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Correctional Hostage Rescue Units

STL Joseph Garcia


0600, the beginning of another day in Anywhere Correctional Institution. Breakfast is being served. Inmate 206 – with whom you have never had a problem – approaches a CO. In an instant, Inmate 206 and his well-trained accomplices pull the officer into a housing unit. Several COs respond; they are outnumbered as well. The housing unit door is barricaded and the windows are covered.

And so it begins.

Your initial SITREP indicates that inmates within a 100-inmate DS housing unit have taken three officers hostage. Inmates have begun a full scale riot, damaging your surveillance cameras and barricading entry points. You get a covert cam in and see the officers bound and gagged on the second tier. What catches your attention is not that their hands are tied or that they are blindfolded. No; what catches your attention is that they have bed sheets knotted around their necks and that the bed sheets are tied to the rail. The hostages are bent over the rail in such a way that the minute your response team breaches the door, they’ll be flipped over the rail.

And that’s only the start of your tactical challenges.

The door is barricaded with liquid on the entry points, mattresses and furniture at all entry points. You know the tables that are weighted down with sand in the middle. That is what inmates have used to defend “their” entry points. That is what you are told to overcome.

In the last year we have seen several similar prison hostage situations, both nationally and internationally. The situation portrayed above is a very real – and realistic—threat. As I have traveled and worked with some of the world’s elite prison CERT Level 3 – 4 units, they all share the same opinion that this is one of the most difficult situations in which a unit can find themselves.

Correctional Hostage Situations

Operating inside any correctional facility presents extraordinarily unique tactical challenges: It is unforgiving, you are outnumbered, entry points are reinforced with hundreds of pounds of steel, and depending on your facility design, entry paths may be compromised due to the design of blackout areas.

Countless variables complicate correctional hostage situations such that there is no standard response to the numerous complexities inherent to a correctional hostage situation. Consider, for example, the following tactical challenges:

  • Entry points become reinforced
  • Limited element of surprise (asymmetrical responses)
  • No room for errors – significant ricochet potential
  • Multiple threat situations (riot, multiple hostage takers, no clear leader, etc.)
  • Numerous inmates – whether involved or uninvolved
  • Threats can switch immediately from bad to passive roles

Either You Are Ready or You Are Not!

Team leaders and Commanders: I mean no disrespect when I say this, but let’s say your administrator asks you if you’re prepared for this kind of situation. Let’s say you tell him you are… but in reality, you’re not. So either you’re lying or you’re living in great denial. If you know your administrator thinks you are ready but in reality and you aren’t, you are not only deceiving him/her, but you are jeopardizing the safety and security of both your team and your facility.

Now is the time to know whether or not you are ready. You can’t be half-ready. That’s like saying you are a little pregnant. You get the idea: You’re either ready for these kinds of operations or you’re.

If you think you’re ready, and you’re standing in the door with a couple of 18 – 21 inch barrel shotguns with double 00 buckshot, your heads covered with fish bowl helmets (you know, the ones with the large face shields), my friend, you are in wonderland! By the same token, if your stack stands in the door with great equipment (MP5, FN303 and other high-end gear) but you’re not sufficiently trained on how to effectively use that gear, you are also not ready.

Once your administrator gives you the GO signal, they want action and results. At this point, your team action and technique mean everything. Screw up and you better be ready to pay the piper: Be ready to defend yourself in court.


I can’ tell you how many times teams think they are ready, yet when it comes to going operational they simply don’t have the appropriate equipment to get the job done. I don’t want this to be taken as a criticism of vendors, but there are those who will put something in their catalog or on their website that looks cool. They swear by it and tell you that it is the best thing since sliced bread. Well, that may be true, but if it isn’t specific to corrections, or, indeed, specific to your mission, don’t get seduced by the hype.

Your equipment must be corrections specific. By this, I mean you should consider some of the following equipment:

  • Corrections Breaching Reinforced Equipment (Spreading / Thermal)
  • ALD Correctional Hostage Rescue Deployment Weapon System Kit
  • Damascus Limb, Hand, Face protection gear (The only gear CTN certified!)
  • ESS CDI or ICE Glasses
  • CERT Level 3 Assault Deployment Kit (ALD)
  • Hawk Body armor (This is a must. More on this in the next section.)
  • Communications
  • Covert Technology

Unconventional Equipment

The latest trend is unconventional Correctional Rescue Operations. The majority of operators have seen and used traditional hostage rescue techniques. However, some of the world’s most elite CERT units are now teaching and using techniques called unconventional Hostage Rescue Operations. These teams incorporate technology such as Taser, Less Lethal – FN303, and new breaching techniques, along with a wide variety of tactical assault techniques.

