Officer remembers Camp Hill State Prison riots 26 years later

26 years ago parts of Camp Hill were flaming. Inmates at the state prison rioted. Three days of mayhem and violence ensued. One of the guards among the chaos remembers the terror.

Chief Patrick O’Rourke of Derry Township was working as a canine handler when the riots broke out. He was 28 years-old and said he remembers a lot of smoke, fire, and helicopters, calling it organized chaos.

“I think the Camp Hill State Prison riots were probably the largest critical incident that the Commonwealth has seen,” Chief Patrick O’Rourke of Derry Township, said.

Three days of pure violence. More than a hundred people were hurt and twenty were taken hostage. Chief O’Rourke was a canine handler at the time and wasn’t called out until day two.

“When we arrived we were taken into the front gate and immediately off to the right we formed a perimeter of canines and as inmates they were rioting then were taken into custody. They brought them down to our location and we actually secured the inmates with the perimeter of canines until enough resources came to re-secure them,” O’Rourke said.

Technology was not as advanced in 1989.

“We couldn’t talk to each other very well because we all had different radio frequencies,” O’Rourke said.

According to the Prison, strict policies, overcrowding, and understaffing sparked the riot.

“Inmates are crafty people. They’re very creative and they found ways to sneak their tools for that three days,” O’Rourke said.

Officers worked straight through the night. No sleep. No food.

“I can remember the morning of day three. The sun rose. There was an eerie fog there, but it was kind of surreal because when the sun lifted all you saw was a line of troopers and the inmates pretty much knew at that point their gig was up,” O’Rourke said.

A turning point – for the prison, and for O’Rourke.

“I wanted to go up through the ranks after that. I wanted to be one of those guys that was able to call the shots and run a critical incident in an efficient manager. I think that sort of molded my career into where I am today,” O’Rourke said.

To this day, in some ways, it’s surreal.

“Being young back then you really didn’t think about what you were doing, again, that was the oath you took and you just did what you had to do but looking back after 33 years, sometimes I sit and look and say ‘what were you thinking?,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke said now police have devices that can take radios from different police agencies and control communications through a laptop, it could be more easily managed.

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