Federal BOP: Special Operations and Response Teams (SORT)

Author: Eric Sof


Inside the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), there are Special Operations and Response Teams. In total, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has three teams that are part of its program for improving emergency preparedness. The Special Operations and Response Team (SORT) has 15 members, including a security systems expert, a firearms and tactical officer, and an emergency medical treatment specialist. SORT members meet strict academic, psychological, and physical requirements. SORT is supplemented by Disturbance Control Teams and Hostage Negotiation Teams.

Federal BOP Special Operations and Response Teams have handled dozens of high-profile emergencies in the past eight years–and not all have been institutional crises. From their work during the Atlanta and Oakdale prison disturbances of 1987 to the Los Angeles street riots of 1992, these units have used their special training to provide valuable control and recovery services.


The Federal Bureau of Prisons established an Office of Emergency Preparedness in May 1990 to coordinate the agency’s national emergency response capability and provide oversight and guidance to its Special Operations and Response Team (SORT) program. In addition, the office functions as the agency’s liaison with other agencies in all emergency response-related areas and provides BOP managers with training in emergency planning and response.

The history of the office dates to the riots and hostage situations at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, La., in November 1987. A BOP After-Action Review Team, assigned to examine the Bureau’s response to these incidents, made more than 100 recommendations for improving emergency preparedness.

Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Team Insignia
Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Team Insignia (Patch) (Photo: X.Y.)

The Bureau’s executive staff–the director, assistant directors, and regional directors–reviewed these recommendations and decided to adopt many of them. When the office was formed, one of its main functions was to monitor the implementation of the approved recommendations. This process continued through June 1992, when all of the BOP’s six regions reported 100 percent institutional compliance.

In addition to its monitoring, oversight, and emergency management responsibilities, one of the principal functions of the Office of Emergency Preparedness is to provide training and guidance to the Bureau’s Special Operations and Response Teams. SORTs are highly trained tactical teams capable of responding to prison disturbances and supporting local law enforcement authorities during civil unrest or natural disasters.


A typical Special Operations and Response Team has 15 members, including an emergency medical treatment specialist, a firearms instructor, a rappel master, a security/locking systems expert, a blueprint expert, and several firearms and tactical planning/procedures experts. The Bureau currently has 44 SORTs involving more than 700 BOP staff.


Team members must meet and maintain strict standards. Before acceptance, each candidate must be certified by a physician as physically fit and must complete an obstacle course and two-mile run within strict time limits. Each member must be proficient with weapons used in emergency response situations. Within 90 days of becoming a team member, must become skilled in tactical responses, riot control techniques, and rappelling.

In addition to meeting specific physical and technical standards, all members must pass a written examination covering BOP policies on a wide range of subjects. Each candidate also undergoes a panel interview with an associate warden, captain, team leader, and staff psychologist before being placed on the team.

Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Training - SORT
Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Training – SORT (Photo: X.Y.)

Once a Special Operations and Response Team is established at an institution, it must follow strict guidelines for all operations. In addition to the required certification for individual members, each team must be certified during regional SORT maneuver and training exercises held annually. Each region certifies and ranks its teams using national standards developed by the Office of Emergency Preparedness and approved by BOP executive staff.

The Office of Emergency Preparedness prepares the tests for this certification process and develops a guidebook for each regional correctional services administrator during the training. Skill areas covered in training include tactical planning for building entry and hostage rescue scenarios, weapons skills, and rappelling. Teams deficient in any area are identified and given supplementary training to meet the required performance standards.


Each Special Operations and Response Team meets its mandatory training requirements by holding monthly training sessions. Team members must be provided eight hours of on-duty training each month, but most institutions have opted to provide 16 hours.

In addition to mandatory training, team members receive collateral specialty training that reinforces the special skills of individual team members. For example, each team has at least one medical specialist, blueprint specialist, chemical agent specialist, and sniper. To meet both the rigorous mandatory training requirements and the collateral specialty training, most team members participate in a substantial amount of training on their personal time.

While all BOP medium- and higher-security institutions must have Special Operations and Response Teams, staff participation in Special Operations and Response Teams is voluntary. Each SORT member has a regular duty assignment, with SORT participation as a collateral duty. SORT membership is not limited to custody staff. A typical team includes men and women from various departments throughout the institution.


Uniforms consist of U.S. Battle Dress uniforms, Kevlar helmets, and tactical footwear. Special Operations and Response Teams equipment vary from team to team, with all teams being equipped with level IIIA body armor and some load-bearing vest. Additional protection is provided by the use of Body Bunker ballistic shields.

SORT weapons include SIG Sauer P228 or Glock 19 pistols, Colt 9mm SMGs or Heckler and Koch MP5 SMGs, Benelli M1 Super 90 shotguns, McMillan M86 SR Sniper rifles, 37mm gas guns, diversionary devices, and chemical munitions.

Other Response Teams

In addition to SORTs, the BOP requires each institution to develop, train and maintain Disturbance Control Teams. These teams train in traditional disturbance control techniques (such as using squad formations to move groups of inmates), leaving the more tactical operations to the SORTs. These teams can be assembled more quickly than SORTs because far more institution staff are trained in this level of response. Thus, these teams often serve as the primary institution response to emergencies (especially in institutions that do not have SORTs) or as an additional response option when an institution’s SORT needs to be activated immediately.

Supplementing both SORTs and Disturbance Control Teams are the BOP’s Hostage Negotiation Teams. Except for minimum-security camps, each institution must develop and maintain a Hostage Negotiation Team. Currently, the BOP has more than 200 trained correctional hostage negotiation specialists. Negotiation teams provide a shared experience and responsibility in the highly stressful hostage negotiation process. All members of Hostage Negotiation Teams must participate in monthly training.

To ensure a good working relationship between negotiators and tactical team members, the BOP encourages using a SORT liaison officer for the Hostage Negotiation Team. The liaison officer attends the monthly hostage negotiation training and maintains a dialogue between the two teams.

Equipment and logistics

The BOP has several logistics centers for storing emergency equipment such as mobile kitchens, water trailers, tents, cots, blankets, and portable lighting. These supplies–most of which are military surplus–can be used to support institution operations or an influx of staff to the site of an emergency.

During monthly training, SORTs test logistics center equipment to ensure operability. The Office of Emergency Preparedness also has developed an interagency agreement with the Department of Defense to move Bureau personnel and equipment to troubled areas in an institutional emergency.

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All institutions are required to conduct at least two mock emergency exercises each year to integrate the various aspects of their emergency response program – Special Operations and Response Teams, Disturbance Control, and the Hostage Negotiation Team–and to ensure coordination with the relevant military, federal, state, or local law enforcement and emergency response staff.

The Bureau’s training and commitment to readiness have paid great dividends in recent years. It was instrumental in successfully resolving the 1987 disturbances at USP-Atlanta and FCI-Oakdale, the 1991 hostage situation at FCI-Talladega, Ala., the containment and mass-movement of inmates after Hurricane Andrew damaged FCI-Miami and the maintenance of order during the civil unrest that erupted in Los Angeles in May 1992. These episodes demonstrated the importance of adequate preparation and training when coping with a wide variety of emergencies.

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