JOHNSON CITY — Authorities used superior force to peacefully quell a potential riot at the Washington County Detention Center by inmates threatening violence Tuesday morning.
Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal said jail cell block C8 was flooded Monday night when, due to a perceived wrong, some inmates became unruly and flushed torn linens or ripped fabrics down toilets, prompting authorities to relocate 17 prisoners to three holding cells in the jail’s booking area until the water could be cleaned.
Graybeal said he was called by jail Maj. Brenda Downes about 9 a.m. Tuesday and told that nine inmates in one holding cell were refusing to return to the cleaned pod and were threatening to riot and hurt jail staff.
“So I told everybody just to stand by, and we called about 33 or 35 of our guys in,” Graybeal said of his response.
Ultimately, the jail’s Special Operations Response Team (SORT), Washington County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, road patrol deputies, jail support service personnel and criminal investigators were called to the jail to confront the inmates.
Graybeal said the inmates surrendered and were compliant once 35 riot-ready officers entered the cell demanding surrender.
“They were making threats to hurt everybody. So we just figured we’d bring the force with us, and we took care of business and didn’t have to hurt anybody. So it worked out great,” Graybeal said. “It’s just having enough people to say ‘Hey, you got 17, we got 35, you know. We got the keys, you don’t.’”
The jail was cleared of danger and secured before 10 a.m. Tuesday.
WCSO Lt. Rick Edens, a SORT team leader, said he was pleased with the professionalism with which the responding officers ended the situation.
“When we bring this show of force in, they all complied with the orders,” Edens said. “We didn’t have to use any chemical agent. We didn’t have to use any force.”
Graybeal said he mustered just enough manpower to handle the situation.
No tear gas was used and no one was hurt, which the sheriff was thankful for. He credited his officers for ending the situation without incident.
The inmates were counseled and returned to the appropriate cells. The instigators of the situation were separated from the rest of the population, Graybeal later said in a news release.
Graybeal thought the inmates got mad and flooded cell block C8 Monday night because they had been moved into different holding pods.
“Now this (Tuesday) morning, I think they were pretty aggravated because they were in booking,” Graybeal said. “And when everything was over with I had a little talk with all of them, worked out good, and explained to them that we’re just not going to tolerate that. We can’t.”
Graybeal said there may be some form of internal jail punishment and the loss of privileges for some of the inmates. Formal charges are possible, too.
The last time such a display of force was used in the detention center was during an actual riot in 1997, Graybeal said. Not as many people were involved in that incident, but Graybeal said he did not want to take chances by limiting his response. So he doubled the inmates’ numbers with his 35 officers to show absolute superiority.
SORT members train every month for riot and other jail situations. The training includes cell extraction and effective teamwork.
Edens said the inmates could have been vying for respect by acting out Monday night and Tuesday morning.
“They think they get respect by doing this from the other inmates more so they say (than) from the officers,” Edens said. “But it doesn’t really gain them any respect from the officers. … As we’ve explained to them, it makes us look at them more often to see what they’re doing wrong.”
Edens said SORT would learn from this experience.
“Most of the time when we do something like this we try to film it so we can critique ourselves on what we’ve done wrong and what we can do better — just what we can improve on in every situation,” Edens said.