Why Prisoners Riot

A veteran of the Second World War who saw hard fighting with the infantry in Italy, H.W. Hollister ran into rough going after his discharge and wound up in the penitentiary. He is now out on parole, but the memory of his incarceration is a vivid one, particularly the strong-arm tactics of the prisoners, not the guards, which he describes in the following article and which are no doubt in large measure responsible for many prison outbreaks.

Maybe it is time, now that everyone else has had his say on the continuing problem of prison riots, that a former convict should make some observations on the subject. A lot of analyses of the problem have been made during the past couple of years, and a lot of solutions proposed; but most of them have managed to sound more like the product of laboratory experiments than the result of a good close look into prison itself. And nowhere does this show up more plainly than in the unanimity with which the analysts have placed the blame primarily on external trigger factors—overcrowding, poor food, parole policies, psychological pressures generally—while almost completely disregarding the large and obvious part played, first, by what can loosely be called convict nature and, second, by deep-rooted convict tradition.

It seems to be a general assumption that a prison riot springs into existence either directly, from just grievances, or indirectly, from the tensions peculiar to prison life which make trifling grievances seem large and insupportable. Normally, since rational people risk disaster in search of a better future only when they feel that the present has become intolerable, this would be a reasonable assumption. But who said convicts were rational people?

There is plenty of evidence to show that they aren't—a determining percentage of them, anyway—and no plan to tackle the problem of prison disorders is likely to be of much practical value unless it takes this fact into account. The first and most obvious evidence is simply one of definition. A person of sound common sense, even if his moral standards should permit such carryings-on, doesn't clean out the office safe—the combination of which is known only to his employer and himself—and still report to work the next morning. He doesn't boast of his thefts to pickup girls or other such doubtful confidantes, or flash his stolen roll in public, or do any of the braggart, exhibitionist, nonsensical things that are reported in the crime news of every daily newspaper. This common inability of smalltime lawbreakers to conduct their affairs in a manner consistent with their own best interests seems to ensure that prisons will always be a collecting ground for men of erratic nature with yawning gaps in their thinking machinery.

This is not to quarrel with statistics which place the convict's intelligence quotient nearly as high as that of his counterpart in free society; it is merely to say that he lacks the particular quality of mind—call it clearheadedness and plain common sense—which would let him think in an orderly manner and arrive at sensible conclusions. Nor is it to say that all convicts, or even most of them, are positively aberrant. It is only to say that the same "determining percentage" of them are—and in prison this percentage need not be large, although in a general, unclassified prison it is likely to be.

For eight years I did time in just such a penitentiary, under administrations representing opposite extremes of penological thought. This period produced a 400 per cent turnover in prison population; half a dozen work stoppages—one of them an institution-wide six-day hunger strike; numerous sporadic disturbances of shorter duration; at least two fires of incendiary origin; and one full-blown riot, with all the attendant violence and destruction.

For two of those years prison discipline was almost nonexistent. Never, probably, were inmates of a general penitentiary granted a standing of greater dignity and freedom as a matter of policy. Never did they have less cause for bitterness and resentment. Never did they have more to gain by cooperating with a truly bold and forward-looking prison program. And never was reason so lightly overthrown and privileges so joyously abused.

The details make pretty strident reading. In a single cell block, more than a hundred window frames were glassless at one time—the panes having been kicked out in protest against poor reception on the institution radio hookup or to express some other passing dissatisfaction. Guards, especially "good" guards with records of mildness and fair dealing, were given a miserably hard time; and several guards, good and bad, were engaged in bare-knuckle combat by convicts made brave with home-brewed pruno. Inmate goon-squads, self-appointed and armed with heavy bunk chains, seized the opportunity to roam the tiers, squaring accounts with individual inmate enemies.

These conditions of limited chaos were the handiwork of a relatively small, energetic band—perhaps no more than 10 per cent of the inmate body—encouraged by the approval of the rest of the lunatic fringe and the neutrality of practically everyone else. Disorder was clearly a minority action—or, more exactly, a collection of individual actions that only superficially resembled organized rebellion. Yet the most obvious characteristics here—total irresponsibility, indifference to consequences, wanton destructiveness—are a primary ingredient in most collective inmate actions, and they spring from fundamental aspects of mass convict nature.


If your first experience with prison revolt is of the slow-building, inevitable sort growing out of general resentment and just indignation, it is easy to assume that disorder can come no other way; that an uprising cannot mature without whole-hearted main-line support. But many times a full-scale riot has taken place when hardly a man participating is genuinely convinced that violence—or rebellion of any sort—is either right or necessary

Except under truly intolerable prison conditions, sensible prisoners oppose a strike, and still more a riot, for they know that sooner or later rebellion is almost sure to leave them worse off than before. Violence inevitably brings restricted privileges, tightened discipline, an uprooting of the routines that make for doing easy time. As indicative as anything of the "differentness" of convicts as a social group, therefore, is the nature of the causes for which they will unite in extreme action. I have known demands to be made, under threat of strike (and strikes can easily explode into riots), that pepper be provided for the mainline dining tables; that clean socks be delivered to the cells daily; that unemployed prisoners be permitted to swim in the stream used for generating the prison's power. A leader of one action vigorously insisted that the terms of peace include that "they turn my brother out of the hole," where he was doing time for breaking prison rules and getting caught.

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