The Causes & Stages of Prison Riots

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  • 0:04 Causes of Prison Riots
  • 3:20 Stages of Rioting: Explosion
  • 4:38 Organization & Confrontation
  • 7:20 Termination & Reaction
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

A prison riot is organized and combined defiance or disorder by a group of prisoners. Riots are usually meant to force a change in the prison or express some sort of grievance. This lesson explains the causes and stages of prison riots.

Causes of Prison Riots

In September of 1971, inmates rioted at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. They seized control of the maximum security prison for most of the day. The police retook most of the prison, but over 1,000 inmates held 39 prison employees hostage in an exercise yard for the next four days. When the police finally raided, 10 hostages and 29 inmates were killed. Attica is the worst prison riot in U.S. history and resulted in a total of 43 deaths between the original riot and the police raid.

A prison riot is an act of combined defiance or disorder by a group of inmates against the prison staff or another group of prisoners. Not all prison disturbances are classified as riots. A riot occurs when a significant number of inmates control a significant portion of a prison for a significant period of time. The prison administration decides what is 'significant' enough to be classified as a riot.

Prison riots can be caused by many different things, but riots are usually meant to force change within the prison or express a grievance. Some common causes of prison riots include:

  • Poor responses or no responses to inmate complaints and requests, or other unmet inmate needs
  • Violent tendencies of some inmates or failure to respond to inmate-to-inmate incidents
  • Failure to control contraband, such as drugs, alcohol, weapons and tools
  • Inconsistent enforcement of rules by prison staff or unclear rules
  • Poor prison management or frequent staff turnover
  • Vague or changing lines of authority and administrative responsibility
  • High-level administrators who are not available to inmates and staff
  • Lack of meaningful programs or activities for inmates
  • The stresses and effects of overcrowding
  • Gang activity, racial tensions or other tensions between prison groups

For example, the Attica inmates were expressing a number of grievances regarding their rights and living conditions. The Attica inmates were specifically frustrated with the overcrowded conditions, their letters being censored, their access to showers being limited to once a week and their allowance of toilet paper being limited to one roll per month. During hostage negotiations with the police, the Attica inmates demanded improved living conditions, more religious freedom, an end to mail censorship and expanded phone privileges.

Stages of Rioting: Explosion

Now let's take a look at the stages of prison rioting. Prison riots aren't common. However, when riots occur, they typically progress through five different stages. The stages are:

  • Explosion or initiation
  • Organization or expansion
  • Confrontation or siege
  • Termination
  • Reaction and explanation

A prison riot typically starts with an explosion or some sort of initiation or eruption of defiance and disorder. For example, in the Attica riot, the explosion of disorder came when inmates were moving to breakfast. A few inmates overpowered their guards and stormed down a prison hallway. The inmates pushed through a broken gate and into a central area of the prison, giving them access to all of the cellblocks.

The explosion is the beginning of a riot, usually marked by mob violence and destruction. This is the most dangerous stage of a riot because inmates often take hostages, start fires, build barricades and takeover portions of the prison.

Organization and Confrontation

The explosion stage may involve only one group of prisoners. Others may stay in their cells or be in a different part of the prison, unaware of the riot. However, the second stage of the riot incorporates more inmates. This stage is organization or expansion. In this stage, the inmates are informally organized into inmate-led groups, and the riot expands to include more inmates.

During Attica's stage two, many of the prison's 2,200 inmates joined the riot. They stormed through the prison, beating guards and acquiring weapons. They even burned down the prison chapel.

Typically, unofficial riot leaders will come forward while other inmates will assume other roles. As the riot progresses, the inmates will attempt to overtake areas of the prison while prison staff attempt to establish control. Stage two marks the first struggle for power between the leadership of each group. Some inmates may even claim to be spokespersons or negotiators on behalf of the rioters. This is helpful to the prison staff, who will want a point person with whom to communicate and negotiate.

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