Printer Friendly

Focus on victims: helping hostages and their families through critical incident response.

Much has been written about managing prison hostage situations, covering issues such as how to handle the media, negotiation strategies and ensuring the security of unaffected areas of the institution. One issue that has not received a lot of attention, however, is the need for prison administrators to put into place an effective strategy to assist the victims of these situations, particularly the staff and inmates who are taken hostage and their family members.

This article offers practical guidance for staff who have to deal with the victims of a prison hostage situation or develop institutional policy in this area. These staff--often part of an institution's Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT)--typically include psychologists, chaplains and medical personnel. They must be prepared to handle the needs of families throughout the crisis and to assist the hostages after its resolution.

The Family Center

Family members of hostages are typically the most traumatized by hostage incidents. When they are notified that their relatives are involved in a prison disturbance, their first inclination is to come to the prison. During the early hours of a prison disturbance it is not uncommon for family members to wander around the prison perimeter seeking information. One of the first things CIRT members should do is establish a center where family members can gather during the crisis.

The center serves several purposes. It provides a single, safe location where family members can gather and receive accurate, up-to-date status reports about the incident. It also allows prison mental health and emergency staff easy access to families so they can offer crisis intervention counseling. In addition, the center provides a haven for family members from unwanted intrusions by the media, onlookers and others.

The center should be located as close to the prison as possible without endangering family members. It should be easily accessible to families but secure enough to keep out unwelcome visitors. A CIRT member should work with families to develop a gatekeeper system. During recent large-scale prison hostage incidents, such as those at Oakdale, La.; Talladega, Ala.; Lucasville, Ohio; and Atlanta, Ga., family centers have been set up in such diverse locations as nearby schools, churches and community centers and prison buildings located outside the fence line.

Regardless of location, the center should be large enough to accommodate immediate and extended family members. There should be at least one large room where family members can congregate for briefings, meetings, meals, television news reports and other activities. Several smaller rooms also should be available for private meetings and counseling. CIRT members should have a private area where they can discuss cases, strategize and take breaks. If space is limited, tents, trailers, picnic tables and other makeshift accommodations can be used.

The center should be equipped with one or more television sets and video recorders. Families often want to monitor and videotape all local and national news updates. Families also should have access to telephones.

Since many family members remain at the center for the duration of the disturbance, CIRT members need to arrange for meals and sleeping accommodations. Facilities can contract local catering firms to provide meals, set up portable kitchens, use the prison food services department or ask for donations from family members or local restaurants. Families often volunteer to help in this area because it gives them something productive to do. Sleeping accommodations should be kept simple: Most facilities simply provide cots for napping and overnight stays.

Notification and Communication

Prison administrators usually begin notifying staff and family members about disturbances before CIRT members arrive. However, soon after arriving, CIRT members typically assume these duties. This process is relatively simple if personnel records are up-to-date. If the records have not been well-maintained, notification can be difficult and time-consuming.

CIRT members also must be able to locate families who only visit the center intermittently in the event a relative is released or injured during the disturbance. This can be accomplished with a log book. When family members leave the center, they should sign out and leave a telephone number where they can be reached. To cut down on the number of telephone calls CIRT members have to make, each family should designate a contact person. That person in turn contacts all other family members with any news.

It is important for families to get status reports on their relatives that address questions regarding the condition of the hostages and the efforts being made to secure their release. CIRT members should work through the command center to set up a regular briefing schedule for family members at the start of the disturbance. One member of CIRT may take responsibility for bringing information from the command center to the family center. In addition, on-scene commanders should visit the center periodically or send videotaped messages to supplement these briefings. Staff should present information not only about the incident at hand but about the management of hostage situations in general and the implications of various situations. For example, they should explain that the passage of time without incident is a positive factor in hostage resolution. This information can help reassure family members who may otherwise be distressed by periods of seeming inactivity. In addition, the CIRT team should consider setting up a telephone hotline that families can call for updates.

Perimeter staff and tactical staff can help in providing information about the status of hostages. These staff often are able to observe hostages being moved from one location to another and may be able to capture some of this movement on video. Photographs or videotape, appropriately dated, may be shown to families to allay their fears.

