Bozelko column: Prisons more secure than the United States Capitol
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
I lived for more than six years in a high-security environment. I saw what that takes to minimize violence and risk. People can’t be allowed to carry items with them; they could include contraband and weapons. Barriers must be immobile to work. Too many people in one area is dangerous.
But none of these traditional high-security procedures operate in the U.S. Capitol, as the entire world witnessed on Jan. 6.
My biggest takeaway from the electoral vote count riot was this: It’s really easy, too easy, to crack the Capitol. Prisons are safer than that building.
I worked in D.C.’s Cannon House Office Building in 1993 - 27 years ago, when security was pretty high. After Sept. 11, 2001, it beefed up, understandably. It seems like, since then, security personnel’s vigilance directed itself toward the one or two people who could evade detection and cause major damage. It’s as if no one ever conceived that a crowd of several thousand people would pose a risk. In prisons, though, that’s the only thing that does.
A few other breakdowns in security revealed themselves in the footage of the event. For one, breaking glass shouldn’t be that easy. It’s almost impossible to break a window in prison - and not because they’re bulletproof. There’s little need for bulletproof glass in a prison because there are so few (if any) guns inside. Instead they use what’s called detention glass because it can absorb punches and knocks without breaking. A video from a Slate journalist Jan. 6 showed rioters banging on a window in a door to the Capitol and eventually cracking it open. That never would have happened in a prison. The same is true for the burglar who used a police riot shield to break the Capitol’s windows and crawl inside, but he’ll learn about that when he’s incarcerated; rioters will continue to be arrested in the coming days.
The big desk dragged in front of the entrance to the House of Representatives chamber is also problematic. Those doors, too, had broken windows, but if it takes hauling a piece of furniture to block a door to keep out the bad guys, then the federal government has officially entered television trope territory. Quite frankly, it’s more like a plot device from “Laverne & Shirley” rather than a planned way to protect the Speaker of the House, who’s always third in line for the presidency.
In correctional settings, neither prisoners nor guards can move furniture; almost all of it’s bolted to the floor. But they also don’t need to. Doors will unlock or lock en masse remotely from a control center. They’re steel and no one’s going to break them down. The person on one side stays quite safe from the person on the other.
A man who’s since been identified as Richard Barnett of Gravette, Arkansas, sat in front of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s computer. In a photo from behind the desk, the black box of the Capitol security notice hangs in the screen’s lower right corner next to her open Microsoft Outlook email account. It’s shocking that there isn’t a central switch to turn off all mainframe computers so that protected information stays that way: protected. In fact, it’s almost too shocking.
Speculation that the United States Capitol Police department was complicit in the riot circulated on social media - U.S. Rep. Tim Cooper (D-TN) articulated this fear himself. Without further investigation, it’s impossible to say whether they were or not. It’s probably better for our security if there are a few embedded Proud Boys in that force. Investigators can find them and cull them. When they’re gone, safety can return.
But if there’s no complicity with the rioters, then that means the Capitol Police haven’t even envisioned what can go wrong. They haven’t even borrowed the practices of control from a prison, the one place in the United States that routinely preps for riots and has the infrastructure needed to stop one, or at least minimize it. Starting immediately, the Capitol Police should consult with prison architects and designers to prevent the next attack.
There’s so much to say about the Capitol insurrection. For now, I’ll stick with this: Something’s wrong when it’s easier to breach the People’s House where lives are prized than it is to breach the Big House where they’re not.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.