Riot planned, quickly escalated

Published 12:20 am Friday, July 13, 2012

NATCHEZ — Despite a contradictory early narrative about the fatal May 20 prison riot at the Adams County Correctional Center, ACCC Warden Vance Laughlin said Thursday the riot was a premeditated event.

In the days and weeks following the riot, prison officials did not speak about the cause of the incident. Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield, whose office responded to the scene and provided perimeter support during the incident, said at the time he believed the incident was a gang-related mass hysteria that had gotten out of control.

At a meeting with invited community members Thursday, however, Laughlin said inmates who “were trying to get concessions as a result of misbehavior” started the riot.

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The warden said, however, that he believed the end result of that inmate plan, “grew well beyond what they had planned.”

During the meeting, Laughlin revealed some details of what happened on the Sunday afternoon that turned violent at the Corrections Corporation of America-owned facility.

At approximately 2 p.m., during a mass movement of prisoners between the housing unit and various destinations — the recreation yard and prison education programs — several hundred prisoners refused to leave the main walkway, Laughlin said.

Inmates are normally given 10 minutes to get to their destination.

Thirty minutes into the standoff, several inmates began to test the fence between the main walkway and the staff safety zone, trying to get into the zone, where several employees already were inside.

At that point, the prison officials decided to use a chemical agent to subdue the inmates.

And that was when things began to go really wrong.

“There were a lot of inmates, and we didn’t have the ability to use as much (chemical agent) as we needed,” Laughlin said.

“Inmates began to destroy fences, gates. It kind of grew throughout the facility from that point.”

As the insurrection spread, several staff members were assaulted and taken hostage. One correctional officer, 24-year-old Catlin Carithers, was dropping gas canisters from a rooftop when he was assaulted, dying after receiving a bludgeoning from a blunt object. Sixteen other ACCC employees were injured, including four who Laughlin said had non-life-threatening but nonetheless “long-term” injuries.

As they rioted, the inmates broke into the prison kitchen and commissary, taking almost everything consumable. After starting a bonfire in the yard, the prisoners cooked chickens and other food.

“I think a lot of these guys thought it would be a multi-day event,” Laughlin said.

By 7 p.m., after trying negotiations, prison officials decided to enter the facility, sending in 55 tactical team members in through a western entrance. The team made its way eastward through the facility, subduing uncooperative inmates with rubber bullets and beanbag guns.

While making their way through the facility, Laughlin said several hundred inmates who claimed not to have participated in the riot met them on the walkway. Those inmates were directed to the prison yard and searched while the rest of the facility was cleared. The entire process took an hour-and-a-half.

“It was 97 minutes from the time they entered until I heard over the radio (it was cleared),” Laughlin said. “That was the longest 97 minutes of my life, I promise you that.”

In the end, the damage to the facility was largely to fences, fire extinguishers and other emergency equipment boxes. The kitchen was wrecked, but was repaired and back in operation in three days, Laughlin said.

The inmates did not smash televisions, telephones or “anything that was of benefit to them,” he said.

Between 500 and 700 prisoners are believed to have participated in the incident, Laughlin said, and it’s important to remember that at any given time two-thirds of the prison population was not involved. The population that day was 2,550.

Since the riot, the prison has been on lockdown, but Laughlin said it is not because prisoners are being punished, but because the prison wants to make sure everything is repaired and properly working before allowing free movement again. The warden said he expects that to be sometime near the end of next month.

Ron Thompson, vice-president for facility operations for CCA’s business unit 1, said going forward it can be assured that the population will be managed differently.

When the lockdown is lifted, Laughlin said rather than allowing mass movement of almost all of the prisoners at one time, individual units will be moved from location to location.

“(Before), we were a lot more liberal in the recreation yard, and now they will have assigned recreation areas and times,” Laughlin said.

The facility management has identified some structural weaknesses that allowed inmates to get into areas where they should not have been, Laughlin said, and have since corrected those issues.

Some inmates have been transferred out of the facility since the riot, and its population currently stands at approximately 2,400.

Laughlin said the ongoing investigation into the riot has included interviews with inmates about their complaints of ill-treatment, though he said some of the complaints were “insulting,” including an allegation that one ethnic group in the prison was favored over the others when it came to providing television channel programming.

“I can look anyone in the eye and say inmates were not mistreated,” Laughlin said.

“We want these guys to be successful after their release. These dudes are going to be our neighbors one day.”

The warden said he expects that the planners of the riot will be held legally responsible for some of the goings on that day — the FBI is conducting the investigation — and that investigators are working several good leads about Carithers’ homicide.

An FBI spokeswoman said earlier this week that the investigation is ongoing.