U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Conflicts and Violence in Prison

NCJ Number
Kimmett Edgar; Carol Martin
Date Published
4 pages
This study explored situations that led to incidents between prisoners, it includes information on the social structure of prisoners, prisoner interests that lead to conflict, fight catalysts, power and prison violence, and prison violence and prevention.
The researchers collected information on 141 incidents in four different types of prisons. These included 57 fights, 34 assaults, and 47 situations that did not result in injurious force. Two hundred and nine prisoners were interviewed; 132 of them used injurious force. The culture of prisons fosters an environment that leads to particular kinds of conflict. Prison social structure and prison regimes generate competition for scarce resources, require inmates to interact with unpredictable people, and deprives prisoners of privacy. Prisons are also places where the risk of being exploited is widespread and the expected response to being wronged is to react with violence. Conflicts often begin over what each party wants from the situation. The majority of fights are not about material goods, such as tobacco or drugs. Non-material interests, such as respect, fairness, loyalty, or honor influenced every situation. Racial differences were a significant background factor to fights and assaults. A disproportionate number of incidents involved prisoners of different ethnic groups. The tactics prisoners employed when faced with conflict often worsened the situation, leading to violence. Accusations or threats each accounted for 65 of the 141 incidents. Verbal challenges, invasions of space, and insults were also very common. Every conflict was influenced by the balance of power between prisoners. Contests of power arose when one or both parties defined the situation as a win or lose struggle. The study also identified factors that delayed, prevented, or minimized physical violence. Some of these were situational, such as prior good relations between parties or privileges that the prisoners were unwilling to risk in fighting. The analysis led to the following recommendations: governors should make prevention a priority, staff should be trained to recognize conflict, and conflict resolution programs should be available to prisoners.