Printer Friendly

Even in "non-negotiable" situations, negotiation plays an important role.

At about 10 a.m. on Aug. 21, 1991, a small group of Cuban detainees attempted to escape from the recreation area behind Alpha Unit at the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala. The unit housed 119 Cuban detainees awaiting deportation to Cuba. When their escape attempt failed, the detainees re-entered the unit, freed the unit's other detainees from their cells, and made captives of eight Bureau of Prisons staff, three Immigration and Naturalization Service staff and 15 American inmates.

BOP and Federal Bureau of Investigation negotiation and tactical teams quickly went to Talladega to help contain and resolve the situation. While the negotiation teams tried to reach a negotiated settlement with the detainees, specially trained tactical teams (including the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team) planned for the possibility of retaking Alpha Unit by force.

Negotiations proceeded for nine days with limited progress. When the team commanders at the scene, based on information developed by the negotiators, determined the hostages' safety was seriously threatened, they decided to use the tactical teams. In the early morning hours of Aug. 30, the combined FBI and BOP tactical teams entered Alpha Unit, rescued the hostages and secured the unit without serious injury to any detainees.

Although the crisis ultimately was not resolved by negotiation, negotiation was essential to its resolution. What follows is a review of several negotiation strategies employed during the Talladega disturbance and a discussion of the lessons learned as a result of the incident.

Identifying the Leaders

One vital early task for the BOP/FBI negotiation team was to identify the leaders of the hostage-takers and focus negotiation efforts on them. During the disturbance's first few days, several detainees, who identified themselves only by number, professed to be leaders. These self-identified leaders varied considerably in their educational background, English language skills, attitude toward authority and willingness to communicate with negotiators. These variables presented negotiators with both a problem and an opportunity.

The problem was that the detainees' lack of clear leadership made it difficult for them to articulate specific sources of strife and to formulate demands. The detainees' early communication was disorganized, emotionally charged and filled with threats toward the hostages whenever they believed tactical team members came too close to Alpha Unit. Because negotiators were unable to determine what the detainees' grievances were, it was difficult to decide which specific demands they should focus on.

However, while the detainees' lack of leadership clearly delayed the possibility for meaningful negotiation, it did allow negotiators the opportunity to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of the possible detainee leaders. Negotiators were able to identify which detainee spokesmen seemed less militant, more reasonable, better educated, more fluent in English and more amenable to a negotiated resolution. By directing their attention toward these individuals, negotiators restored some level of emotional calm and order, reducing the chances of harm to the hostages and increasing the likelihood that a more reasonable dialogue would develop later.

Fortunately, on day three, detainee leaders managed to organize well enough to present a specific list of demands. These demands focused on access to the media, requests for routine medical attention and the formation of a "commission" of prominent community leaders who could plead the detainees' case to the general public, thereby rousing public opinion in support of their cause. Once presented, these demands the focus of negotiation, and the detainees who were instrumental in developing the demands became more vocal participants in the negotiations.

Negotiating in Spanish and English

Whether negotiations should be in English or Spanish was a much debated issue following the November 1987 prison disturbances at federal facilities in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta, Ga. In Oakdale, most negotiation was in English, while in Atlanta, most negotiation was in Spanish. When these disturbances were over, negotiators at both sites believed their choice was the option.

During the Talladega incident, negotiators used both English and Spanish, and tried to use this dual language factor to their advantage. Negotiators chose to begin negotiations in English; they did this for three reasons.

First, the initial negotiators on the scene were not fluent in Spanish. Second, the more reasonable detainee leaders spoke English, while the more belligerent leaders did not. Negotiating in English gave the more moderate leaders a key role early in the negotiations and made it difficult for most detainees to follow the specific content of the negotiations.

Finally, negotiating in English gave the BOP/FBI negotiators a tactical advantage. While the detainee spokesman translated points raised during negotiation to his peers, government negotiators were able to plan their next moves. The cumulative effect of starting negotiations in English was to slow everything down, allowing detainees to calm down and think more rationally.

As the situation stabilized and the need for clearer, more detailed communication grew, government negotiators decided to negotiate in Spanish. Using Spanish allowed them to gain a better understanding of detainee issues and demands. Once these issues and demands were clearly understood, government negotiators alternately used Spanish and English, depending on the detainees' emotional mood and their need for clear communication. Government negotiators controlled the choice of which language was spoken at all times, giving them an advantage.

