1989 SCIC Prison Riots

Article by Deb Kiner. Pennlive

The riots at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill began Oct. 25, 1989, when inmate Bryant Melton slugged Corrections Officer James Thomas during a routine inmate move.

The rioting continued until just after dawn on Oct. 27 when state police secured the prison.

According to a story in The Patriot-News, “14 buildings – or roughly half of the prison – were destroyed or heavily damaged by fire, and many of the remaining cellblocks were damaged to the point of uselessness. Damage was estimated at $15 million. 123 people were injured — including 69 corrections officers and other prison staffers, 41 inmates and several police and firefighters. Seventeen hostages were taken during the riots; dozens more were rescued from the prison’s control center after inmates surrounded that building and set it afire.

“Investigators who spent months probing the riots concluded that severe overcrowding, inmate anger at policy changes regarding visitors and sick calls, and an administration that was either too slow to respond to or ignored numerous warning signs had all raised pressures inside the 50-year-old compound to a boiling point.”

The prison was designed for a capacity of 1,826 inmates. At the time of the riots, 2,600 people were housed there – 192 of them were serving life terms.

“Some 500 inmates were being brought back in from afternoon yard time when Melton struck Thomas in an apparently unprovoked attack,” according to the story in The Patriot-News. “The prison yard erupted following the initial attack on the guard near E Gate. Prisoners stormed through the adjacent cellblocks, releasing fellow inmates and seizing and beating guards who were unable to run to safety or hide.”

About seven hours later, after negotiations, inmates agreed to return to their cells and hostages were released. However, prison officials were unaware that

that many of the mechanical cell-door locks had been damaged to the point where some inmates could literally release themselves at will.”

After further negotiations about prison conditions broke down, rioting erupted again. Rioters set fire to the prison’s control center, modular housing units and regular cellblocks.

Just before dawn on Oct. 27, state police were able to forcibly retake several prison buildings. Inmates released their hostages and surrendered.