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Understanding Prison Riots: Towards a Threshold Theory

NCJ Number
Punishment & Society Volume: 6 Issue: 1 Dated: January 2004 Pages: 47-65
Arjen Boin; William A. R. Rattray
Date Published
January 2004
19 pages
This article discusses a theoretical framework that helps explain the origins of prison riots.
Despite the high media profile and serious consequences of prison riots, research remains sparse. Most explanations of prison riots fall into one of two categories: (1) conventional and intuitively acceptable, which presents riots as a natural response to poor prison conditions; and (2) trouble in the social texture of prisons. One theory cites administrative breakdown as the root of collective violence. This condition can be separated into two clusters: prisoner perceptions and administrative strength. A well-functioning prison is characterized by an institutionalized pattern of interaction between staff and prisoners, which deals effectively with normal stress. Any variance in these patterned ways of interaction may create instability and assume proportions not easily understood by outsiders. Prisons with a particular sort of pathology fail to preserve a legitimate way of working in the face of external shifts. A prolonged state of administrative breakdown sets the stage for institutional breakdown. This process is initiated by a perception of impending change. The last barrier between a tense prison and a riot -- effective crisis management -- erodes as a direct consequence of administrative and institutional breakdown. This theory is applied to a case study to understand the process leading up to riots. This theory helps to explain why riots occur in some prisons but not in others. A state of institutional breakdown creates a highly complex and tightly coupled environment, which motivates prisoners to engage in collective violence. But in order for this to happen, a state of administrative breakdown must facilitate the declining spiral of institutional erosion and render existing safety mechanisms ineffective. Prison riots are the products of administrative and institutional decline, intertwining processes that typically stretch over considerable periods of time. Prison managers may be able to “audit” their prison in terms of vulnerability, which is a product of administrative and institutional factors. 2 figures, 17 notes, 60 references