If you weren’t around for the Atlanta Federal Prison riot, November, 1987, you missed a hum dinger. A thousand prisoners rioted with knives and took 100 hostages without permission. National and world press were all over the story. I thought of this caper as the Gone With The Wind of prison riots, a massive challenge for the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, and many other federal agencies.
The Birmingham FBI SWAT team was ordered to respond immediately, along with many other field office SWAT teams, crowned by the Bureau’s first round draft picks, the Hostage Rescue Team. I had friends on other SWAT teams as well as on the HRT. I was confident that the FBI had fielded the very best professionals to resolve this life threatening hoedown.
But first, my partner, Don Wright, and I watched the inmates burn down a third of
the prison during the frosty first night we were there. Don and I sat in the front seat
of our FBI vehicle just outside the walls of the prison, feeling the heat from the massive moonless blaze. We were one of the first SWAT teams to arrive at the prison since Birmingham was only 150 interstate miles from Atlanta. We were spread thin at first, waiting for more cavalry to arrive.
The animals took over the zoo. The rioting inmates were mostly Cubans straight out
of Castro’s prisons and mental wards, curiously admitted to the U.S. by President Carter after getting bad advice from some quarter. The Bureau set sail with its armada of Spanish speaking agents to begin telephone negotiations with the rioters. I finished last in my high
school Spanish class and was not allowed anywhere near the phones.
As more and more SWAT teams arrived from as far away as LA, NY, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, all splendidly outfitted in black ninja uniforms, helmets, and impressive weapons, the Federal force accumulating, massing like the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, day 2,
Gettysburg. We were ready to storm the prison walls.
On a hill far away, no that’s a hymn. On a hill across the street from the main
gate to the prison grounds, was a build-up of reporters and cameras from around the globe. More importantly for agents, just inside the gates to the prison grounds, was a carnival of smiling, joyful civilians from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, happily erecting their abundant
tents and kitchens stocked with beguiling fruit, donuts, sandwiches, and cookies. Agents chowed down to supplement the excellent food that we received from non-rioting prisoners in the prison cafeteria, with one holdout, Agent Ashley Curry, our team sniper, crack shot and a savvy, seasoned agent.
“I’m not eating any of that damn prison cafeteria food,” Ashley said. “Everybody knows what cons do to prison food, peeing and spitting into it and worse. Count me out. I’ll eat in the tents, thank you very much.”
It took two weeks to end the Atlanta prison riot. Everyone stood down without a single injury to the hostages, law enforcement or the prisoners. Before leaving for Birmingham, Ashley and the rest of us thanked the terrific people in the tents at the Red Cross and at the Salvation Army.
“Where did y’all get that wonderful food?” Ashley asked one of the servers.
“From the prison cafeteria,” she replied.