The Role of Negotiation

By day four, it was becoming evident to the BOP/FBI negotiators that the situation would not be resolved by negotiation. The detainees' demand to be represented by a so-called commission of national community leaders and media representatives meant they did not wish to negotiate directly with any government representatives, including anyone affiliated with the BOP, the FBI or the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The detainees believed negotiations with the government had been unsuccessful during previous prison disturbances. Detainee leaders generally limited their interaction with government negotiators to requests for food, medical care and status reports on the commission's establishment. This gave government negotiators little material around which to negotiate.

Given the incident's growing "non-negotiable" nature, it is reasonable to question what role, if any, negotiation could possibly have played in resolving the crisis. Even though force was eventually used, we believe negotiation supported the entire crisis management process in five distinct ways:

1. Negotiation provided detainees with a forum through which to express their feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness and hopelessness. Allowing the detainees to vent their feelings helped them calm down and become more rational, reducing the risk of harm to the hostages.

2. Focusing detainee attention on negotiation during the disturbance's early days gave tactical teams time to gather appropriate resources, organize the numerous individual teams as a unified assault force, collect useful information on detainees and hostages, and develop and practice the assault plan.

3. Through their conversations with detainees and hostages, negotiators were able to gather considerable information about conditions inside the facility. This information proved invaluable to the tactical teams as they planned their assault strategy and helped commanders make sound decisions.

4. Negotiators were able to introduce situational changes that benefitted tactical personnel (such as additional lighting, manpower increases and changes in television reception) in ways that did not increase the detainees' anger or suspicion.

5. Negotiators were able to lull the detainees into a false sense of confidence and security just before the actual assault, thus increasing the element of surprise for the tactical teams and the safety margin for the hostages.

How the BOP/FBI Team Was Formed

During the disturbance's early hours, a BOP correctional counselor the detainees knew and respected established initial contact with them. A short time later, members of the Talladega negotiation team and other BOP and FBI negotiators from nearby cities joined him. Together, this small group of negotiators worked to stabilize the tense situation.

In the next 36 hours, a steady stream of BOP and FBI negotiators arrived, bringing the total number of negotiators and team coordinators to 21. Given this large number of negotiators and the limited work space available (two small offices), BOP/FBI negotiation team coordinators soon faced a series of logistical problems. Perhaps the most serious was how to merge and organize negotiators from both agencies to maximize their effectiveness with the detainees and minimize the potential for conflict among themselves.

This was accomplished by forming three eight-hour shifts. The day and evening shifts consisted of three FBI and two BOP negotiators and the overnight shift consisted of two FBI and two BOP negotiators. Each shift included at least two Spanish-speaking negotiators. FBI negotiators brought to the team considerable experience in negotiating street hostage situations and correctional situations, including the Oakdale and Atlanta prison disturbances. BOP negotiators brought knowledge and expertise regarding correctional populations, riots and prison management.

After a cautious beginning, team members became acquainted with one another and developed a healthy respect for the particular strengths each agency brought to the team. By day four, all team members were working as one unit.

There were four team coordinators--two from the BOP and two from the FBI. Coordinators worked 12-hour shifts, which allowed them to observe the activities on all three shifts. They were responsible for supervising the activities of the negotiators from their agencies and working together to solve differences of opinion that surfaced between negotiators.

The team coordinators also worked together to plan negotiation strategies. One coordinator from each agency was present when proposed strategies were discussed with the team commanders. When the coordinators differed regarding negotiation strategy, each presented his proposed strategy to the commanders and allowed them to evaluate and select the appropriate option.

Negotiators completing their shifts briefed team members during shift changes to keep them apprised of events that occurred during their off-duty hours. This allowed the outgoing negotiators to mentally process what had occurred during their shift. The coordinators held similar briefings coinciding with their shift changes.

In addition to the briefings held at shift changes, negotiators generated periodic hostage negotiation situation reports, or "sitreps." Each of the more than 100 sitreps contained a general summary of significant conversations or observations, noted any detainee demands or deadlines, highlighted new information gained from contact with detainees and presented any impressions or recommendations from the negotiation team resulting from the contact.

The sitreps were kept on file in the negotiation room and also were distributed to officials at the command post and the tactical operations center. As negotiators arrived for their shift, their review of sitreps gave them an overview of significant occurrences since they left and served as an excellent tool for briefing newly arrived negotiators.

The sitreps provided the team commanders with a clear, continuous record of negotiation activities and negotiator recommendations. They also served as an excellent source of information for the tactical commanders planning hostage rescue activities.

Once the crisis was over, the sitreps helped government officials review the overall management of the situation. Since the reports are not influenced by memory distortions, which typically interfere with the accurate reconstruction of events, they provided follow-up examiners with an accurate look at events as they unfolded.

