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On the consequences of listening: hostage incidents in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Authors' Note: The opinions expressed are those of the authors only and do not represent the official position or policies of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the U.S. Department of Justice.

Operational readiness for the inevitable crises that emerge in correctional systems requires that specific plans be made for resolving particular types of incidents. Although there are numerous techniques, technologies and strategies employed toward this end, there remains one standard correctional management tool upon which most others rely--correctional staff who can listen effectively, and thus communicate well. Often overlooked, this skill remains central to the safe and orderly running of an institution and is critical to the resolution of correctional crises when they do occur.

Historical Overview

The study of effective communications in law enforcement generally, and in hostage situations specifically, first found a home in policing. Seeking a more effective way of working with suspects who took hostages in crisis (e.g., botched robberies, barricade domestic disputes, etc.), New York Police Department detective and psychologist Harvey Schlossberg attempted to define the essential elements of effective negotiations with hostage takers. Profound yet simple, one of his main points was that effective listening to hostage takers was often the critical ingredient that led to the release of hostages. Supported by tactical containment and slowing down the incident and assessing the motivation of the hostage taker, (1) the familiar refrain of "contain and negotiate" was born.

Paralleling this development in policing for the 1970s, corrections professionals were making progress in understanding how to effectively organize staff and manage offenders. Armed with an understanding that effective correctional management meant, in part, that staff spoke with and listened to the offenders in their custody, the unit management philosophy emerged. Unit management was designed to increase the frequency of contacts between staff and inmates and the intensity of their relationship to facilitate better communication and understanding. (2) In relation, other communications-centered management techniques soon emerged. Concepts--such as standing mainline, a daily "walk and talk" by staff from various departments, daily and weekly "rounds" in segregation units, the establishment of verbal communication in progressive use-of-force models and unit team meetings--all highlighted the importance of staff communications generally and staff listening specifically.

With the importance of communications firmly embedded in the correctional management philosophy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it was not a far jump for staff to apply their listening skills to the hostage-based correctional crisis. The first chance to systematically apply these skills and principles came in 1987, with two simultaneous riot/hostage situations at the federal prisons in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta. From these experiences emerged the concept that teams of staff could be used to negotiate. This led the BOP to develop hostage negotiation teams with differentiated roles, formal training and specialized equipment. The experience also taught the BOP that correctional negotiations in protracted situations progress through certain stages. In Negotiating Correctional Incidents, author Thomas J. Fagan provides a stellar overview of these stages, all of which are contingent upon effective listening to the hostage taker. As Michael Webster points out in his book. The Psychology of Managing Hostage/Barricade Incidents: An Aide Memoire for Negotiators and Commanders, hostage takers are most likely to cooperate when they feel that someone is willing to listen to them, is understanding, is nonthreatening and conveys that the subject is worthy of respect. All these elements are conveyed through effective, active listening.

A comparison of the following passages highlights the degree to which active listening has expanded the tools available to correctional managers. A "state-of-the-art" strategy for dealing with hostage situations 55 years ago is reported in Ruth Cavan's book Criminology: "When prisoners barricade themselves within a cellblock, and especially when they hold guards as hostages, the method becomes one of guarding the building to prevent prisoners from leaving it until they are ready to submit to control; since the prisoners cannot secure food, they are 'starved out.'" This contrasts sharply with a present day report from Michael J. McMains and Wayman C. Mullins' 1996 book Crisis Negotiations: "The basic purposes of negotiations in prison incidents are similar to any hostage situation. They are to preserve life and to re-establish control of the prison population. Negotiations attempt to save the lives of hostages, citizens (if involved), prison staff and hostage takers, in that order.... Negotiation is the preferred method for dealing with a hostage situation."

During the past 100 years, the BOP has only experienced 16 recorded incidents that included staff being taken hostage by inmates. Although it remains a relatively rare phenomenon, few critical incidents compare in the degree to which they shake the foundation of staff morale and institution social climate. Given the significance of such events, it is surprising to find limited published materials on this topic. The remainder of this article seeks to fill this void by providing a statistically descriptive overview of hostage incidents that have occurred in the BOP. Analyzing and presenting incident data in this applied format yields themes and trends that can further inform effective correctional management techniques.

The Study

Multiple sources of information were used to create the data set for this study. Archived agency mental health records of hostage takers, internally generated after-action reviews, and archived newspaper clippings were all procured and coded for relevant incident information. In several instances where data were missing, interviews were conducted with employees who had responded to the incident under review. Several critical incidents did not make it into the data set because they were unsubstantiated as hostage incidents in the after-action reviews. For example, incidents where staff were forcibly confined to a room but later escaped or were extracted from the scene during a tactical resolution of the incident were not defined as hostage incidents. Also, incidents that occurred in contract or private facilities, or incidents for which little or no information was available were not included in the final data set.

For each incident that was considered for entry into the data set, various descriptive information was gathered (i.e., time, location, duration, who initiated the first verbal contact, whether a formal negotiations and/or tactical team was activated, whether a team was used if activated, the outcome of the incident). The majority of these variables were selected as they provided a match with the FBI's Hostage and Barricade database.