The main point here is that there are two ways teams can handle Correctional Hostage Rescue: Traditional or Unconventional. Whichever way you choose, you must have the right training to support your approach.


I have had numerous opportunities to evaluate, audit, interview and train CHRT Level 3 – 4 Units. These teams are classified under the P-P Format (Pitiful to Phenomenal). Now many of you know that I don’t kiss up, and I’m certainly not about to start doing so now. However, I will note that just because you say you’re CHRT Qualified and you have credentials showing different kinds of training, does not necessarily mean you can successfully conduct these often delicate operations.

Here’s a quick test: The next time you’re training, try a simple IOF – Hostage Scenario – (Inmate Opposition Force) scenario. What I want you to do is see how long it takes your team to get into the door. How do they verbalize? Acquire and subdue targets? How do they move to contact? Control weapons?

Be Honest with yourself

Carefully note these response elements:

  • Does your team hesitate at the entry?
  • Does your team stop and verbalize with the hostage taker for what seems to be eternity?
  • Does your team muzzle the operator in front of them?
  • Does you team engage the target only when they get up close?
  • Does your team get tunnel vision?
  • Does your team take too long at the point of entry because they do not know how to negotiate the barricade?
  • Does your team bunch up at the entry?
  • What is the recovery time from entry to exit?
  • Does your team demonstrate corrections based response tactics and techniques (not SWAT)?
  • Force on Force or IOF (inmate Opposition Force)

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, chances are you need to reassess your program. I say this is because these are very basic operational considerations of which all CHRT units should be aware. During hostage rescue operations, these seemingly minor details can – and often do – mean the difference between saving a life and losing a life.

Don’t Train to Keep Score; Train for Battle!

We all know teams which train with a playful “You did not get me” mentality. That, my friends, is a huge detriment to training. Teams need to train for follow through and completion. CERT Units who make the mistake of setting up only clean scenarios are indulging a fantasy world. When the reality hits, they’re not ready. Don’t let this happen to your team. Take your training seriously.

When our unit trains agencies for these types of operations, we challenge operator’s minds as well as their physical abilities. We smoke them and force them to think and move like water – Keep flowing. All operators must have a warrior mindset and be able to turn it on when needed.

Team Selection or Join the club?

As hard as it is to say, I have seen a lot of operators who are on CHRT Units because of their physical looks, relationship with the commander, or length of time on the team, or to meet a PC quota.

The only people who belong on these units are individuals who can pass the most rigorous testing. I am not saying the Special Forces test here; I am saying a qualified CERT standard. There are CHRT Units that have personnel who ascribe to the old school mentality or who are caught up in the stone ages when it comes to tactics, equipment, etc.

We’ve all heard the argument, “his heart makes up for his lack of physical ability.” They say that if you hear a lie long enough it becomes the truth. Well regardless of how you feel about being physically in shape, if you have to struggle to breath, how are you going to make a good judgment decision? If you have a team member who can’t handle his own, how can you expect him to take care of his fellow operator? I have a buddy who is a phenomenal shooter, but tell him to run 200 yards in a full sprint, and engage a contact, and he looks like he’s going to fall over and die. Is this the guy you want at your side when you’re standing in the door?

I love these operators but the reality is “its business, not personal”. When you are asking an operator to make life and death decision, you want an operator who can “Think, Breath, Process and Shoot” in a split second. He has to do it without any hesitation, without any possibility of error. If you send in an unqualified operator, all you’re doing is complicating the situation. This is also true for mentally unfit operators – Rambo Types or the extreme opposite.

Raise the Bar

Taking these operations seriously doesn’t mean placating an administrator by saying, “Yes, we can.” When you say yes, you know that you have the equipment, the team training, personnel, logistics, and the ability to do the ops and WIN!

As you finish reading this article, Unit Commanders, Team Leaders, and Operators, I humbly remind you that NOW is the time for you to take CERT Operations to the next level. Now is the time to get our equipment, our training, and our units squared away. We have inmates coming into our facilities that are military trained, more violent, gang affiliated, and even terrorists. This should be reason enough to motivate your units to train hard and seriously.

Hostage taking is a strategy that inmates are finding increasingly useful due to perceived or real security vulnerabilities. We will see more use of this strategy in the coming months and years. If you doubt this, just look at what has happened in the last 18 months: It’s been a record time for this type of violence!

The choice is yours: Either properly prepare your unit or move aside and wait for another team to come in and rescue you.

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