Looking back at the 1989 Camp Hill prison riots

Assault of a corrections officer started October riots 20 years ago today.
2009-10-25T00:00:00Z Looking back at the 1989 Camp Hill prison riotsBy Jason Scott, Sentinel Reporter, October 24, 2009 The Sentinel

The state prison officials and local authorities called out to Lower Allen Township 20 years ago for a prison emergency know you can never say never.

But you can make it better.

You can increase cell block security.

You can compartmentalize prison grounds with fencing and electronic gates to delay inmate access to other areas.

You can add to perimeter security with upgrades like motion sensors.

And you learn.

Now, prison officials say it’s hard to fathom another large-scale inmate incident like the historic riots that started Oct. 25, 1989, at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, an incident that ended with 16 of the 32 facility buildings completely destroyed or damaged severely by fire.

“The inmates know things have changed,” said Superintendent John Palakovich.

Before the clock struck 3 p.m. that day, Palakovich, then the assistant to the superintendent, described it as the perfect October afternoon.

It was sunny, in the 70s and things were pretty quiet around the prison, he said.

Within the hour, though, the perfect day was marred by inmate rioting. The quiet was replaced by a wave of police sirens — from Cumberland County and across the region — as an estimated 1,200 prisoners took over the state prison after an inmate assaulted a corrections officer.

Palakovich was in the basement of a cell block at the time with the state deputy attorney general working on a civil case over asbestos removal.

“They were coming back from the exercise stockade. It was a spontaneous assault,” he said about the start of the riot, which occurred on the northwest side of the institution along Gym Road near what was then the E Gate (now called T9).

Officials cited a new rule barring inmates’ families from bringing homemade food to inmates as one of the contributing factors to the outbreak.

Overcrowding in the state prison system was another, Palakovich said, as new legislation at the time imposed more mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders.

There was a spike in inmate population across the system and SCI Camp Hill was no exception, with about 2,600 inmates in a prison built for 1,400, including many long-term offenders, according to the superintendent.

Police response

Palakovich was on the eastern side of the institution when the riot broke out, which went into lockdown as the inmates took control of the other half. The Department of Corrections immediately notified state police of the incident. Other authorities were also called to respond for perimeter security around the Lisburn Road prison.

Palakovich said he was stuck inside for about two hours during the confusion as inmates obtained cell block keys and started setting fires in the prison.

Back then, one key opened all the mechanical locks on the cell blocks. Now everything is electronically controlled in each cell block.

Along with the cells, the inmates had keys to the maintenance building and kitchen, among other facilities.

“Staff was trapped in training areas and cell blocks and hostages were taken,” Palakovich said.

Outside the gate, more than 350 state police troopers secured the perimeter, along with countless police departments and sheriff’s deputies from Cumberland County.

“We heard it (on the scanner) and the next thing was they were calling anyone that could get there,” said Sheriff Tom Kline, who was then running for county sheriff for the first time.

Several county deputies went out on the call, including Mick Barrick and Ronny Anderson.

“The main thing was to get them back in their cells and lock them down,” Anderson said. “The goal was to get them back in the blocks.”

Barrick, who went in the prison that night with his riot gear to help disperse the inmates, said he was “definitely scared” of what might happen. “If they ever ran us, I knew there was no way I was going home,” he said.

He was one of about 200 police and prison Correctional Emergency Response Team members who went in.

He had a shotgun with about 50 shells and his .357 revolver with 15 rounds, he said, but he never had to use either.

The surge of armed emergency responders dispersed the inmates, Barrick noted.

“We went through each section and cleared it,” he said.

According to prison officials, the inmates released staff hostages and agreed to go back to their cells by the late-night hours. The institution was secured and the Department of Corrections was back in control between about 10 or 11 p.m., according to reports and those that responded.

With the severity of the situation and several injuries, rumors about people being killed quickly spread.

There was a definite concern the inmates were going to break through the exterior prison fences and try to escape, Kline said. He was outside the entire time with local police from Dauphin and York counties, among other departments across the region who arrived throughout the afternoon and evening.

No one was killed and the inmates never breached the fences. A total of 44 people, nine inmates and 35 corrections officers, were reported injured that night. Eleven were hospitalized.

Second night

On Thursday, Oct. 26, the superintendent met with the inmate leaders to discuss the riot and what they wanted.