The negotiation team is another source of information about hostages. Negotiators sometimes have the opportunity to talk to hostages or may be able to convince hostage takers to photograph hostages or allow them to write or videotape messages to their families. CIRT members should keep in contact with these resources to keep family members as informed as possible.

Counseling Services

After families of hostages ascertain the status of their relatives, they often begin to suffer from stress caused by the crisis. People react differently to stress, so it is important that CIRT members be flexible in their intervention efforts. Some families need only accurate, up-to-date information to keep them going. Others require more extensive services, including psychological and spiritual counseling, children's services and psychoeducational programs.

Psychological and spiritual counseling. Many families seek counseling through CIRT members during the disturbance. Counseling usually is more effective if it is informal and questions are encouraged. Formal counseling sessions are too clinical and overwhelming for most people in crisis situations.

Some families want to be counseled by a mental health professional, while others prefer someone who also will provide spiritual support. In many rural communities where mental health services are limited, people often receive counseling through their church or synagogue. Therefore, when prison hostage situations occur in rural areas, it is not uncommon for families to seek help from CIRT members who can provide spiritual counseling.

While most staff who volunteer for CIRTs are already trained professionals, CIRT members often benefit from specialized training that focuses on such topics as managing personal stress during a critical incident; providing crisis and support services during a critical incident; dealing effectively with the signs and symptoms associated with trauma and its aftermath; organizing and managing a family services center; conducting defusing and debriefing sessions and assisting traumatized staff with job re-entry strategies.

Children's services. Children of hostages tend to respond to the situation in much the same way as adult family members. CIRT members can provide two specific services for children of hostages. They can begin by informing school officials of the situation and ask that educators closely watch the child for signs of stress. If the child begins to show signs of stress, CIRT members can work with school officials to address the problem.

CIRT members also can establish a child care program at the family center. This allows adults time away from children to work out their own fears and concerns. It also allows children to deal with their feelings away from their parents and other adult relatives. The center should offer activities such as play therapy, storytelling and art therapy to help children cope. Some family members may want to volunteer to work a shift at the child care center.

Psychoeducational programs. After several days, CIRT members and families usually settle into a routine at the center. This is an ideal time for CIRT members to begin preparing families for what to expect from hostages after they are released and to begin discussing available services. Topics that may be covered include the Stockholm Syndrome, post-traumatic stress and effective coping strategies, debriefing procedures and follow-up services.

Financial counseling. Prison staff who are taken hostage sometimes are responsible for managing household finances, which can leave the person's spouse in a bind if he or she is not familiar with prison payroll procedures and is inexperienced at paying bills. The spouse often is under so much stress that he or she is incapable of learning financial management skills and may need help from CIRT members.

Preparing for Release

In addition to helping the families of hostages, CIRT members must assist those individuals directly involved in the crisis. It is never too soon to begin preparing for the release of hostages. Once enough CIRT staff are available to meet the needs of family members, at least one CIRT member should begin coordinating services for hostages who are released. These services should include a defusing session immediately after release and a debriefing session 36 to 48 hours later. The CIRT member assigned to this task will determine where these services will be provided, who will provide them, how providers can be amassed quickly and what resources are available for follow-up services.

In communities where mental health resources are plentiful, CIRT members may want to contact treatment providers to determine whether they have experience counseling victims of trauma and whether they have worked with law enforcement officers. Mental health professionals who meet both these criteria should be included on a referral list for released hostages.

In areas where mental health resources are limited, the agency may wish to consider using internal resources to address the long-term mental health needs of released hostages. Many agencies offer employee assistance programs that may be helpful. If this is not possible, CIRT members may be able to arrange training for local mental health agency staff in treating victims of trauma and in dealing with law enforcement officers.

Defusing, Debriefing and Follow-up

Many experts advocate a three-phase program for treating trauma victims. These phases include defusing, debriefing and follow-up.

Defusing, which occurs immediately after a hostage is released, has three objectives. It provides a means for psychological and medical screening to determine whether individuals need treatment or medication prior to being reunited with family members. It also offers CIRT members a chance to glean information about conditions of captivity, which can be used in subsequent investigations and legal action or, in cases where the hostage situation has not yet been completely resolved, it can aid in continuing negotiations or rescue efforts.

