled the traitor, 30 masked men marched into the prison yard in lockstep. These men were guards assigned to Pennsylvania's Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT). In this skit, they played themselves, and each resembled a walking arsenal. Pump-action shotguns jutted from under their arms, revolvers bulged in their holsters, and grenade launchers hung across their chests. "Get on the ground!" the guards hollered.
The inmates refused to surrender. Instead, they reveled in their roles. Five prisoners stared down the approaching guards, gestured to their groins, and together shouted, "Suck this!" Laughter rippled through the bleachers.
This football-game-turned-mini-revolt was among the 20 scenarios staged during an event dubbed the Mock Prison Riot, held here May 14 to 17. This annual event is part training session and part trade show. Inventors and vendors set up booths to show off the newest law enforcement technology, everything from laser shields to guns that shoot pellets of pepper powder (see sidebar). To try out the equipment and hone their riot-quelling skills, tactical teams of prison guards staged uprisings inside the penitentiary's cell blocks and recreation yards.
The Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC) began organizing the Mock Prison Riot in 1997. OLETC is part of the National Institute of Justice, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. Attendance at the Mock Prison Riot has skyrocketed since the first year, when 107 people showed up. This year's event drew 1315 participants from 25 states and included 11 members of the Emergency Services Unit on Rikers Island.
The popularity of the Mock Prison Riot is a sign of the times. The nation's prison population has quadrupled over the last two decades, climbing to 2 million. At the same time, the law enforcement technology industry has also exploded. Its annual sales now exceed $1 billion, according to OLETC. (This figure includes stab-proof vests, helmets, shields, batons, and chemical agents.) All this new equipment for suppressing inmate revolts can create the impression that prison riots are on the rise. They are not. Rather, the hunger of companies for new customers in this post-Cold War era and the availability of government dollars have fueled a military-style buildup inside many of the nation's prisons.
"Gimme food!" "gimme food!" The inmates pounded the mess hall floor with their chairs. Unhappy about the day's lunch menu, they flung their paper plates across the room. "Gimme food, damn it!" they shouted. In this scenario, criminal-justice students from a nearby college played the prisoners. Only the foam plugs in their ears and the few inches of denim sticking out beneath their inmate jumpsuits made this scene slightly unreal.
An officer cracked open the cafeteria door and threw in a "flash-bang," a grenade that stuns by momentarily blinding its target while delivering an ear-piercing boom. The inmates clapped their hands over their ears as a team of officers stormed in. These men belonged to the "disturbance control team" at the Federal Correctional Institute in Manchester, Kentucky. They played themselves in this scenario and wore their usual uniform: padded gloves, plastic shin guards, Kevlar helmets, and flak vests.
Two guards wielded PepperBall guns, a new weapon they were trying out for the first time. The pellets in this gun envelop their target in a cloud of pepper spray, as they did when Seattle police fired them at World Trade Organization protesters last winter. But the student-inmates were spared a gassing; the officers had loaded their guns with inert pellets. Within a minute or two, all the prisoners obeyed the guards' commands and sprawled on the cement floor, their cheeks mashed against the beans, peas, and carrots they had earlier refused to eat. Officers bound each inmate's wrists with a pair of plastic cuffs before leading them out.
The officers gathered afterward on a grassy patch outside the mess hall and passed around the PepperBall rifle. "I really like this gun," said one officer as he stroked the 33-inch launcher. The team's leader, Jon Pell, a senior lieutenant, added, "We're really hoping to get some of these." Several steps away, the student-inmates checked their wrists for scratches and bruises. Not surprisingly, they were less excited about the PepperBall gun. "One of the balls hit me right in the toe," said a student-prisoner. "Boy, did that hurt. It felt like a baseball hitting you."
At times, the mock prison riot seemed to be as much about boosting morale as it was about practicing high-tech responses to inmate rebellions. "For a long time in corrections, we were the stepchild of law enforcement – and the emphasis had been on street officers," says Captain John Kingston, the coordinator of Pennsylvania's Western Region CERT. Now, he says, correction officers are receiving the attention they deserve with a conference – and a booming industry – specially tailored for them. "They like to come here and see what's hot," Kingston says of the 70 guards he brought here. "Tactical officers are just like soldiers – they love new toys."
For this event, organizers transformed the Prison Industries Building into an exhibit hall. Where inmates once made license plates, prison officials now strolled around carrying plastic bags stuffed with glossy brochures advertising the latest high-tech gear. Here, vendors sprinkled their sales pitches with the vocabulary of this burgeoning industry: "pursuit management" equipment to track escapees, "compliance technology" to subdue unruly prisoners, and – the industry's favorite catchphrase, used by every other salesman – "less than lethal."
