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Remembering the Camp Hill Riot

NCJ Number
Corrections Today Volume: 59 Issue: 1 Dated: (February 1997) Pages: 56,58-59
R M Freeman
Date Published
3 pages
After describing the 1989 inmate riot at the 2,600-bed State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pa., this article profiles the occupational stress experienced by correctional personnel in the riot's aftermath and suggests a philosophy to help relieve such stress.
The riot, which began on the afternoon of October 25, 1989, subsided in the evening and then experienced a resurgence the evening of the following day, injured 69 staff members, many of whom had been taken hostage or trapped in burning buildings; 41 inmates were injured. Eighty percent of the buildings on the 52- acre site were vandalized, burned to the ground, or suffered extensive smoke damage. Six of 10 cellblocks were gutted so severely that it was a year before the last block was restored for occupation. The interior fence of a two-fence perimeter security system had been breached. When the riot ended on the morning of October 27th, Camp Hill was no longer a functional institution. Each employee and inmate who was present at Camp Hill during the 1989 riots now knows that a seemingly safe and predictable world can collapse at any time, without warning. Even staff who were off duty when the riots occurred become anxious when they think about what might have happened to them if they had been on duty at the time of the riot. Many staff members accept the uncertainty of their jobs and show no outward sign of the anxiety they harbor within. Other staff accept the uncertainty of prison life and function normally because of the resources of their religion, background, or emotional capabilities. Some staff cannot face the possibility of another riot and leave corrections. Others attempt to deal with their anxiety destructively through excessive drinking and scapegoating. Some think about suicide and a few even attempt it. Staff anxiety is intensified by the aftermath of recriminations, scapegoating, blaming, and job insecurity. Adversity, however, can make individuals and the corrections staff as a whole stronger and wiser. Correctional emergencies are part of the professional learning process, and those who learn from them benefit personally and professionally.