Realism is the key to effective training for corrections special operators, and senior staff members at the West Virginia Division of Corrections (WV DOC) have parlayed that belief into a program that helps tactical teams around the United States and the world.
The Mock Prison Riot is a four-day technology tradeshow and training event held every spring at the decommissioned West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, where corrections, law enforcement, military, and public safety special operators gather for the unique experience of training with unfettered access at an actual compound.
Now in its 18th year, the Mock Prison Riot recently transferred from federal auspices to those of the WV DOC and the West Virginia Corrections Training Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. "When federal funding for the Mock Prison Riot program was eliminated over a year ago, we felt a deep sense of responsibility to step in and keep this kind of training alive,” said Jim Rubenstein, WV DOC Commissioner. "There are very few means for corrections practitioners and special operators to train under realistic conditions, and, thankfully, our partnership with the newly-formed West Virginia Corrections Training Foundation allows us to continue offering this unique experience to people all over the world.”
According to WV DOC Special Operations Commander and Captain Ronnie Williams, a combination of factors influence effective training, a primary one being realism.
"Our philosophy that we (the WV DOC) committed to several years ago is: The standards are the standards,” Williams said. "It sounds simple enough, but the importance and benefit of having established and enforced performance standards cannot be discounted. If an operator candidate does not meet the minimum, they do not pass the course and are not added to the roster. If an existing operator fails to meet the minimum at their annual re-certification, they are permitted 60 days to correct the deficiency or they are removed from the team. There are no exceptions.” This is the mindset that the WV DOC has transitioned to its role in the planning and execution of the annual Mock Prison Riot.
"The MPR provides a very unique opportunity for tactical teams to conduct training and overall team development,” Williams said. "Teams place a high value on this training event. The combination of the training site itself; the tools, technologies, and weapons available; live role players as inmates; and designated safety teams for each training scenario provide teams with the resources to conduct effective and realistic training scenarios that they cannot get during their own in-service training or anywhere else, for that matter. It is an extremely rare opportunity to have all of the above combined with the ability to observe and network with so many other teams from around the U.S. and the world in one location.”
The cornerstones of the Mock Prison Riot are the technology showcase and demonstrations, tactical training scenarios designed by team leaders to address the needs of their respective teams, workshops, and the Skills Competition designed by the WV DOC special operations group. The venue provides the means for a team leader to conduct nearly any scenario he or she could envision, from large-scale open-area disturbances with dozens of role players to an isolated, barricaded subject or hostage rescue.
Of particular interest to many team leaders is the Skills Competition, whereby team leaders can gauge the performance of their operators against those around the world. "The Skills Competition provides tactical teams the opportunity to perform on demand,” Williams said. "It can be difficult even with seasoned teams to bring a sense of urgency and realism into their regular, monthly training. Our Skills Competition creates a level of stress that is often lost in the standard training cycle.”
A great deal of thought goes into developing the Skills Competition scenarios. "We want to make sure our competition is truly a test of skills and not simply a race or a physical fitness test,” Williams said. "In every event, with the exception of the obstacle course, there is a test of a specific skill set, whether it is the deployment of a less lethal munitions system, mechanically breaching a door, the proper deployment of an FSDD (flash sound diversionary device), or firearms proficiency while wearing a protective mask.”
Williams said it is not uncommon for teams to look impressive in their gear and manner but come up short on basic skills, while others using borrowed equipment perform flawlessly. “Some of the issues that we have observed can be attributed to the stress factor that is involved with competing. Our training and competition are designed to address such issues. It takes effective, comprehensive training to be successful. The inability to properly function a pump shotgun or successfully remove a pin from an FSDD is inexcusable for an operator. Nothing much else in a situation matters if you can’t perform these basic tasks or follow directions under stress.”
The competition is designed to reward teams that conduct proper intelligence gathering and preparation prior to the execution of the scenarios. “In many cases, an event like the Skills Competition may be a team leader’s best tool in assessing individual operator performance under real stress. Of course, there is no comparison to the stress level involved in an actual incident, but if issues show themselves in competition, they most assuredly will show themselves in real events. These issues, in turn, can be addressed through further training,” Williams said.
The further training he mentions may consist of the additional scenarios that teams execute during the Mock Prison Riot once they are finished competing. Yet another philosophy employed by the WV DOC and applied to the Mock Prison Riot is that training programs are not static. "For our senior leadership within the special operations team, it is a constant cycle of development,” Williams said. "We make small adjustments following every training course we conduct. We also make adjustments following any mission where a deficiency is observed or where it is felt that improvement can be made.”
As such, the WV DOC and the West Virginia Corrections Training Foundation staff adhere to an extensive debrief process following every Skills Competition and Mock Prison Riot event to ensure that participants are receiving the safest, most realistic training opportunities possible.
"We look forward to seeing how different teams from around the country and the world address similar situations,” Rubenstein said. "Each facility has its own unique issues, but there are common threads that do run through corrections special operations, no matter where operators are located. It is always fascinating and educational to see the different methods applied to any given situation. Our primary goal in our own training and with the Mock Prison Riot and the Skills Competition is to insert the stress. We strive for the highest levels of realism and safety and give operators the opportunity to showcase their best skills and identify and hone those that need work, so that when they do encounter a real situation, and they will, they are prepared to effectively and efficiently resolve it.”
For more information on the Mock Prison Riot, visit http://www.mockprisonriot.org or call (304) 231 - 4929.