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Crisis Negotiation in Prison

Negotiation in detention facilities is a most important tool. A brief survey of incidents in prisons around the world indicates that most of them were very violent and took a considerable toll in casualties.

Hostage taking: Jail, unlike in crisis negotiations of the outside world, serves as a catalyst for violent incidents, which generally involve hostage taking.

The daily environment in which prisoners exist with guards soon creates personal hostility between prisoners and at least some of the guards.

Prison is built as a contained and isolated physical environment; in order for an incident to filter out of prison walls, it must be substantial and meaningful from the start – that is to say, it must be significantly comprehensive and violent.

The jail’s response is structured: arraying of armed and protected forces which in effect cause an immediate and additional escalation of the incident.

In addition, there are various groups or gangs, each of which has its own leadership and interests – how can one know with whom to negotiate? Negotiating with a hydra whose every head pulls in a different direction is very difficult and requires a great deal of skill.

Involvement of the new media and direct broadcasting from within the jail cancels its physical walls and brings the incident to the attention of every possible means of communication.

However, the physical walls do exist in reality and make it very hard to break through and take control without casualties.

Those involved in jail incidents are generally people who have nothing to lose – they have been served with life sentences and have no fear of the law.

Nevertheless there is also a positive side to jail incidents:

Correct isolation and immediate treatment of the non ‘infected’ section of the prison will result in reduction of the incident and faster control over the situation.

The number of wardens – potential hostages – is small.

There is much information available in jails: prisoners’ and guards’ personal files, cameras and intelligence activity, allow an accurate and online picture to be obtained.

In jail, relationships of trust between prisoners and wardens are formed, and some of the latter can function as first responders in negotiations and also as intermediaries.

The ‘day after effect’ is clear to everyone – everyone will be there tomorrow.

The level of achievement in prison is lower from the start – no prisoners will be released and no armed forces will be withdrawn from any state simply because hostages are being held in the jail.

Hunger strikes: Hostage situations in jails are serious and violent, but their capacity for achieving their aim is low from the start. For this reason, we see a tendency today towards mass hunger strikes, whereby prisoners in effect become their own hostages. Here the number of hostages is large, the potential harm to the prisoners is immense and hunger strikes receive an ideological dimension in the media – unlike hostage-taking incidents.

In mass hunger strikes, the political echelons immediately become involved and try to end the situation as soon as possible. On the other hand, while they also want to end hostage situations swiftly, it is always possible to blame the other side.

Analysis of the interests of prisoner groups, leader and group profiles can also help in negotiations and in the peaceful resolution of these types of incidents.

To summarize: despite the initial difficult conditions in negotiating, prisons have their own advantages and disadvantages which can be utilized and turned into strong points. In any case, negotiating will probably achieve far more significant results than aggressive action.

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