“The superintendent did not give them anything,” Palakovich said about inmate demands.

Cutting out inmate family days was one thing he credited for starting the riot. Looking back, he also believes there were just not enough programs or jobs available to keep inmates busy.

That has changed since the riots. There is full employment today and a host of special programs now, he explained, as well as special needs units for those with mental health and disciplinary problems.

The second night of the riots kicked off after a 6 p.m. televised news conference. Corrections officers at the time attributed the start of the riot that night to a failure by prison officials to repair cell locks broken during the first riot.

Palakovich said that definitely made it easier for the inmates the second night.

“Their intent was to burn the place down,” he said, which they nearly succeeded in doing.

Officers also told reporters that prison officials ignored inmates’ warnings that other inmates were planning more riots after the first one.

Many called back that second night remember the scene.

“As I was going up Slate Hill Road, I looked over to the left and the whole place was on fire,” said retired Maj. Jim Hazen of the Pennsylvania State Police, area commander at the time.

Kline remembers the smoke and said he told Mike Piper, a deputy at the time, that “I think we’re going to be here awhile.”

Piper, who was 23 at the time and now works in adult probation and parole for Cumberland County, said it was an “eerie setting.” He also remembers all the smoke from the fires and the mass confusion as 61 police agencies responded for the second riot.

No casualties

On his way to the prison, Hazen used his car as a mobile command post. He was talking to dispatchers, trying to mobilize state police helicopters and activate his command.

That night, agencies responded from the East and West shores, Franklin County, Philadelphia, Reading, Lancaster, Bethlehem and even Maryland, he said.

“At that time, there were 17 state police troops. Fifteen responded at one point or another,” Hazen said.

He was the field commander on-site. He recalls seeing cell blocks burning, fires in the gymnasium, the auditorium completely burned out.

“Some flames were 40 or 50 feet in the air,” he said, with the prison furniture factory set ablaze.

Inmates also broke into the commissary and were looting. A small group was assaulting officers and taking staff hostages, he said.

Anderson, who was along the perimeter the second night, said a guard in a tower on the west side of the prison fired warning shots.

“He said they were trying to breach,” Anderson recalled, also noting how inmates were throwing saw blades like Frisbees at emergency equipment. “It was so unbelievable to see the chaos.”

An assault to take back the prison didn’t happen until the early morning hours of Friday, Oct. 27.

“We waited to build up personnel,” Hazen said. “We knew at some point were going to have to do an assault to take it back.”

Just before 7 a.m., a pair of assault teams — one a diversionary team, made up of between 200 and 300 state police and Department of Corrections officers — went in and took back the prison.

During the assault, which lasted about 30 to 40 minutes, three inmates were wounded by shotguns, Hazen said.

“We had fired on them as a warning and drove them back,” he said.

Corrections officers were on the assault to identify inmates and hostages, he noted.

Again, despite rumors, no one was killed.

Aftermath

Once authorities took control of the prison, inmates were shackled and handcuffed. About 1,200 were transferred to other institutions because the damage at SCI Camp Hill was too great to house them.

Prison officials say the damage totaled about $17 million.

According to Palakovich, 64 inmates were criminally prosecuted and another 500 received misconducts.

“I was surprised there were no deaths,” he said, adding that the situation “was handled as well as it could have been.”

With the rebuilding efforts at the prison, which totaled a decade, several security measures were added.

Back in 1989, the grounds were mostly wide open. Now every area has a series of fences — in many places double sets of fencing — with barb wire. Each unit has its own exercise yard, so at most, an incident would be contained to about 250 inmates in a confined area with electronic fences.

Cells were reinforced and perimeter security, even though it wasn’t breached, was bolstered with higher fences.

Palakovich said there is also more emphasis today on training drills, which are held twice a month.

Piper added: “You hope you never experience something like that again.”

“Certainly anything could happen. You would hope it wouldn’t with a more secure institution,” he said.

With everything that’s in place today on the security side, any outbreaks would be contained to certain areas, Barrick said. The situation also wouldn’t be able to escalate as quickly with the electronic access and sensor equipment, he said.

Another change since 1989 has been permanent inmates. At the time of the riots, about two-thirds were at SCI Camp Hill to serve their time. Now roughly two-thirds are there for one to three months for classification before they are sent to other institutions, said Bob Volciak, the prison’s public information officer.

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