A new way to deal with unruly inmates in Charleston

Unruly inmates inside the Charleston County Detention Center will likely be greeted by a new kind of correctional officer, one who can be very persuasive.

Officers with the jail's newly trained Special Operations Group, or SOG, come outfitted with helmets, a Kevlar vest and, most notably, a Mossberg shotgun that can shoot an assortment of rubber, cat-toy-like rounds that can ratchet up the pain based on how uncooperative the inmate is.

Gone, or soon will be, are the days when five Tactical Action Control team officers barged into cells behind a shield and wrestled an inmate to the ground, Charleston County Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas said. He said the SOG officers can get the same result with less injury and fewer officers.

"This is just about as radical a departure from standard operating procedure in a detention facility that you can get," Lucas said Friday. "It's not cutting edge technology, but it is a departure from how it is applied."

Ten of Charleston County's correctional officers recently completed three weeks of grueling training to become members of the SOG unit, which has already started on a 24-hour rotation to respond to emergencies. Lucas said they hope to have more officers trained to completely replace the TAC team by the end of 2010.

The new procedures were unveiled Friday during a demonstration led by Lt. Joseph Garcia, lead instructor for U.S. Corrections, a government contractor that provided the training through a federal grant.

Garcia said the officers' first tool toward deflating a situation is communication. If that doesn't work, the next thing a troublesome inmate will see is a blinding light and a laser pointer from the shotgun.

Inmates who continue to struggle despite the SOG officers' orders will likely hear the officers chamber the weapon.

"Once we do that, the inmate knows we are not playing," Garcia said.

If not, the officers can fire a loud, distraction round. If the inmate continues to resist, the officers have an assortment of rubber rounds they can fire at the inmate until the pain persuades them to comply.

"Now we don't have to actually get our hands on an inmate," Garcia said.

"Once they comply, all of the force is going to stop."

The shotguns are attached by a cable to the officers' vests, preventing inmates from taking the weapons away, Garcia said. The vests also come with cameras that will record both audio and video of every encounter.

The officers also carry Tasers and pepper spray, so they can vary the response each time, and a medical kit in case someone does get hurt.

The training is extremely intense, authorities said. Garcia said only 40 percent usually make it all the way through. That's one reason why Charleston County's own special operator, L. Williams, became only the third woman ever to complete the training.

Williams, who doesn't give out her first name because of her occupation, said the mental aspect was the most challenging part of the 150 training hours. The officers were up early and sometimes blindfolded and gased to see how much pain and discomfort they could withstand.

Williams said she was honored to be a part of it.

"Once I begin something, I like to finish it," she said.