Debriefing sessions occur approximately 36 to 48 hours after hostages are released, involve eight to 12 individuals and are conducted by at least two facilitators. These sessions give hostages the opportunity to discuss captivity and post-trauma symptoms and learn coping mechanisms. Debriefing sessions should be mandatory for all correctional personnel who responded to the incident, including tactical personnel, hostage negotiators and command center staff. Debriefing sessions may also be beneficial for nonparticipating inmates, particularly if they witnessed acts of extreme violence or cruelty.

The long-term needs of hostages vary considerably and should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Agency officials should be flexible in helping hostages re-enter the work force. This may mean relocating them to other institutions or placing them on light duty while they undergo treatment. It may mean delaying their return to work, assisting with workman's compensation and/or tort claim paperwork or allowing them to take time off if they suffer from post-traumatic stress.

One of the best ways for an agency to provide follow-up services to hostages and their families is to designate a single point of contact for assistance. A hostage and family services center should be established to allow victims to get answers to their questions, share their experiences, define job re-entry plans, get job relocation information, complete workman's compensation or tort claim paperwork and seek mental health and medical referrals. If setting up such a center is not feasible, designating a single contact person such as the agency's employee assistance program coordinator is a viable alternative.

Continued follow-up is important because post-traumatic stress symptoms sometimes return around the anniversary of the event or when hostages are placed in situations that remind them of the event. Prior to the anniversary, staff should monitor the progress of former hostages to determine how well they are coping. In their haste to restore order and move forward, officials may ignore hostages' needs to repeatedly discuss the event and work through their emotions. If officials are not aware of this conflict, the long-term recovery of hostages may be jeopardized.

Roles for Ex-hostages

Hostages released during a disturbance often have conflicting feelings. While they are happy to be safe and free, they feel guilty that others remain in captivity. They want to do something productive following their release but may not be physically or emotionally ready to return to work.

Released hostages can be very helpful in providing first-hand information about the situation to staff and families who desperately want information about their relatives. This role may not be appropriate for all released hostages, but if CIRT members choose the right person or persons, the experience can be therapeutic for former hostages and their families.

Hostages released at the end of a disturbance may be able to fulfill personal and agency needs by teaching hostage survival skills and sharing coping strategies that were most helpful during captivity. Again, this role may not be appropriate for all former hostages.

Experts have documented the long-term benefits to staff morale when victims' needs are promptly addressed as well as the negative effects on staff morale and agency productivity when these needs are ignored. Planning and forethought are essential to an agency's ability to respond quickly and successfully to the needs of victims during crisis situations.


Bergmann, L.H., and T. Queen. 1987. Aftermath: Treating traumatic stress is crucial. Corrections Today. 100-104.

Bergmann, L.H., and T. Queen. 1989. Post-trauma programs: Essential for good morale. Corrections Today. 188-194.

Bettinger, K.J. 1990. After the gun goes off. State Police Officer's Journal. 90-93, 95.

Mitchell, Jeffrey T. 1983. When disaster strikes: The critical incident stress debriefing process. Journal of Emergency Medical Services. 36-39.

Van Fleet, F. 1991. Debriefing staff after disturbances can prevent years of pain. Corrections Today. 102-107.

Thomas J. Fagan, Ph.D., is clinical training coordinator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Psychology Services Division in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Bureau of Prisons.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:In Complete Control: Correctional Security
Author:Fagan, Thomas J.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1994
Previous Article:Exposing our weaknesses: conducting a top-notch audit to improve facility security.
Next Article:Inmate transportation poses unique security challenges.

Related Articles
Member input sought on victims' rights policy.
When staff are victimized: a restorative justice response to staff victimization within the corrections community.
Promoting Victim Justice Through Corrections-Based Victim Services.
Adding crime victims to the re-entry equation.
Victims of juvenile offenders: an important component of the juvenile justice equation.
Safeguarding correctional officers and staff while on the job.
On the consequences of listening: hostage incidents in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Training the next generation of leaders: Texas' approach.
Computer-based programs: Pennsylvania's cost-effective approach to staff training.
PREA and the investigative process.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |