Prison riots

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
April 29, 2023

Prison riots have been happening around the world pretty much since the formation of prisons themselves. They are violent disturbances by inmates who are more than likely hoping to incite change by protesting against the prison system they are housed in. Prison riots can occur due to a number of reasons such as: mistreatment by prison staff, overcrowding, inappropriate access to essential items, poor living conditions, gang activity or other criminality, or other issues which impact the quality of life for prisoners. Prison riots are more often than not, extremely dangerous for inmates and prison staff, commonly resulting in serious injuries and loss of life. Historically, there have been a number of significant prison riots around the world. Here are a few examples worth noting:

1. Strangeways Prison Riot, 1990 (United Kingdom): For an astonishing 25 days, prisoners rioted and protested against the inhumane conditions and abuse that they faced in this Manchester based prison. Two people died and hundreds of prisoners and staff were injured.

2. Carandiru Penitentiary Massacre, 1992 (Brazil): After a fight broke out at the Carandiru prison in Sao Paulo, a riot entailed. The prison was notorious for inhumane conditions and overcrowding, alongside the general brutality of prisons across Brazil. Military police stormed the prison and massacred over 100 inmates in just 30 minutes.

3. Tulua Prison Riot, 2022 (Colombia): Just over a year ago, a deadly prison riot occurred in Colombia, leading to the deaths of 51 inmates. It was reported that the riot began due to a fight between two rival gangs and the serious overcrowding problem that Colombia have throughout their prisons.

These prison riots caused a number of changes to their individual prison systems. The UK Strangeways Prison riot led to the Woolf Report, which ultimately concluded that the effective management of prisoners required the proper balance between security, control and justice. The report stated many specific changes such as; keys not being carried by staff on duty unless essential, security reports/risk assessments must be carried out and that staff should withdraw in the event of another riot. Improvements to communications and negotiations were assessed, alongside improvements to contact points for staff and families and measures for counselling and debriefs after a prison riot. A significant security improvement that had a major role in containing prison riots were firebreaks, which are fitted between each prison unit, resulting in the quicker containment of prisoners and staff, causing less disruption and harm to all parties. Physical security improvements were also recommended, to guarantee there is no option for prisoners to access the roof, building tools or any other equipment.

In Brazil, the Carandiru prison massacre was key to the formation of the First Capital Command (PCC), one of the most brutal and powerful organised crime groups in Brazil. The PCC was inspired by the Red Command for self-protection within the prison system, adopting the slogan, “peace, justice, freedom”, with the goal of the destruction of a capitalist system. The PCC has grown not just across Brazil but also to neighbouring nations. This is partly due to the fact that the Brazilian government attempted to split them up by moving them to different prisons, however, this just allowed the gang to grow.

After the tragic riot in Colombia’s Tulua prison, Colombian President-Elect (now President), Gustavo Petro, said, “Prison violence obliges the complete re-imagining of prisons policy toward a humanisation of jail and dignity for the prisoner.” Shortly after, a conference was held by the government where they based their reforms on faith in Jesus Christ. They believed that no matter the reason for conviction, rehabilitation is possible with faith. Prison authorities were to promote social reintegration for those who have not had the opportunity. Petro came under scrutiny for his reform process which included releasing inmates to alleviate the overcrowding problem, a direct cause for the2022 prison riot. Only time will tell if any of Petro’s reforms will make a difference to their prison systems.

Although each of these prison riots were unique, some of the common factors are the conditions that the prisoners were held in, the inhumane treatment they were subjected to and overcrowding. What was very different, was the way in which the countries governments and individual prison systems dealt with the fallout from these riots. Many changes were made at a government/policy level and were well implemented and other changes, such as those seen in the formation of the PCC in Brazil would prove to be catastrophic. It is clear that each of these systems, and others alike, need to rethink their prison systems, work to rehumanise the prisoners, and learn to reintegrate them through humane means.

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