Ironically, the most popular piece of equipment at the Mock Prison Riot was neither new nor for sale. Parked in front of the exhibit hall sat an armed personnel carrier bearing the logo of the New York City Department of Correction. A captain had bought the 40-year-old carrier at a military surplus sale a couple of years ago, and it made the 12-hour journey from Rikers Island to West Virginia aboard a tractor-trailer.
This 26,000-pound machine became a magnet for prison guards with cameras, eager for memorable snapshots to bring home. Some officers even climbed inside so they could pose for a photo with their heads poking out the hole in the top. "We'd like New York to let us use it for a month," joked Darcy Regala, the director of operations at Cambria County Prison in Pennsylvania. Regala admitted he did not need an armed personnel carrier to handle his facility's 430 inmates, but he said he would love to park it in front of his jail. "Just to let people know corrections is high-tech now," he said. "When you see equipment like this, you know corrections is not playing anymore."
Some participants at the mock prison riot sounded like veterans swapping war stories as they traded their own tales of quashing inmate protests. The crowd included guards who had worked at the West Virginia Penitentiary in 1986, when prisoners seized control for 53 hours. They held 17 employees hostage and killed three fellow inmates who they believed were snitches.
Today, this penitentiary is a tourist attraction and this bloody revolt has become one of the many stories tourist guides tell as they lead visitors around inside the prison's 30-foot sandstone walls. The West Virginia Penitentiary shut down a few years ago after the state supreme court ruled that imprisonment here qualified as "cruel and unusual punishment." By today's standards, the cells are tiny – just five feet by seven feet – and each cell held two or three inmates.
The West Virginia Penitentiary will soon add a new chapter to the nation's penal history, as OLETC plans to transform it into a year-round training center for correction officers. Already, Congress has allocated $1.4 million. And the Mock Prison Riot, cosponsored by the Moundsville Economic Development Corporation and the West Virginia Department of Corrections, has already proven to be a moneymaker. This year's participants injected about $625,000 into the local economy, eating at restaurants, renting cars, and filling nearby hotels.
One attendee at this year's Mock Prison Riot hopes that the event's focus will shift as it continues to grow. "I think it's a terrific event, but I think we need to move to the next step," says Bert Useem, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico and the coauthor of States of Siege: U.S. Prison Riots 1971-1986. "This is mainly about how these tactical units operate, but we need to know how to manage and control and best deploy them. Whether inmate assault is advisable is a difficult tactical, moral, and strategic question."
That question was barely on the agenda at this year's Mock Prison Riot. Useem tackled it during a workshop titled "What Causes Prison Riots?" which drew several dozen prison guards and managers. But almost all of the other events at the Mock Prison Riot concerned how best to employ force.
Looming over any conference about prison riots is the memory of the 1971 uprising at New York's Attica prison, which left 43 people dead. This riot was part of a wave of inmate revolts that swept through the nation's prisons in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Another wave of riots occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the nation's prisons have been relatively quiet, with about a dozen riots each year, according to Useem. Still, the Mock Prison Riot continues to grow, and so do sales of weapons like the PepperBall gun, all fueled by rhetoric about avoiding another Attica. During each scenario enacted at the Mock Prison Riot – and throughout the exhibit hall set up for the event – the goal was the same: to perfect the art of breaking a prisoner's will without taking his life.
In the prison's south yard, no one following the football-match-turned-brawl was surprised that the gun-wielding officers quickly seized control. Before the carefully choreographed scenario concluded, though, one inmate torched a station wagon parked nearby. An army helicopter landed inside the prison's walls to pick up an injured inmate. And the tactical officers escorted the prisoners from the yard by jamming the barrels of their guns between the inmates' backs and cuffed wrists.
Six prisoners in this scenario were actually guards from Colorado, and afterward they sat on the sidelines comparing notes. Everyone said they liked Pennsylvania's strategy for escorting inmates, which they dubbed the "chicken-wing technique," and they discussed using it on their own prisoners. "It's effective, and you're not going to cause injury to the individual," said Jim Romanski, commander of the Special Operations Response Team for the Colorado Department of Corrections.
As a team of local firefighters doused the flaming car at the far end of the football field, the crowd began to pack up. A full day of wrestling prisoners, capturing escapees, and rescuing hostages seemed to have tired everyone. The Mock Prison Riot was winding down, and soon the crowd would depart – their spirits lifted as they headed home armed with business cards, brochures, and plans to ask their bosses for the latest "less than lethal" weapons.