Focus on Victims: Helping Hostages and Their Families through Critical Incident Response

By Fagan, Thomas J. | Corrections Today, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Focus on Victims: Helping Hostages and Their Families through Critical Incident Response


Fagan, Thomas J., Corrections Today


Much has been written about managing prison hostage situations, covering issues such as how to handle the media, negotiation strategies and ensuring the security of unaffected areas of the institution. One issue that has not received a lot of attention, however, is the need for prison administrators to put into place an effective strategy to assist the victims of these situations, particularly the staff and inmates who are taken hostage and their family members.

This article offers practical guidance for staff who have to deal with the victims of a prison hostage situation or develop institutional policy in this area. These staff--often part of an institution's Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT)--typically include psychologists, chaplains and medical personnel. They must be prepared to handle the needs of families throughout the crisis and to assist the hostages after its resolution.

The Family Center

Family members of hostages are typically the most traumatized by hostage incidents. When they are notified that their relatives are involved in a prison disturbance, their first inclination is to come to the prison. During the early hours of a prison disturbance it is not uncommon for family members to wander around the prison perimeter seeking information. One of the first things CIRT members should do is establish a center where family members can gather during the crisis.

The center serves several purposes. It provides a single, safe location where family members can gather and receive accurate, up-to-date status reports about the incident. It also allows prison mental health and emergency staff easy access to families so they can offer crisis intervention counseling. In addition, the center provides a haven for family members from unwanted intrusions by the media, onlookers and others.

The center should be located as close to the prison as possible without endangering family members. It should be easily accessible to families but secure enough to keep out unwelcome visitors. A CIRT member should work with families to develop a gatekeeper system. During recent large-scale prison hostage incidents, such as those at Oakdale, La.; Talladega, Ala.; Lucasville, Ohio; and Atlanta, Ga., family centers have been set up in such diverse locations as nearby schools, churches and community centers and prison buildings located outside the fence line.

Regardless of location, the center should be large enough to accommodate immediate and extended family members. There should be at least one large room where family members can congregate for briefings, meetings, meals, television news reports and other activities. Several smaller rooms also should be available for private meetings and counseling. CIRT members should have a private area where they can discuss cases, strategize and take breaks. If space is limited, tents, trailers, picnic tables and other makeshift accommodations can be used.

The center should be equipped with one or more television sets and video recorders. Families often want to monitor and videotape all local and national news updates. Families also should have access to telephones.

Since many family members remain at the center for the duration of the disturbance, CIRT members need to arrange for meals and sleeping accommodations. Facilities can contract local catering firms to provide meals, set up portable kitchens, use the prison food services department or ask for donations from family members or local restaurants. Families often volunteer to help in this area because it gives them something productive to do. Sleeping accommodations should be kept simple: Most facilities simply provide cots for napping and overnight stays.

Notification and Communication

Prison administrators usually begin notifying staff and family members about disturbances before CIRT members arrive. However, soon after arriving, CIRT members typically assume these duties. …

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