Riots are Less Common, Less Deadly — and Still an Ever-Present Threat

In retrospect, the deadly riot and takeover that occurred in a Delaware prison in 2017, reads like a textbook lesson on the factors behind supposed sudden prison violence. While inmates were only able to capture a building on the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC) campus with the element of surprise, the unexpected uprising resulted in a 19-hour standoff and the death of veteran corrections officer Steven Floyd. The abundance of post-riot news coverage, official investigation, and other documentation make one point clear: as with nearly all incidences of wide scale prison violence, Delaware’s riot did not occur in a vacuum. The factors that led to the spark of violence bubbled beneath the surface long before things spiraled out of control.

In a heavily-siloed, highly-adversarial environment like a correctional facility, one where unwritten codes, documented policy, and basic safety protocol routinely keep staff and inmates from sharing information, riots can be easy to predict at a general level (PDF), yet the timing cause be very difficult to foresee. Based on this fact alone, parties on both sides of the bars can contribute to sudden violence that was a long time in the making.

By developing a keen eye for the behavioral patterns known to lead to undesirable outcomes, decision makers at every level of the corrections chain may have a better chance to recognize the signs of looming violence. Stakeholders may be able to exert influence over these contributing factors, thus taking the legs out from under riots and other unpleasant realities of correctional life.

A historical outlook: How riots have changed since the 1970s and 1980s

An Atlantic piece on the proliferation of Correctional Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) offers an eye-opening statistic on the nature of modern prison riots: “In 1973, we had 93 riots for every 1 million prisoners; in 2003, we had fewer than three. Prison violence as a whole, in fact, is down dramatically.”

Beyond the broad adoption of CERTs, the article posits, this phenomenon can be attributed to evolutions within the prison and criminal justice systems. The inmate population makeup has changed, for instance, with nonviolent offenders comprising a larger part of the whole, while innovations in prisoner movement, surveillance, and officer training play a similar reductive role.

As the Atlantic piece describes, the severity of riots also appears to be on a steep downward trend. Gone are the times when riots could be days-long affairs with multiple casualties and devastating property damage. Instead, today’s events tend to be measured in terms of hours and injuries, not days and fatalities. In one of the most recent examples from 2017, a gang-led riot in a Florida correctional institution started around 8 a.m., ended by the early afternoon, and left seven combined inmates and staffers with non-life-threatening injuries.

Few could argue that these changes are a bad thing, a statement that almost certainly includes inmates. While riots are generally and accurately portrayed as last resort tactics carried by inmates in the face of real or perceived mistreatment, it is just as true that many incarcerated individuals become trapped by the actions of their peers during large violent events, or think of an unfolding riot as an unfortunately inevitable outcome. In the deadly 1986 West Virginia Penitentiary riot, for instance, one inmate famously shouted that inmates, “don’t want this any more than you do,” as he negotiated with officials outside the prison.

How growing tensions, understaffing, and overworked staff contribute to riots

Riots tend to fester for a time in certain conditions, then explode to life in planned or unplanned expressions of anger and frustration from inmates. This, then, helps explain why so many past and current-day riots follow a similar narrative: animosity builds for an indeterminate amount of time, people on both sides of the bars notice it but feel powerless to relieve it, and the tensions finally come to a head. This was the case in the above-mentioned 1986 West Virginia riot, when unspecified policy changes and inadequate response to state demands to fix overcrowding reportedly led prisoners to take 14 hostages. Similarly, officials compared the events leading up to the Florida gang riot to a bomb that, “keeps getting bigger and more explosive,” per the Miami Herald.

Indeed, the short Florida riot bore numerous features widely attributed to riots in other facilities. The Herald article said officers within the facility had “long complained about short staffing and working long hours,” a problem which on its face could result in an unsafe environment. When a guard is exhausted from a tough schedule or asked to cover the work of multiple colleagues, it stands to reason that their performance and ability to provide adequate coverage would suffer despite their willingness to work.

Beyond that, though, are the hidden consequences. Unable to count on an overworked staff to provide adequate protection, vulnerable inmates turn to gangs for help, giving the groups larger numbers and more heft within the facility. Several inmate-led protests — some of which turned violent — in 2016 and 2017 came as the result of excessive lockdowns: restrictions that came not as punishment, but came because facilities were unable to provide staffing needed to allow prisoners a routine schedule, per The Wall Street Journal.

