Video of prison riot reveals dangers behind bars

by: Amy Clancy, KIRO 7 Investigates Updated:


SEATTLE - KIRO 7 has obtained exclusive surveillance video that shows just how dangerous our state’s prisons can be for the men and women who work in them.


In August, an officer was assaulted at Monroe Correctional Complex -- the same prison where officer Jayme Biendl was murdered by an inmate early last year.  Now, only KIRO 7 Investigates that danger from behind bars.


The surveillance video reveals a prison riot that sent four officers and one inmate to the hospital on Feb. 4, 2012.  The incident happened at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, and KIRO 7’s Amy Clancy was leaked a copy of the video.  Surveillance video like the leaked copy is not available through a public records request because it is not covered by Washington state’s open records law.  So the only reason the public can see it now is that a source gave Clancy a copy.


The surveillance video shows the sudden attack inside the Echo Unit Dayroom, a close-custody facility at Walla Walla.  Initially, the violence was limited to a fight between offenders, but more inmates got involved -- two armed with home-made knives, also known as "shanks."  By the time the riot had been squelched more than six minutes later, over 60 staff members were on the scene.  Four officers were injured.


What’s clearly visible on the video worries not only the source who leaked it, but also former Bellevue Police Chief Don Van Blaricom.  Especially disconcerting to him was seeing unarmed prison officers putting themselves in harm's way.  


“Now that they do know he has a knife, they’re still going after him with no protection,” Van Blaricom critiqued the video when Clancy showed it to him.


Clancy: "What's your feeling about that?"
Van Blaricom:  “Well, you simply shouldn’t do it.  Don’t rush in there as a group and try to overwhelm him.  That’s absolutely a fatal, fatal tactic.”  


Van Blaricom believes the prison officers should have waited for the special team trained to deal with riots, and avoided the armed inmates: “I can only conclude that they either weren’t following their training or they haven’t been properly trained.”

The Critical Incident Review, which is standard procedure after an incident like the one at Walla Walla, reveals there were errors in how the Feb. 4 riot was handled.  According to the report obtained by KIRO 7 Investigates: "All staff interviewed stated that once weapons were observed the on-scene staff should have moved themselves to safety" but "felt they could not leave because they did not want to leave their partners' side."   


There was also considerable confusion, including "concern about who was qualified on (less-than-lethal) weapons.”  Two of the officers "made independent decisions to go to the weapons storage area where they were both issued" weapons they were not qualified to use.  "The response did not occur in any organized, intentional manner."  The Incident Commander's attempts to communicate by radio were "stepped-on" by other staff.  "No organized small-team tactics were employed in this incident."  And "non-involved offenders were not celled-in" which lead to another fight between inmates.

When KIRO 7 Investigates started asking questions about the video and the riot, the Washington State Department of Corrections invited Clancy and photographer Brian Doerflinger to Walla Walla to answer those questions in person.  Superintendent Stephen Sinclair maintains, despite the Critical Incident Review’s findings, his officers did the right thing.  “Staff responded and recognized there was an edged weapon involved, and acted appropriately,” he told Clancy.  “They kept their distance from the weapon until the other tools could arrive.”

But since Feb. 4, Superintendent Sinclair has made changes at the Washington State Penitentiary.  Training on how to respond to fights like the one that happened that day has been increased, as have drills with protective gear.  Only properly trained staff will now be allowed access to less-than-lethal munitions.  


In addition, something prison staff state-wide have long been demanding, "Oleoresin Capsicum", also known as "OC" or "pepper spray", has now been issued to all close-custody unit staff.  


“It’s a tool that reduces the rate of injury to staff members,” Sinclair explained to Clancy.

Another recent change; since both shanks in the Feb. 4 assaults were made from toothbrush handles that had been sharpened, inmates now only have access to short-handled brushes.  And all pens and pencils are now soft, flexible plastic, which is harder to sharpen.

Sinclair says of the changes: “We learn.  We add new tools.  It’s a game of adaption.  They adapt, so we adapt.”

Sinclair also told Clancy he was “not troubled” that someone gave her the video.  However, the Department of Corrections is investigating the leak, explaining that “sharing surveillance video is a serious breach of operational security.”  


DOC spokesman Chad Lewis also says “the silver lining is that the public will get to see how challenging it is to manage one of the highest-risk prison units in the state.”

To see the surveillance video even the DOC admits is, quote: “rare” – click here:

To read internal emails that show how DOC officials responded to the riot, click here.