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Prison riot will remain with us

Only a few local events in the last decade have been enough to truly scare this reporter.

I recall realizing the gravity of the situation when former Sheriff Ronny Brown pulled me to a corner in the Steckler Multipurpose Building, motioned toward a crowd of a few hundred Hurricane Katrina evacuees and told me he was about to get on the bullhorn and announce to them that they would not be allowed to return home until further notice, which might be a month away.

I remember when the same sheriff came up to me moments before the reading of a verdict in a murder trial at the Adams County Courthouse, where box cutters had been found taped to chairs earlier, and said “It may get crazy in here; stay behind me.”

The fear behind the normally calm voice of Mayor Hyram Copeland on the day the National Weather Service predicted a 65-foot Mississippi River crest still plays in my head.

And the initial reports — confirmed and unconfirmed — from the Adams County Correctional Center Sunday afternoon will frighten me for years to come.

It was an awful situation that got worse before it got better.

A group of at least 200 or more inmates rioted, apparently taking control of the prison for some time and holding employees hostage. One worker was beaten to death and 19 others were injured.

Details are still coming and likely will for many months.

But we know enough to realize that many lives were impacted forever.

Our newspaper first heard of the riot almost exactly an hour after it started, via an anonymous e-mail. Within 20 minutes we had a dozen or more phone calls reporting the same news.

As our staff headed to the prison, it never entered our minds that we wouldn’t leave the site until after 11 p.m. that night.

I suspect scores of first responders had similar misconceptions about how their nights would go.

Spectators, reporters and worried family members watching from across the street saw scores of law enforcement vehicles rush in, watched multiple helicopters land and take off and saw a dozen or more ambulances.

As the night progressed, smoke filled the sky above the prison, yelling could be heard, flames were visible and loud booms — like that of gunshots — went off at a rapid pace.

But at the end of the night, after things had gone from bad to worst and back to best, the complaints were few, but the fears still many.

Sheriff Chuck Mayfield said most of the grumblings he heard outside the prison were from the empty stomachs of his men and women who had replaced dinner with adrenaline.

The fear and tension on the outside must have been nothing to what the 20 or more employees trapped inside with an angry mob experienced.

I can’t imagine their fear.

I can’t imagine the worry loved ones on the outside must have felt, too.

Chaotic prison riots that go on for nine hours are something you hear about on the national TV news. They aren’t supposed to be things that happen in our community and make national headlines.

We can point fingers and place blame, but it won’t get us anywhere. Praying for the family of the deceased employee and those injured, waiting for results of an investigation and praising our local first responders for a job well done is a much better course of action.

No one can change what happened Sunday night, and no one will forget the feeling of fear we all had.

 

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.