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Unit trained to prevent jail riots
SERT uses nonlethal tactics to quell uprisings, keep prisoners and guards safe
Members of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Specialized Emergency Response Team (SERT) line up Friday prior to practicing an exercise of extracting a hostile prisoner from a bus.

On Christmas Eve 1987, an uprising at the Hall County jail brought out every available officer to quell the rioting and put out the fires, literally, as 30 agitated inmates took over a cell block.

Maj. Ramone Gilbert can still remember the smoke rising from the old jail on Main Street and thinking that the sheriff's office needed a specially-equipped suppression team to put down the riot.

More than two decades later, at a jail more than twice the size of Hall County's old lock-up, the Specialized Emergency Response Team was formed for just that purpose.

The 18-member SERT unit is trained to respond to incidents that threaten jail security, from unruly inmates on transport buses to agitated prisoners calling on cellmates to riot.

"When you transition from a 480-bed facility to a 1,026-bed setting, there's a need for a SERT team with a population that large," Gilbert said.

All state prisons have similar units, as do Georgia's largest jails. Prior to the formation of the SERT, the Hall Sheriff's Office relied on SWAT members for critical incidents at the jail.

But while SERT may look similar to SWAT with its paramilitary body armor, its members are trained in the use of nonlethal weapons to quell inmate unrest.
Select officers are armed with rifles that shoot "pepper balls" which disperse a mace-like pepper spray on impact, and "shock shields" that send an electric shock surging through the surface of a plexiglass shield.

A loud and highly visible show of force, including marching and the shouting of orders, is sometimes enough to stop an inmate riot, officials say.

"It is a huge deterrent to inmates who are considering any kind of uprising to know that we have a specially-trained team to respond to that," Col. Jeff Strickland said.

The SERT members come from nearly all divisions of the agency and underwent a rigorous physical tryout to make the team. Of the 57 initial applicants, 15 made the cut. Those who want to become a member of the sheriff's SWAT team must work in SERT first.

The full team can be mobilized within an hour, though in incidents that require quicker response, fewer officers can be used.

The SERT team is already well-known in the jail. It's been used to remove violent inmates from cells and conduct random "shakedowns" in searches for contraband.

The unit's commander, Hall County Jail Chief of Security Lt. Chuck Hewitt, said identifying and neutralizing the inmates who try to incite an uprising usually does the job.

"If we get him out of the cell, it usually calms the rest of them down," Hewitt said. "We go in with a show of force, and that persuades them most of the time. Our goal is safety for the officers and the inmates."