The same article suggests the factors behind understaffing are as complicated as the problems that stem from it. Low pay, high danger, and rising numbers of violent inmates may keep qualified applicants from applying to guard jobs within jails and prisons, depending on the region and facility in question. This underscores the unending complexity of proper inmate care and how decisions made outside a prison might carry serious consequences within it.

Many riots also start due to a perception of poor living conditions or a perceived lack of respect from corrections personnel. Two weeks prior to the Delaware riots, a handful of prisoners refused to return to their cells following recreation time until a supervisor was available to hear their housing complaints. This event, which is viewed as a precursor to the riot, led some officers within the organization — including Mr. Floyd, who was killed in the subsequent takeover — to suggest the offending inmates be moved to different buildings. This suggestion was ultimately denied. Combined with the all-too-common staffing and turnover problems seen prior to other riots, the problems that followed could be seen as another tragic inevitability — the same story journalists and investigators seem to uncover any time a riot grips a facility.

Reviewing the telltale signs of jail and prison riots

If growing tensions over conditions are an obvious barometer of a possible riot or takeover, knowing exactly when the violence will start is difficult or impossible, at least without information from an informant or similar credible source. In this sense, arguably the best thing prison personnel can do is search for the signs of pending violence and do what they can to mitigate or outright stop it before a riot starts.

Veteran personnel often list stockpiling as one key behavioral indicator of pending trouble. Undoubtedly predicting a protracted period with no new supplies, prisoners may begin hoarding certain items when trouble is in the air: the non-perishable foods commonly sold in prison commissaries, for instance, or toilet paper, toothbrushes, and other basic hygienic items, all of which become even more important when living in the cramped quarters of a correctional facility.

In a Police Magazine piece, other veteran officers warn against sudden silences when officers come within earshot. Inmates generally do not care if their guards overhear what they are saying, one officer says, so conversation ceasing when prying ears are around could be an indication that they very much do care. In some cases, this may be a sign of nonviolent rule-breakage; in others — including those where tensions are high or popular requests have recently been denied — officials may wish to take the sudden silence as something more serious.

By the same token, denied requests may be one of the best contextual clues corrections professionals have at their disposal, especially if those denials make inmates feel disrespected or mistreated. For one example, the infamous 1993 Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) riot happened, in part, because Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) inmates were required to take a tuberculosis test that they felt infringed upon their strict rules regarding alcohol use. While subsequent investigations of the events (including an in-depth documentary from Netflix) revealed that some of the rioting prisoners also drank recreationally, it goes to show that perceived infringements on certain religious liberties may be both justification and cause behind violence.

Finally, prison employees must hone their instincts regarding which threats are real and which may be bluster. Though many threats boots-on-ground employees hear are undoubtedly part of the latter camp — SOCF guards, for instance, heard numerous threats of “another ’93” leading up to the riot’s 20th anniversary — decision makers may wish to give others more credibility. In one instance, failure to heed informant warnings and stagger prisoner recreational times were blamed in part for the 2003 riot at Colorado’s Crowley County Correctional Facility. Even with this example, however, it should be noted that hindsight is always clearer than foresight when it comes to riots.

Conclusion: While less intense, riots still pose a threat to correctional staff, inmates

To reiterate, there is little doubt that today’s riots are less violent, easier to manage, and generally less of a threat than the deadly takeovers seen in the late 20th century. From improved training and prisoner management techniques to innovations in corrections architecture and technology, the past few decades of advancement have made one of the most dangerous jobs out there a little safer when it comes to takeovers, riots, and other undesirable outcomes.

Even then, the specter of these violent events is an ever-looming concern. In some instances, prisons may be able to address the issues that put their facilities at risk for riots, deploying better-trained staff in better-fortified numbers, presuming budget and availability permit. In others, contextual clues, warnings from informants, and professionally cultivated gut feel may be all the organization has to stop violence before it starts. Either way, organizations would be well advised to treat riots and takeovers like any ever-present security threat: by never assuming they are too small, too prepared, or too well-designed for it to happen to them.

Posted on May 1, 2018