Escape and Evasion: Training and Equipment
In January of 2004 the longest hostage taking incident in U.S. prison history took place in Arizona. For fifteen days two corrections officer were held hostage by two prisoners who managed to overpower guards with makeshift weapons and then subdue and control these officers with their own handcuffs and corrections equipment. Fortunately, these officers were eventually released and no fatalities took place.
Corrections history is littered with incidents wherein inmates have taken facility workers and corrections personnel hostage in attempts to barter for more liberties or gain exit from facility grounds. In all too many of these cases hostages have been held for extended periods, subdued and contained oftentimes with their own equipment utilized by inmates once they have achieved control over the officers. Despite the fact that with each incident greater understanding and more effective response has been generated, they have and will continue to occur as there is no way to completely remove the close proximity prisoners have to corrections personnel.
Similarly, military personnel are also subject to hostage crisis once they have entered into a war zone and are placed in close proximity to enemy combatants. Especially in today’s highly dynamic warzones and regions of peacetime instability, the intentions and goals of captors have shifted dramatically from only two decades ago and now are heavily skewed towards the capture and interment of military personnel not as prisoners of war, but as bargaining collateral and tools to be used in the spread of psychological terror. This change has increased the threat and dangers of captivity as they can occur during both peacetime and war, captors have an increased incentive to inflict great harm and the potential for these incidents to occur is greatly increased. As a result the U.S. military has made several moves to address the problem of personnel capture for hostage taking purposes with changes to its uniform codes and the creation of programs and training specific to such situations.
One of the first things any professional in the position of being taken captive must do is assess and evaluate their position and make every reasonable attempt to regain their liberty. Should the opportunity present itself and the chances for success appear good, those taken captive must make the effort to free themselves. Although in wartime the rules regarding capture make it a soldier’s obligation to escape, they are afforded some measure of protection from retribution or punitive actions by their captors due to the rules of the Geneva Conventions. In today’s unstable middle eastern regions and particularly in the case of corrections officers, there is no protection afforded by such international law. Despite this, the potential for serious harm and even death places upon the captive a necessary requirement to effect escape if at all possible. The uncertainty of their eventual release and the almost certain extreme duress they will endure must be taken into account when weighing the potentialities of their position. In either cases both military and civilian corrections, training and preparedness play a vital role in successful escape from hostage situations.
The military provides training in part through its Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape or “SERE” program which it began after the Korean War when it became clear such training was necessary in light of the experiences its personnel endured during this conflict. Likewise, most corrections programs offer training specifically geared towards preparing officers for the unwelcome but very real potential of being placed into a hostage situation. In both of these cases prevention and conduct are given the most emphasis as it is rightly believed that the best way to deal with a hostage situation is to prevent it. Should it take place, the emphasis then shifts towards survival and protection which of course falls under the heading of conduct. Receiving less emphasis but still very much a vital component of any comprehensive training program, resistance and escape represents perhaps the most difficult and challenging aspects of these programs.
Resistance and escape carry a great deal of potential risk, and training serves to help prepare individuals by giving them the tools they need to make the decision whether resistance and escape is a viable option. Likewise, those undergoing hostage crisis training also learn how to prepare for an incident through the proper selection and use of equipment. Military personnel, particularly those identified as being at high risk of capture or interment are issued standard kits geared towards facilitating their successful evasion or escape from potential captors. The equipment issued varies depending upon mission and region specifics but usually includes some basic items that are considered universally useful. These kits are often supplemented with additional items the soldier may also deem useful. A compass, signaling devices, maps, all purpose tools, food, water, knives, ammunition and other items often make up basic kits and serve to provide the most basic necessities for survival in environments made hostile by both the elements and antagonists.
Correctional officers operate under very different conditions and so do not require such survival based gear. However, due to the same issues being created by hostage situations regardless of the circumstances these officers still benefit greatly from training and equipment preparedness. Corrections officers, aside from those stationed apart from the general prison population, generally do not carry firearms. The potential for inmates to gain control of these weapons is too great as demonstrated in the incident cited earlier where the officer’s own equipment, in that case handcuffs, was used against him. Corrections officers however have at their disposal many non lethal forms of defense such as tear gases and pepper sprays, but few options for deployment of escape and evade equipment. Despite this, some options that can serve in a universal capacity do exist. The Larson Electronics Universal Handcuff Key for instance provides a means for covertly maintaining the ability to escape one of the most commonly employed means of restraint, handcuffs, either antagonist produced or the officers own. Such items highlight the extremes to which equipment and training can be taken to further add to the safety and preparedness of those in positions which place them at risk of captivity from hostile persons. Hidden and difficult to locate, particularly by an inexperienced or unskilled antagonist, a plastic handcuff key can potentially make the difference between escape and de-escalation and a tragic conclusion.
In any hostage crisis there are two groups working to end the situation and effect the safe release of captives, the captives themselves and their would be rescuers. Proper training and equipment can give those with the greatest vested interests, the hostage, the chance to perhaps have the greatest a impact on creating a safe resolution.