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Botched Escape Sparks Rebellion

[Editor's Note: There is no source PLN is aware of that keeps accurate statistics on the number of prison disturbances/rebellions. It is apparent to many who monitor prison news, including PLN, that the number of rebellions is on the rise. We attempt to cover them when possible, but often the only source we have is what gets printed in the local papers. We are reluctant to report only the "official version? of events, so we often report little or nothing of these newsworthy events.

The report which follows was made possible because PLN readers sent us not only local news clippings, but also some first-hand reports which were accurate, factual and to the point. We at PLN appreciate this kind of reporting .]

On Friday, August 9, 1996, four Nottoway Correctional Center (NCC) prisoners (in Virginia) hatched an escape plan that went awry. Before it was over hostages were taken, a full-scale rebellion kicked off, and eight prison staff, including the warden, were injured by a shotgun blast when one guard apparently dropped his weapon. As one prisoner on the scene put it, "They were running around like a bunch of Keystone Kops."

The four prisoners who attempted the escape apparently planned to overpower guards, steal their uniforms, and simply walk out during shift change. "Of course this plan would never have worked," observes PLN's source, "but these idiots tried anyway."

The plan went sour and the four were able to obtain only two uniforms. "So one of the prisoners (in uniform) broke with the plan and ran to the fence and started climbing. The remaining three would-be escapees, one in uniform, proceeded to the medical department and took several hostages."

The alarms went off when the uniformed prisoner hit the fence. It was about 9:30 p.m., just before last lockup and count. Most prisoners were in their respective housing pods, but not yet locked down for the night.

"This is where the [prison administration] made their first major error," says PLN 's inside source. "They completely forgot about the lockdown [and count] and began deploying their tactical response team (goon squad) in place around the hostage situation .... A hundred or more prisoners could clearly see all the goons moving around outside ... and couldn't help but notice that they were armed with guns inside the compound. They could see that something was up and they didn't want to be trapped in their cells when it all came down. So when lockdown call was finally made, they refused to go to their cells and began trashing the pod. So more goons had to be called in, and the rebellion was well under way."

Prison Director Ron Angelone acted as a spokesperson with the local press. Said Angelone, "At this time the institution was aware that this situation was going on." But apparently the prisoners holding hostages in the medical unit were unaware of the rebellion and those involved in the rebellion were unaware of the hostage situation.

"During the night," according to PLN 's source, "a state police negotiator kept the hostage takers busy while the goon squad took care of the rebellion and put everyone back in their cells. Then, on Angelone's orders, just before dawn Saturday morning the goon squad stormed [the building where the hostages were] and freed the hostages. But during this event, one member of the goon squad managed to drop his shotgun, which discharged and wounded the warden and seven of the goons."

"We'll investigate it," Angelone told local reporters, "It was either a malfunction or an accidental weapon discharge." Asked if any of the prisoners were injured, Angelone said, "I don't know. I didn't stop to look."

The local paper reports said that two guards were stabbed in the NCC segregation unit earlier that day and that relatives of prisoners told reporters that the prison "has been tense and ripe for trouble for months." Angelone told reporters that the motive for Friday night's incident was strictly escape and not a protest of any sort. A prison spokesman said that the stabbings were unrelated to the night's events.

Angelone also told reporters that while the prisoners held hostages, "they had minor things they demanded; they wanted to talk to the press and legal counsel." But he said, "This wasn't the primary focus of these individuals. Their focus was to try and escape." Angelone told reporters that he did not know the details of their demands.

It should be noted, however, that earlier this year Angelone instituted a policy denying the press access to interview prisoners. Virginia prisoners have a long list of grievances, most dating from April, 1994, after Angelone escaped from a Nevada prison system in turmoil and took over the head spot in Virginia.

"The Governor appointed a new five-member Parole Board," reports one Virginia prisoner. "One of the members is a rape victim, another member lost her son to violent crime, and the chairman is a former prosecutor. In September 1994, the Virginia General Assembly abolished parole for anyone committing a crime on or after January 1, 1995. However, the new law in conjunction with the new Parole Board has effectively abolished parole for all prisoners in Virginia who have a violent offense regardless of when they were convicted."

Virginia also began charging prisoners a $5 co-payment on medical services rendered after July, 1995; instituted a new phone contract with MCI, with recording and monitoring of calls and an automatic 15-minute cutoff; Angelone introduced the use of "diet loaf" which is fed to ad-seg prisoners; family visiting has been reduced from 48 hours per month to a maximum of 8 hours per visitor per month; denied media access to prisoners; terminated sex-offender treatment programs and other educational and treatment programs; and effective January 1, 1997, a new restrictive property policy will take effect. Prisoners will no longer be allowed to have: typewriters, personal clothing except for white underclothes, musical instruments, jewelry except for a wedding band and a chain with a religious medallion (no stones or gems are permitted), personal televisions unless they have a 5" or smaller screen, personal radios except for Walkmans.

The rebellion was not reported in the local press, only the attempted escape. The press reported that "no motive was given" for the attempted escape.

Angelone said the department will provide counseling for the hostages "for the traumatic experience of having somebody take violent control over their lives." He added: "It's a tremendous stress on these individuals to sit there and wonder are there people out there who are going to help us."

These last words have an ironic ring to them, when you consider how they apply to all Virginia prisoners who have suffered the traumatic experience of having Angelone's Department of Corrections take violent control over their lives since he assumed the head DOC spot in 1994. Considering the restrictions placed on prisoners' visiting and denying the press access to prisoners, his closing words ring especially ironic. It is a tremendous stress on these individuals [prisoners] to sit there and wonder "are there people out there who are going to help us?"

According to PLN sources, the tension in Virginia -- indeed, as it is in an growing number of states -- continues to increase.

Sources: Richmond Times Dispatch , reader mail

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