STONY MOUNTAIN — Long-simmering tensions between two criminal gangs erupted into a Stony Mountain Institution riot this weekend that sent four inmates to hospital and damaged one of the federal penitentiary’s living units.
Inmates — including some wearing masks — set fires, stabbed other prisoners, and threw garbage cans at corrections officers who battled back with pepper spray and displayed their shotguns during a Saturday-night melee that lasted almost six hours, justice officials and sources told the Free Press.
Prison staff did not bring the rioting inmates under control until 2 a.m. Sunday.
The prison, north of the city, remains in lockdown while investigators look for answers to the worst outbreak of prison violence in Manitoba in more than a decade.
The mood at Stony Mountain had been tense since New Year’s Eve, when corrections officers seized 36 shivs, or prison-made knives, leading officials to lock down the institution for two days. The chief source of the tension is a rivalry between two criminal gangs, the Manitoba Warriors and the Native Syndicate, whose numbers have grown inside the prison, justice and prison sources said.
On Saturday, a penitentiary intelligence officer received word some form of incident was planned for the prison’s recreational hall, so extra officers were sent into the hall as a precaution, a prison source said.
At about 8:30 p.m. Saturday, when inmates from rival gangs filed into the recreation hall, a planned confrontation was only partly averted. One group of inmates managed to seize control of a kiosk that regulates access to all the cells on one of the living units, leading to a battle with corrections officers who attempted to regain control of the situation, sources said.
"Staff had to withdraw. The unit was overrun by inmates," a source at the penitentiary said. "Staff had to use a huge amount of pepper spray. There were fires going and some of the inmates had their faces covered (with balaclavas). They were throwing garbage cans."
Prison officials declined Sunday to discuss many details of what had gone on inside Stony Mountain.
After gaining control of the living unit, the inmates barricaded themselves inside the unit, blocking off the main entryway as well as the emergency exit, Stony Mountain Institution spokesman Guy Langlois told reporters early Sunday afternoon outside the prison gates.
A penitentiary source said that the inmates had used mattresses and beds as part of the barricade.
Langlois said that the institution then called in its emergency response team, a unit specially trained to control riots and other disturbances.
Sources said staff also read a riot proclamation that authorized officers to use lethal force. Officers displayed shotguns, but did not discharge them, a source at the penitentiary said.
Langlois said that by 11 p.m., the prison brought in a negotiating team to speak to the rioting prisoners. Ambulances took four seriously injured inmates to Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, while a fifth was sent to Stonewall, treated and returned to prison, he said.
It took until 2 a.m. to secure the facility, which is expected to remain in lockdown for at least a few days, said Langlois.
No staff members were hurt in the riot. Langlois would not comment on the extent of the inmates’ injuries, except to say some appeared to have been stabbed or beaten, and that some injuries were more serious than others.
"At this point, we have contusions and lacerations consistent with stab wounds," Langlois said.
Once all the inmates were returned to cells, the smell of smoke and pepper spray wafted through the heavily damaged living unit, a penitentiary source said.
"They’re trying to call this an incident, but it’s a riot," a penitentiary source said. "The place is trashed."
Langlois said Saturday night’s events were a rare occurrence. He could not confirm whether tensions between the Warriors and Syndicate sparked the riot or whether the New Year’s Eve lockdown was connected to Saturday’s violence.
About 100 inmates are housed in the affected unit, but officials are still figuring out how many were actively involved in the violence.
Stony Mountain has five units, and each is a living area with two ranges of cells, said Langlois. Each range has two 25-cell tiers. There are 559 inmates in the entire institution.
During lockdown, inmates have to stay in their cells at all times, including for meals. Staff are still free to come and go for their shifts, said Langlois.
There’s no limit for how long a lockdown can last, although some units may be opened up before others depending on whether they’ve been deemed safe, he said.
"We have to find what factors went into [Saturday] night’s incident, and from there we have to determine what we’re going to do to resolve that," Langlois said.
Langlois said RCMP were notified of the incident at Stony after 11 p.m. Saturday.
The RCMP took no part in controlling the riot, but are involved in the resulting criminal investigation, Sgt. Line Karpish said.
Residents of Stony Mountain were unfazed by news of the riot, which they said is par for the course in a town with a penitentiary for a neighbour.
"It doesn’t surprise anybody," said Jim Cook, who runs the Mountain Bar with his wife, Gloria Cook. Jim said the sight of ambulances at the prison is "a common occurrence," but both he and Gloria said they’ve had no issues with inmates out on day passes.
"What’s there to be afraid of?" said longtime resident Jack Thiessen. The 77-year-old said he feels safe in town, and that police show up at the penitentiary the minute trouble breaks out.
Manitoba’s most recent major prison riot occurred at Headingley Correctional Institute in 1996, when eight guards and 31 inmates were injured during a riot that caused $3.5 million in damage.
Chronology of a prison riot
New Year's Eve
Stony Mountain Institution is locked down after corrections officers discover 36 shivs, or prison-made knives.
Tensions grow in the prison between two rival gangs, the Manitoba Warriors and the Native Syndicate.
Saturday, Jan. 10
A Stony Mountain intelligence officer learns of some sort of disturbance planned for the prison recreational hall. Extra officers are sent to the hall as a precautionary measure.
Saturday, about 8:30 p.m.
Two groups of inmates file into the rec hall but choose not to fight each other there. One group of inmates seizes control of a kiosk that governs access to cells on one of the penitentiary's living units, creating a battle for control with correctional officers.
Inmates set fires, stab other prisoners and throw garbage cans at corrections officers, who deploy pepper spray in an attempt to contain the situation.
The inmates barricade themselves into the living unit, blocking off both the entrance and exit. The emergency response team is called in and prison staff read a riot proclamation that authorizes officers to use lethal force.
Saturday, about 11 p.m.
Negotiators talk to rioting inmates in an attempt to resolve the situation. Four seriously injured prisoners are taken to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. A fifth is taken to Stonewall, treated and returned to prison.
Sunday, about 2 a.m.
Officers regain control of the living unit, but the prison remains in lockdown.
Sources: Justice and penitentiary sources and Stony Mountain Institution official spokesman Guy Langlois.
Reading the Riot Act
Stony Mountain guards Joseph Wendl, 54, and 34-year-old Werner Friesen were killed during a pre-meditate riot planned by prisoners unhappy with new rules at the federal institution.
The two unarmed guards were locking up prisoners for the night when they were attacked by a group of inmates who'd been drinking homebrew in their cells.
Friesen was grabbed from behind while another inmate stabbed him in the chest with a pair of scissors. Wendl was stabbed in the back and pushed down a flight of stairs.
The inmates then grabbed a set of keys dropped by one of the guards and began opening range doors.
Eight guards and 31 inmates were injured during an 18-hour riot at Headingley Correction Institute that saw $3.5 million of damage inflicted on the provincial jail.
Manitoba’s Tory government took a political beating for failing to deal with tensions in Headingley. Four years later, a $17.5-million addition to the jail was hailed as a means of containing future riots.