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5 types of correctional breaching

Each type of tactical breaching has its pros and cons pertaining to its use in the correctional environment


Having select team members with advanced training is beneficial in a crisis.

Photo/Fred Koss

Correctional Emergency Response Teams (CERT) all across the nation train regularly in the use of force, less-lethal munitions, crowd/riot control and tactical planning. These CERT members are ready to respond to any emergency at a moment’s notice.

What if the CERT members cannot get to the emergency? What if inmates have barricaded the doors or disabled the locks? The most skilled tactical operator is ineffective if they cannot get to the emergency. A trained Correctional Breacher is the answer to “What if …?”

Correctional vs. Residential Breaching

Although many similarities exist, correctional and residential breaching are worlds apart.

Prisons are hardened structures specifically designed to not be easily breached. The locks are oversized, the doors are reinforced, and the hinges are hardened steel. A quick survey of any facility will show that not many doors can be breached with a standard on-man ram and a halligan tool, the mainstay of most residential entries.

Surveying of Needs

The first step in any breaching program is to identify needs and resources.

An institutional survey of the types of doors, windows and fences will give an idea of what resources your team will need. Blueprints, tactical plans, locksmith files are all good places to start gathering information about what breaching challenges your team should be preparing for.

Types of Breaching

There are five types of tactical breaching: explosive, ballistic, mechanical, exothermic and manual.

Each type of tactical breaching has its pros and cons pertaining to its use in the correctional environment.

Explosive breaching: This has a high success rate, but has limited usage in the walls and fences of correctional institutions and jails. Even in situations where an explosive breach is warranted, the limited space, enclosed areas and size of charge needed against hardened structures make over pressure a lethal danger to the tactical team and others.

Ballistic breaching: This is another type of breaching with limited usage inside the confines of the correctional environment. Not only are most frangible breaching rounds going to prove ineffective against the hardened doors, locks and hinges of a prison or jail, but the discharge of a firearm inside a facility is often not an option.

Mechanical breaching: This is the most common form of tactical breaching used in the correctional environment. Of the mechanical tools available, the gas-powered cut-off or rescue saw is the primary mechanical tool for most tactical teams. Rescue saws are portable, easy to use and combined with a good diamond tipped blade and proper training can defeat most any fortification inside the prison or jail.

The rescue saw is very effective against hinges, locks, doors, gates, security grills and bars, laminate glass, wired glass, Plexiglas, roll-up doors, brick, concrete block, razor wire and chain link fencing.

Exothermic breaching: This has limited applications in the residential realm, but in the correctional environment is highly advantageous. The exothermic torch works by feeding oxygen through a copper-coated/wire cored cutting rod that is ignited by a 12-volt battery and copper striking plate. Many institutions have an acetylene torch as part of their breaching equipment, which works fine in limited applications.

In the correctional environment, the exothermic system is a much better option. The cutting rod of the exothermic torch burns at about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and makes quick work of heavy bars, locks, plate steel, steel grating and concrete block.

Several exothermic torch systems are designed around a self-contained backpack and are very lightweight and man-portable, making them ideal for a tactical breaching team. Although the initial investment can be substantial ($2,500 to $4,500), there is no other piece of equipment that can replace the speed and portability of an exothermic torch system when cutting through steel doors, heavy locks and prison bars.

Manual breaching: All breaching plans should include access to manual breaching tools. The correctional breacher needs to be proficient in the use of the halligan tool, and two-man rams, bolt cutters and sledgehammer. Manual breaching tools are portable, easy to use and they are the back-up in case other forms of breaching fail inside the correctional environment.

Breaching Squads

All team members need instruction and basic knowledge on the use of manual breaching tools, but having select team members with advanced training is beneficial in a crisis.

When selecting team members for a Breaching Squad, look for individuals with prior mechanical or construction knowledge, the ability to think “outside the box,” the discipline to remain focused on the task at hand, and the drive to not quit until a successful breach is accomplished.

Breachers are a special group of people who are constantly studying how something is put together so that they will know how to take it apart when the time comes.

This article, originally published 01/07/2014, has been updated.

Host of The Prison Officer Podcast, Mike Cantrell has been in corrections for over 28 years. He has recently retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons as the Chief of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. He is a firearms, less lethal, breaching and disturbance control instructor and has led special response, disturbance control and canine teams over his career.

He is a correctional consultant specializing in the use of force and physical security. He is a writer, content creator and speaker on leadership and crisis management.