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.

By H. W. Hollister

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.

The closer you look into the matter of prison insurrections, the more of this demented sort of thing you find. One of the few really justified strikes to happen during my time in prison was engineered to obtain the release of inmate committee members who had wound up in the hole after pushing through a good many reasonable and badly needed reforms. The strike lasted two days and was successful. Besides granting the main point, the prison administration agreed to the election of a permanent inmate council. As a member of a pro tem committee, it fell to me to take the word to the regular committeemen and to see them released. Four of them accepted the news enthusiastically. The other two—the committee chairman one of them—refused to quit lockup because, they complained, it had been their show and we, the main line, had "sold them out." The proportion here—two to four—seems like a fair one to keep in mind.

Later, near the end of a six-day hunger strike, I was named to establish some sort of liaison among the council members scattered among the three cell blocks. All of the demands that mattered had by that time been met by the prison administration and state officials—including the one calling for the hiring of a new warden. It was a clear cut victory for the main line, and it was only too apparent that nothing but disaster would come of crowding our luck. Yet in spite of all this, at least three of the eight-man council, backed by a whopping percentage of the main line, were for holding out longer—either in the hope of gaining further concessions or just for the joy of holding out.

With all this advance warning, the spectacle, two years later, of a "causeless" riot shouldn't have been surprising. The strike began with a demand for better food, which the administration granted almost at once. It has been conclusively demonstrated, however, that nothing can so quickly arouse leaders of wildcat uprisings to full belligerency as the simple granting of demands: the return of peace always brings to an end their moment in the sun. It worked that way this time. Nobody was able to advance any plausible grievances, although a score of not very convincing pretexts were tossed about, to an accompaniment of soapbox exhortations and flailing arms, during the hours that the project was gaining momentum. There simply weren't any plausible grievances to be had. In spite of this, when the administration made a show of force, something like twenty-four hours after the affair began, the strike turned almost immediately into a riot. The first building put to the torch was the laundry, containing a fair share of the main-line wash. Then the canteen was broken into and plundered. Then the storehouse for inmate recreation and athletic supplies went up in flames. Some of the rioters attempted to fire the dining room, one floor beneath the prison hospitals but were dissuaded by cooler heads.

It is easy to say that such irrational behavior is an expression of accumulated, perfectly normal resentment of captivity. But sensible people don't lodge a protest by pulling their homes down about their ears. Yet upward of a half dozen times a year, this phenomenon of self-flagellation is repeated in the nation's prisons.

Why is it that no dissenting voices are raised before the pot boils over? Why is it that the great majority of prison uprisings appear, from beginning to end, to be an expression of the popular will? It is here that convict tradition comes into the picture.

The troubles lies almost entirely in the fact that there is no loyal opposition in prison: that opposition, especially to any form of rebellion against authority, is usually taken as prima-facie evidence of disloyalty. And among prisoners, nothing is quite so assiduously to be avoided as the suspicion of selling out to the enemy. Convicts, contrary to the notion popular with Hollywood producers and novelists, are not quite the hard-riding individualists that their excursions into outlawry might indicate. Their outcast state has made them all the hungrier for social approval, even if it must be the approval of fellow outcasts. The rarest thing in prison is the convict who chooses to stand against group opinion. Even nonparticipants and nonbelievers decline to rise up and protest the din that disturbs their peace, or the disorders that threaten their well-being or even their lives. They prefer to obey the prison world's First Commandment and ''do their own time." In this light it isn't at all surprising that an entire inmate body should give at least passive support to a strike leader who demands that pepper be placed on the dining-room tables or that his brother be released from legitimate punishment in the hole. There is really nothing else for them to do.


All this leads to some general conclusions that seem to have escaped most of the people who are trying to find out how to cure the epidemic of prison riots.

1. Convicts, however many exceptions there may be, are generally not mature, fully developed people; and it is about time for high-minded idealists to stop assuming that they will respond to corrective techniques in the same way that normal adults would. Nothing could be farther from the truth than the notion that prisoners are a representative cross section of the human population, who, through mischance or uncharacteristic impulse, happen to land in jail. For the most part, notwithstanding any number of incidental virtues that may be found among them, they are truncated personalities—a separate breed whose natural habitat is prison and who find an outlet for all of their limited facilities in prison surroundings. From a therapeutic view, the important thing is to find and to concentrate all corrective efforts on the relatively small percentage who are complete human beings capable of assuming the responsibilities of free citizens.

2. By all the tests that can be applied, it is perfectly clear that the greatest threat to prison order always lies in the small group of violently unstable men, usually at least mildly paranoid, which every prison holds. It is equally clear that convicts of this sort respond to specific kinds of treatment in a quite predictable way. They will respect strict discipline and not much else. And with absolute dependability they will interpret kindliness or a softening of discipline as a sign of weakness to be exploited. Obviously, then, the first requirement of prison management is to curb this element—vigorously, using whatever means are necessary.

3. But in a general, all-purpose prison, this isn't as easy as it sounds. The disciplinary standard of any prison has to be geared to the requirements imposed by the most troublesome element in the total group—and one man's discipline, after all, is another man's repression. It is obviously neither just nor wise, from a morale or security view, to impose on tractable prisoners the relatively severe disciplinary measures necessary to whittle the paranoiacs down to size. It doesn't seem enough, then, merely to suppress the style-setters of anarchy. As soon as they are identified they should be shipped off, bag and baggage, delusions and pretensions, to a separate, maximum-discipline institution. And if no such institution exists—as in the case of all one-prison states—it should be provided.

4. This would mean that the old technique of inmate classification would have to be relied on—but with a difference. Maximum-discipline prisons have always existed, but they are regarded as a special preserve for escape risks and "bad men" who for security reasons need closer watching. It is a perfectly safe bet that there are several prison wardens in the nation today who recognize (perhaps belatedly) that it is less disastrous that an occasional convict should escape, if it comes to that, than that his prison should go up in flames at the hands of a flock of bobby-soxers. And the danger signs are easy to spot. It is the convict who swaggers in his walk, who shoulders a guard out of his path, who makes a theatrical production of his contempt for authority and not the convict who gets caught with a pair of bar-spreaders in his mattress, who is the real threat to prison security.

If the experience of recent years means anything at all, it means that these are at least some of the principles on which the answer to wildcat riots must be based. Demonstrations can still be expected to occur, of course, as a last-resort means of calling a really hopeless state of affairs to attention.

Meanwhile it might as well be recognized that the simple fact of revolt doesn't by a long shot indicate the presence of real grievances, and that an uprising needn't have any element of good faith or good sense about it. Too often it hasn't had. The goal of sensible convicts, after all, is to get out of prison, not to run one.

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