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We Asked an Expert How Prison Riots Start

Are riots planned, or do they break out spontaneously?

by Max Rann
Sep 2 2015, 2:35pm

Smoke drifts over the Metropolitan Remand Centre in Melbourne. Photo by Dan Nulley

Two months after a $20 million riot at a prison in Melbourne's west, former Australia attorney general John Dowd has warned prisons in New South Wales are at a similar breaking point. As he pointed out, the state's justice system is overcrowded, under resourced, and about to introduce a smoking ban—which was the defining catalyst for Melbourne's riot.

What's interesting is these are recognized risk factors, which raises the question: how do riots start? Do prisoners plan them, or do they break out spontaneously? To find out we asked an expert in Australian prisons from Adelaide University, Dr. Elizabeth Grant, who advises corrections departments around the country on prison saftey through design.

VICE: Hi, Elizabeth. How do riots start?
Dr. Elizabeth Grant: They're usually spontaneous. The prisoners might just be playing eight ball, for example, and then something happens and they refuse to go back in the cell. Then someone will say something like if you make me, I'll hit you. It doesn't take much, and the prison officers aren't going to walk into the scenario, they're going to back out. That's the first rule: your own safety first because, in the end, prisoners have nowhere to go and sooner or later they'll run out of food.

So why riot then?
Environmental psychology says this is what you do when you lose control: you try to change your circumstances. Prisoners will protest, either singularly or as part of a group. They're trying to get back control of their environment and themselves. The worst outcome is they'll actually try to end their own lives, which is a form of regaining control of their environment.

When is a prison most at risk of getting into a riot?
Every time there's change of circumstances, it's a risky time. It could be a high profile prisoner being brought in, a change of policy, or a new prison being built. Every new prison has new rules—prisoners know the rules and don't want something new.

Then the other issue is putting different groups together. There're some groups of prisoners who you just don't put together, and I mean, you really don't put them together. They always fight.

Which groups are those?
Gangs, obviously. Biker gangs, street gangs, and certain cultural groups, too. When a prisoner first goes in, they're asked if they're affiliated with a gang or a street crew or whatever, in an attempt to figure out where they should be housed. There's two ways of thinking about this: you either put all the gangs in together—which risks them taking over the prison—or you try to keep them separated. Whether you're concentrating or dispersing, it's always an issue.

Can't prison wardens just clamp down on problem inmates?
No, because when officers used to deal out violence it caused a lot of problems. The 70s and 80s were apparently bad for riots. Take Bathurst [the scene of a notorious riot in 1974] for example. It was an extreme environment. They would give each prisoner that came into Bathurst a beating as a warning—a really severe beating, I mean to within an inch of their lives—and they did this for 12 years. So the prisoners ended up rebelling with a riot. It was a huge riot; they burned the place down. Bathurst was the turning point for Australian prisons. Most modern prisons were built after Bathurst.

Overcrowding is often cited as a major factor. Do you believe it's significant?
Well it is and it isn't. Overcrowding squashes people together and stretches resources, but what's more significant is boredom. If prisoners are busy they're less likely to riot. But there's very little entertainment in prison except for television. You're locked down at four o'clock, your meal comes at about 4:30 PM and that's it until seven the next morning. It's mind-blowingly dull.

You said that prison riots used to be a lot worse. What's changed, aside from less beatings?
There's a thing called unit management in pretty much all prisons now. You'll have a smaller group of prisoners and you have a unit manager who case manages prisoners. If you case manage prisoners, and you're doing it well, you don't get riots. You just don't see the riots you had in the 70s anymore, and that's because of unit management. There used to be these huge riots, they'd go for days, and people died. They were quite extraordinary events. That was before we had unit management. And the ones we have now are nothing by comparison.

So how can riots be avoided?
Good communication is key. Prisoners need to be given information but not control; they need to feel secure and safe in their environment, or they will riot. That's the first question I'd ask after something goes wrong: were the prisoners secure and safe? There's nothing in it for prisoners. If they riot they're only going to get punished and as you pointed out, they've got nowhere to go.

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Dr. Elizabeth Grant