Findings And Recommendations

Ultimately, since 1891, 14 informative incidents resulted from the search strategy and entered the data set. Eleven of these incidents occurred recently, since 1986 when the BOP officially organized its concept of the hostage negotiation team. In terms of temporal incident dynamics, more than half of the incidents lasted less than 45 minutes. Significantly, three of the incidents lasted longer than three days. Incidents began on every day of the week, but occurred more frequently during weekdays, when more staff were on duty. Further elaborating this theme of staff accessability, nine of the 14 incidents began between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. The 14 incidents were resolved evenly across various times, day and night.

In terms of structural incident dynamics, the majority (75 percent) of the 14 incidents took place at either an administrative (medical or detention center) facility where multiple security-level inmates are housed or at a high-security (U.S. penitentiary) facility. There was no one particular high-risk location in the facility where incidents were more likely to begin. Staff were taken hostage in special housing and general population housing units, in their officer stations, and in food service and the health unit alike.

The most complete data were yielded from the 11 post-1986 incidents. In terms of the incidents resolution method, perpetrator suicide accounted for one case, tactical force accounted for two and negotiations (and some level of tactical containment) were effectively used to resolve eight of these 11 incidents. However, in 75 percent of those eight cases, it was a "first-responding" captain, lieutenant or noncustodial staff member who negotiated; 62 percent of the time, the negotiations took place live, either face-to-face or through a barrier (not over a throw phone or other device). In 25 percent of the cases, negotiations were effectively used through a combination of live negotiations and throw phone or other device. For the 11 post-1986 incidents, negotiation teams were activated 54 percent of the time and negotiated only once as a team, since in most incidences the first responder or other immediately available staff resolved the situation prior to the introduction of the hostage negotiation team.

Collectively, these data suggest that two prototypes exist for the correctionally based hostage incident. Correctional managers and their staff must be ready to manage an incident of short duration, as well as the rarer protracted incident. Thus, the BOP is now moving to a two-pronged approach to hostage negotiation: a large cadre of first responders trained in basic listening skills and negotiation tactics; and more highly trained and organized hostage negotiation teams with protracted crisis response capabilities. Given the agency's experience as discussed, it is reducing the number of formal hostage negotiation teams, but investing more in training of nearly all staff in first responder skills.

While the issue of tactical elements was not directly discussed here, it remains imperative that crisis management staff understand that negotiations and tactics are twin elements of an overall, comprehensive crisis management strategy. It is the tactical element that forms the "container" in which communications gains relevance for the hostage taker. Furthermore, there always will remain situations where listening skills will not be the management strategy emphasized. McMains and Mullins make it clear that the motivation of the hostage taker and the dynamics of the incident must always be properly assessed. Not every incident that looks like a hostage situation is in fact a true hostage situation. For example, passengers forcibly contained in a highjacked plane may look like hostages, until it is clear that they are intended victims of a crime being used to illustrate a cause. Relatedly, not every motivation of every hostage taker leads one to slow down the crisis or negotiation process. If the motivations of the hostage taker are to commit suicide, this may lead to more active negotiation tactics and increase the likelihood of a use-of-force resolution.

With an increasing number of inmates who have ties to international terrorist organizations and radicalized religious groups, the issue above becomes salient. The identification of some terrorist inmates as soldiers in a war rather than offenders and who are more than willing to be martyrs to a cause, means that peaceful resolution of the situation or meeting their demands may not be their goal at all. Rather, according to William Reich's Origins of Terrorism, the motivation may be to attract as much media attention as possible, kill their "hostages" to reinforce the credibility of future incidents, and force the responsibility and blame for the deaths onto the government.

Ultimately, it is the good-communicating corrections professional who remains the best correctional management tool. In their daily work of hearing the prison chatter and listening to the individual inmates who produce it, corrections professionals practice their ability to influence others. Be it to resolve a hostage incident, assess perpetrator motivation, or to simply maintain the balance of day-to-day prison life, living safely one more day remains the consequence of their listening.
Table 1. Summary of Incident Dynamics

Incident Dynamic Finding Total Incidents*

Duration < 45 min 6
 < 10 hours 0
 < 20 hours 2
 > 24 hours 3
Start Day Monday 2
 Tuesday 3
 Wednesday 3
 Thursday 2
 Friday 1
 Saturday 1
 Sunday 1
Start Time 12 a.m.-6 a.m. 0
 6 a.m.-12 p.m. 7
 12 p.m.-6 p.m. 1
 6 p.m.-12 a.m. 3
Security Level Administrative 4
 High 8
 Medium 2
 Low/Minimum 0
Resolution Method Negotiated Surrender 4
 Tactical Presence and 4
 Negotiated Surrender
 Tactical 2
 Suicide 1
First Verbal Responder Lieutenant 2
(in a negotiated incident) Captain 1
 Psychologist 2
 Noncustodial Staff 1
 Other 2

* Number of incidents vary depending upon whether source of information
was available for coding a particular incident dynamic.


(1) McMains, M.J. and W.C. Mullins. 1996. Crisis negotiations. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing.

(2) Houston, J.G. 1999. Correctional management: Functions, skills and systems. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers.

Phil Magaletta, Ph.D., is the clinical training coordinator for the Psychology Services Branch, Correctional Programs Division, BOP, Washington, D.C. John M. Vanyur, Ph.D., is the assistant director, Correctional Programs Division, BOP, Washington, D.C. Kimberly Digre, MA, is a staff training specialist, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, BOP, Glynco, Ga.
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Magaletta, Philip R.; Vanyur, John M.; Digre, Kimberly
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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