Three additional points are worth noting regarding the negotiation team's formation and coordination. First, early in this incident, negotiators from the FCI-Talladega staff were instrumental in establishing and maintaining contacts with the detainees and with the hostages who were allowed to communicate with them. Communicating with hostages who just hours before were co-workers and friends placed an extra burden of stress on these negotiators. As additional negotiators arrived, the Talladega negotiators were relieved of primary negotiation responsibilities and served as the team's liaison with the institution. In this capacity, they were able to orient new negotiators to the facility's physical layout, acquire vital information about key detainee figures for other negotiators and locate resources requested by the negotiators. This liaison role will be built into any future large-scale disturbance where negotiators from other facilities or agencies are brought in to share negotiation responsibilities.

Second, while most BOP and FBI negotiators arrived during the disturbance's first two days, a few arrived later. These late arrivals disrupted the negotiation process in their attempts to come on line. In the future, late arriving negotiators probably will be assigned to clearly defined, more circumscribed roles as they arrive.

And third, while eight-hour shifts were used effectively at Talladega and helped manage the large number of negotiators on the scene, a considerable amount of time was spent briefing team members of activities that occurred while they were off-duty. To reduce the number of briefings, 12-hour shifts will be used in the event of a future disturbance. This will save time and also reduce the number of negotiators.

The Hostages' Welfare

A basic hostage negotiation principle holds that it is unwise to focus a lot of attention on the hostages' well-being. Attention may anger hostage-takers, leading to an increased chance of harm to hostages, or it may emphasize to hostage-takers the great value negotiators place on the hostages' lives. This principle's value was illustrated at Talladega.

Early in the disturbance, during a routine medical assistance visit to Alpha Unit, a medic determined that one hostage had an elevated blood pressure reading. Concern for this hostage's health was obviously a key point of interest, and it became a point of regular discussion between government negotiators and detainee leaders.

Once raised, the value of this hostage as a bargaining chip for the detainees became obvious. Several times detainees promised to allow medical staff in to check on this hostage as a way of luring them in to treat detainees in need of medical services. Rarely were medical staff allowed to actually see him or any other hostage. The negotiators agreed this hostage would probably have been one of the last hostages to be released had negotiation continued beyond the 10th day.

Conversely, team commanders were especially fearful of how the detainees would treat the three female hostages. Although this was an ongoing concern, it was never raised as a specific point of negotiation. In fact, negotiators went out of their way not to single out the female hostages for any special consideration. While perhaps coincidental, the only hostage released by the detainees following the early hours of the disturbance was a woman.

Outside Negotiators

A key demand voiced by the detainees throughout negotiations was to have media representatives present to document their concerns and help plead their cause as members of their proposed commission. They specifically and repeatedly requested that certain reporters from CNN and the Miami Herald be contacted and allowed to meet with them. Negotiators initially opposed this idea. However, after several days of limited progress, negotiators suggested that the detainees be allowed to meet with one of the requested reporters.

According to the plan, the newspaper reporter and her photographer would be brought, unannounced, to the front of Alpha Unit. Once there, the reporter would read a statement asking detainees to release all hostages as a humanitarian gesture that would be favorably reported in the newspaper. The reporter would tell the detainees that this gesture would give their cause national visibility and underscore the allegedly unfair treatment they had received in America.

When this plan was actually implemented, the detainees quickly and loudly rejected it; in the process they threatened a hostage and berated and ridiculed the reporter. However, several hours later detainees agreed to release one hostage in return for access to the same reporter.

Once the arrangement was agreed to, the hostage was released and the detainees were allowed a 30-minute interview with the reporter, who took their list of demands and subsequently published them in an article in the Miami newspaper. Allowing the detainees access to the media under well-controlled and supervised circumstances resulted in a hostage's safe release.

Conciliation Follows Confrontation

In most hostage situations, there are tense moments when it appears the situation is going to rapidly deteriorate into violence. During the Talladega disturbance, there were several such instances of confrontation.

For example, on day three, detainees charged Alpha Unit's front entrance in what appeared to be a mass exodus from the unit. The charge followed BOP officials' movement of a large barbecue grill to the front of the unit. The detainees wrongly believed this grill was some type of weapon or equipment that was going to be used in what they perceived to be an imminent assault. In reality, the grill was to be used to prepare a meal for tactical team members and to stimulate detainees to negotiate by attracting their attention to the meal being prepared.

Using a captured BOP portable radio, the detainees threatened the life of a hostage in an attempt to enforce their demands. After several tense moments, negotiators defused the situation through conversation and by moving the grill back slightly in return for the detainees' withdrawal from the entrance area. Government negotiators had met and passed an important test of wills. Shortly after this incident, clear detainee leaders and demands emerged.

The grill incident illustrates the importance of carefully considering the stimulus value of all items introduced into the crisis site before they are actually placed on site.

On day six, detainees became angered when they perceived that the BOP tactical teams surrounding Alpha Unit were too close to the building. Detainees observed one tactical team member with bolt cutters and grew fearful that the tactical team was going to cut through a nearby fence, weakening the detainees' sense of security. When the bolt cutters were not removed as quickly as they demanded, the detainees broke several windows in the unit and shot homemade arrows at tactical team members. Shortly after this situation subsided, negotiators made arrangements for the first formal face-to-face negotiation session.

During the early evening hours of day seven, the detainees breached the unit's roof to display handmade signs and banners to media representatives across the street from the institution. When detainees began throwing rocks at tactical personnel, the tactical commander on duty responded by firing a volley of non-lethal grenades, or Stingers, onto the roof.

After a few chaotic moments, the detainees left the roof. Shortly after this event, negotiators demanded and received assurances from detainee leaders that they would not get back on the roof without first notifying negotiators. Tactical teams were also able to place additional lighting and manpower near the unit without opposition from the detainees immediately following this incident.

In each of these instances, conciliation or concession followed confrontation. It may be that confrontation serves as a vivid reminder to both sides of what can happen if negotiation fails, or that confrontation has a cathartic effect that allows everyone to calm down and be more amenable to negotiation. Regardless of the explanation, while not recommending confrontation as a viable negotiation tactic, this phenomenon is worth exploring in future hostage situations.

Prior Contacts with Negotiators

Unlike police negotiation, where negotiators and hostage takers usually are unfamiliar to each other, negotiators and hostage takers in correctional crises often have had previous contacts--both positive and negative. These contacts can easily influence the course of current negotiation. Similarly, deception used to successfully resolve today's correctional hostage situation can easily come back to haunt negotiators in future hostage situations. For this reason, BOP and FBI negotiators are taught to approach all negotiations in an honest, forthright fashion.

Several BOP/FBI negotiators at the Talladega incident were active in resolving the Oakdale and Atlanta hostage situations; many detainees involved in the Talladega disturbance also were present in either Oakdale or Atlanta. Some of these detainees were dissatisfied with their treatment within the BOP following these disturbances. Others were unhappy with the terms of the negotiated settlements reached in Oakdale and Atlanta. These factors weakened government negotiators' position, and they have clear implications for future negotiations during similar disturbances.

A Worthwhile Effort

While a tactical move rather than negotiation ultimately resolved the Talladega crisis, the disturbance offers valuable lessons about negotiation principles and strategies. Even though negotiators recognized the situation's non-negotiability early on, all were nonetheless tireless in their efforts and can be proud of their individual and team contributions to the situation's successful resolution.


Dolan, J.T., and G.D. Fuselier. April 1989. A guide for the first responder to hostage situations. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. 9-13.

Fuselier, Dwayne, Clinton Van Zandt, and F.J. Lanceley. July 1989. Negotiating the protracted incident: The Oakdale and Atlanta prison sieges. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. 1-7.

Van Zandt. Clinton, and Dwayne Fuselier. July 1989. Nine days of crisis negotiation: The Oakdale siege. Corrections Today. 16-24.

Van Zandt, Clinton, and M.R. Hammer. 1992. Communication dynamics in a crisis: Negotiating the Talladega takeover. Unpublished.

Thomas J. Fagan, Ph.D., is a clinical training coordinator in the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Psychology Services Division in Washington, D.C. Clinton R. Van Zandt, M.P.A., is a supervisory special agent at the FBI Academy's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va. The views in this article are the authors' and do not necessarily represent those of the FBI or the BOP.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:managing a hostage crisis within corrections
Author:Fagan, Thomas J.; Van Zandt, Clinton R.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Myrl Alexander, former ACA President and Bureau of Prisons Director, dies.
Next Article:Justice Department agency offers program to reduce racial tension.

Related Articles
Teaming up against crises.
Developing an action plan to resolve hostage situations.
Crisis/hostage negotiation team profile.
Therapeutic communication.
Situation boards.
Negotiation concepts for commanders.
Placing the Stockholm Syndrome in perspective.
Achieving successful negotiations in a correctional setting.
On the consequences of listening: hostage incidents in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters