Fifteen convicts are rioting in J-Block. They've already beaten one officer to a pulp, and a murderous 24-year-old named Kevin Maloney has a homemade knife to the throat of a second. The time for negotiation is over. Adrenaline pumping, weapons ready, helmets and gas masks on, 12 corrections officers and I take position under a set of stairs. "I need a yard of separation," Captain Carl Sims whispers over the radio to Batina Thornhill, our negotiator. A moment later, she gets it for him, tricking Maloney into approaching her without his hostage. "Look," she says, "we don't want this going south."
Those are the words we're waiting for. We rush in under the deafening force and blinding light of flash-bang grenades as an aerial assault team rappels down from the third floor. In the two seconds it takes me, the last man, to enter J-Block, the situation has changed utterly: Maloney lies dead near the door, and the 14 other convicts lie prone on the floor around him, their rebellion snuffed out in an instant of technological and tactical dominance. So impressive is the display that only when Maloney's corpse stands up, smiles, and says, "Good job, you guys!" am I reminded that this is a training exercise.
Or should I say a product test? Every spring more than a thousand corrections officers from around the country gather here at the former West Virginia Penitentiary—a dungeon-like facility whose tiny cells, deemed cruel and unusual punishment, led to its closing in 1992—to sample the latest in prison technology. This year's event, the seventh annual Mock Prison Riot, features 84 high-tech products in a renovated factory in the north yard—everything from a portable hands-free metal detector to a small robotic surveillance helicopter. During the next three days, 18 correctional tactical units will put them to the test in "near real" scenarios like the J-Block hostage situation in which I've been embedded with the Gwinnett County, Georgia, Rapid Response Team. And to make sure officers understand both sides of the equation, almost a third will get the chance to play riotous inmates. Maloney, now shaking hands with his conquerors, has just set the standard.