aybe 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
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
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
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.
Copyright © 1955 by H.W. Hollister. All rights reserved.
"Why Prisoners Riot," from The Atlantic Monthly, October, 1955, issue.
Vol. 196, No. 4 (p.65-67).