The first correctional disturbance reportedly took place in Simsbury, Connecticut, in 1774, in a prison constructed over an abandoned mine. Since this time, individuals have sought to define this phenomenon while seeking an understanding of its causes and solutions.
Experts have developed various definitions that describe the elements of a “riot.” An early definition was “an incident involving 15 or more inmates and resulting in property damage and/or personal injury.” However, one problem that emerged from the use of this definition was the omission of occurrences that did not meet the “15-inmate” criteria. Responding to this, the American Correctional Association (ACA) suggested three categories of violence and disorder that may occur within a correctional institution: incidents, disturbances, and riots.
An incident involves only one or a few inmates who control no portion of the facility for any period of time. A disturbance is larger than an incident, with more inmates involved who control little or no portion of the facility for a short time. A riot involves significant numbers of inmates controlling significant portions of the facility for significant periods of time.
The ACA classification produced a level of consistency when comparing events, such as numbers of inmates, time of the year, causes, property damage, and actions taken to end the riot. However, these classifications are somewhat ambiguous, requiring a significant amount of discretion from the individual or institution doing the reporting. As a result, researchers interested in studying this topic may get varying information.
Many situations and events may contribute to prison riots, from inmate dissatisfaction with institutional food to racial tension. On occasion, inmates react to rules, regulations, and policies of prisons by rioting, and the escape motive may be the cause of many more riots than is reported. Another major factor in riot causation is the continued emergence of inmate gangs, also known as “security threat groups.” Even mere rumors or the attitude that staff may have about security can trigger a prison riot. Because of the heightened level of violence, many inmates feel the need to fight for their safety and possessions. A riot can result from conflicts between correctional staff and inmates or inmate use of alcohol and other drugs. Finally, many riots have no known cause and seem to erupt spontaneously.
Prison riots have cost the American public millions of dollars. The accumulated research suggests that the trend of prison disturbances continues to accelerate in terms of the numbers of riots, inmates involved, violence, and monetary losses.
These realities suggest a pressing need for changes in the U.S. prison system.
- Montgomery, Reid H., Jr. and Gordon A. Crews. 1998. A History of Correctional Violence: An Examination of Reported Causes of Riots and Disturbances. Rockville, MD: American Correctional Association Publishing.
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