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Disturbances at Three Federal Prisons, Federal Lockdown Ordered

October 21, 1995

Inmates set fires and took over parts of federal prisons Friday in Tennessee, Illinois and Pennsylvania as the Justice Department declared a lockdown at its facilities nationwide.

At least 13 people suffered mostly minor injuries.

The inmates still had control of a housing unit at the prison in Greenville, Ill., Friday night. Authorities quelled the disturbances in Memphis, Tenn., and Allenwood, Pa., by evening.

Prisoners took over the unit at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution when guards tried to impose the Justice Department lockdown. Some prison staffers had to be rescued by a tactical response team after building a barricade to protect themselves, authorities said.

Three staff members suffered minor injuries, but it was not immediately clear whether other staffers or any of the prison’s approximately 1,200 inmates were hurt. It also was unknown how many inmates were involved or how long the trouble had been going on.

The prison was brightly lit from its buildings out to the barb-wire perimeter late Friday night. On the roads surrounding it, local emergency personnel stood by with lights flashing from fire trucks and other vehicles.

The prison is bounded by farmland on two sides and by Interstate 70 and the city limit.

The lockdown was ordered at the prison, about 40 miles east of St. Louis, and other federal prisons after the disturbances in Memphis, Allenwood and a riot in Talladega, Ala., Thursday night.

Between 700 and 800 inmates were unsecured at one point during the five-hour disturbance at the Federal Correctional Institution in Memphis, where several small fires were set. Firefighters were ordered to evacuate for awhile because of security risks.

The uprising began shortly after noon when a group of inmates in the manufacturing area began breaking windows and vandalizing the building, according to prison officials.

They moved to the recreation yard and refused to leave, then were joined by other inmates. Several fires were set in three of the prison’s housing units.

Prison spokeswoman Francine Branch did not know what sparked the trouble or how many inmates were involved.

The disturbance subsided by late afternoon, but escalated again during the early evening when more fires were set. The inmates were unsecured until about 8 p.m., when the majority of the 900 inmates returned to their cells or under surveillance in a yard and the fires were burning out, Branch said.

She did not have an estimate of the number of injuries or the amount of damage done. The Commercial Appeal newspaper reported that nine people _ six inmates, a firefighter and two prison employees _ were taken to local hospitals for smoke inhalation.

Prisoners rioted Thursday night in Talladega, Ala., where 13 people were injured and inmates caused $1 million in damage by setting fires and smashing windows with baseball bats. The riot was triggered by Congress’ refusal to reduce the penalty for crack cocaine convictions, said two people who were trapped inside during the trouble.

The disturbance Friday in Allenwood, Pa., also may have been linked to the congressional vote, local television and radio stations reported. A prison spokesman could not confirm those reports.

The melee involving 150 inmates there began in the dining hall of the medium-security prison. Rampaging inmates pulled fire alarms and broke windows, the prison said in a statement.

A female staffer was burned when a hot liquid was thrown in her face.

The prisoners took no hostages and order was restored within an hour. Officials said about 1,252 inmates are housed at the institution.

A Justice Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the lockdown was ordered as a normal precaution following the disturbances. He would not comment further.

``Until this period of unrest has been resolved, this precaution was believed to be necessary in the interest of public safety, and to ensure the safety of staff and inmates,″ the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department, said in a statement.

``The lockdown will allow the Bureau of Prisons to focus its resources on resolving existing unrest in the most effective manner.″

The Talladega began with a group of inmates arguing in a prison yard. As the fighting spread, prisoners armed with baseball bats fought with guards, broke windows and set fires over six hours.

Several sections of Talladega Federal Correctional Institution were heavily damaged, including the prison chapel where Ed Baggett and two other volunteers took refuge from the roving band of more than 100 rioters.

Baggett, who directs the inmate choir, said rioters were unhappy because Congress rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to lower penalties for crack possession and trafficking.

``It was just a destructive wave,″ said Baggett, who was trapped in the chapel with two other volunteers. ``It was an outpouring of anger. ... They were just making their anger known.″

A law enforcement officer elsewhere in the prison at the time also said inmates were upset about the vote. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some inmates had been agitated since the Million Man March in Washington on Monday.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized crack sentencing laws at the rally, saying they disproportionately affect blacks.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Bill Bechtold wouldn’t comment Friday on whether the vote played a role. Neither would prison spokeswoman Corliss Moragne, saying the investigation was incomplete.

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