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There's a Riot Going On!
Emergency Training at Moundsville

By John Lilly /Photographs by Ashly Campbell

Mock Riot scenario at the former West Virginia State Penitentary at Moundsville. Photograph by Ashly Campbell.

A desperate inmate is holed up in the common area of the prison, demanding a vehicle and a large amount of cash. He has a homemade weapon and has taken a hostage. Time is ticking. Tensions and stakes are high. Negotiators try to reason with him but are prepared to use force if necessary.

Finally an air horn blows, and the tactical responders are evaluated and scored on their efforts, and another team of law enforcement personnel take their turn. So it goes for three days each May at the former West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, where the Mock Riot takes place. Presented by the West Virginia Training Federation, a not-for-profit organization based in Moundsville, the West Virginia Division of Corrections supports and hosts the Mock Riot once a year for tactical teams from across the country and around the globe.

The huge, historic facility at Moundsville provides an ideal and realistic training ground for police and prison authorities who seek a safe and practical way to gain experience in difficult situations and to discover and try out the latest technological advances in the way of weapons and other tools of their trade.

Paul Simmons is the director of security for the Division of Corrections. He is one of the planners and organizers of the Mock Riot and has been involved with it since its inception.  Born and raised in Moundsville, Paul has been at the prison for 27 years.

“I actually worked here for seven-and-a-half years,” Paul says, recalling his days right out of high school when the prison still housed inmates. His father was a coal miner, but Paul didn’t see a future for himself in the mines. So he went to work at the prison, taking every training opportunity that was offered to him.

“I started out as a correctional officer,” he recalls. “Through the years here at Moundsville, I was the ITO [Institutional Training Officer], I was an investigator here; at the end I was the segregation commander for the North Hall. I was the officer in charge of the lock-up unit.”

When the prison closed in 1995, state officials searched for a new purpose for the imposing gothic building. [See “’A Tough Joint’: The West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville,” by Joseph Platania; Summer 1995.] Built in 1866, the 240,000-square-foot structure is built of blocks two feet thick and is surrounded by stone walls 24 feet high. It housed some of the most dangerous criminals ever held behind bars - as many as 2,000 prisoners at its peak in the 1960’s. It was the site of 94 executions before the state abolished the death penalty in 1965. A brutal prison riot took place there in in 1986.

“The first Mock Riot started in 1997, after the prison closed,” Paul says. “It was pretty much a training event. Tactical team commanders from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio got together and decided it’s a nice location – a nice venue for training.” A total of 70 people from those three states attended that first year. The one-day affair featured three scenarios or mock crisis situations and four technological displays. Participating officers outnumbered attendees 50 to 20.

The event grew tremendously in the following years. By 2001, there were 1,347 attendees working their way through three dozen different scenarios and having access to more than 75 technological displays over the course of a five-day event. Tactical teams have come from as far away as Hong Kong, Norway, and South Sudan to participate in the training and the competitions.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.