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What are Common Reasons for Prison Riots?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 16, 2024
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Prison riots happen for many different reasons, and the true cause of prison riots is not always as obvious as the immediate cause. This means that while a prison riot may appear to have been caused by a specific incident, such as the removal of a television, the tension that builds up to riot conditions may have started months earlier. Some riots are organized and may relate to political problems, but many riots simply evolve out of conditions in a prison. Each riot is unique, and due to lack of cooperation from the rioting population, it is often difficult to determine the real reason for prison riots.

In many cases, prison riots are set off by a seemingly simple issue. A fight between inmates, a lost privilege, or changes in programs offered can all set off riots in the right conditions. When a small number of people start fighting, that fighting can set off a much larger riot that can spread throughout a prison. Calling the small incident that set off the riot the reason for the riot is misleading because the same action does not always or even usually set off a riot.

Typically, the real reason for a riot has to do with the conditions inside the prison over time. A series of small events and social tension between inmates and guards can build up in a way that is hard to describe but easy to feel. People involved in prisons can often sense the atmosphere of a riot before it happens. A combination of prison overcrowding, boredom, and attitude can make some prisons more likely to experience prison riots than others, but no prison is entirely safe from riots.

When most people think of prison riots, they think of the somewhat spontaneous rioting of violent criminals. In areas where political prisoners are housed, riots can be a form of protest that is highly organized and designed to take over the prison. Most riots do, in some form, involve holding areas of the prison hostage, but with planning this effect can be much more widespread. Inevitably, rioting and demanding different conditions do not typically work out for prisoners, so the gesture is often used to draw attention to an issue.

What is important to remember about the reasons prison riots happen is that they are always a symptom of a flaw in a prison system. Even though researchers attempt to discover the reasons for these riots, it is almost impossible to determine the true cause from any angle because prisoners are not usually cooperative subjects. Prisoners have no reason to identify the building tension in a prison, particularly when illegal activities are taking place, and are therefore unreliable as subjects of study. As a critical reader, it is therefore important to remember that prison riots are never as simple or straightforward as they are reported and that the situation inside the prison walls is never as frivolous as news reports imply.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Drentel — On Feb 28, 2014
The conditions from one prison to another are so different that there can be no general understanding of what prison life is like. When a criminal is sentenced, where he is sent to do his time is probably the biggest determining factor as to what he will be like once he reenters society.
By Animandel — On Feb 27, 2014
I read a news article several months ago about prisons in a Central American country. The article reported than in many of the detention centers, the prisoners ran the institutions and the guards were in many ways powerless.

Anyway, there was a riot in one of the prisons and the inmates used weapons (guns included) against other inmates and against the guards. Eventually, the army was called in to gain control of the inmates and the facility. I can't imagine what working in that environment would be like.

By Sporkasia — On Feb 27, 2014
The article talks about how riots highlight the flaws in a prison system. Unfortunately, from the prisoners' perspective, there is a fundamental flaw in correctional departments and the prison system, and that flaw is that the prisoner is not free within the system.

Any time freedom is taken away from a person or any creature there is going to be a resentment towards the person believed to be responsible for taking away that freedom. Thus, even when prisons are housed in so called country club prisons, a majority of inmates harbor resentment for the guards and officials of the detention centers.

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