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Understanding the Prison Riot or Disturbance
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 07/12/2010

Riot shield I have been asked to write some information that presents to rookie officers that may not have been in the books or trained in the academy. This put a big smile on my face as that specific purpose has been my main mission for the past two years. I write specifically to officers who are still working in the field as, I am. I understand their plight and constant need for good purposeful training that may not be there or available. Not training that mirrors your policy. Policy training spends a lot of time telling you what not to do but never informs you should do and what you should be doing. This aspect is left up to chance. The chance you may make probation or the chance you may quit after your first week.

It is no mystery that I was a police officer for over ten years prior to a career change into corrections. I have attended a basic police officers academy at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy that was three and a half months long. In this academy they drilled us on step by step ways and tactics on how to do everything from traffic stops to death notifications. The way law enforcement creates these procedural steps is from a failure to perform that probably led to an officer’s death. The method I was instilled with was tried and true information that my instructors lived and died by. If I had a question on why we did something they would show you why, not say “We do this because.” Everything had a purpose and a reason that had been thought out by officers in the field who were experts in what they were doing.

I will never forget my basic academy training in corrections. It was generally policy driven; now remember what I said about policy training. There was a lot of, “We do this because.” And “you will find out when you get on your unit.” At the end of my training we had a talk from the Superintendent about how the training we just received was the best training and information that had ever been taught in our agency but he asked, “Dose anyone have any questions.” I raised my hand and asked one simple question, “When are we going to learn how to be corrections officers?” You know what the answer was, “When you get to your unit.” I have written a lot of training articles published all over the country and officers respond the same way about their training.

So now is my chance to relay some information to you about mistakes that I have made or observed others making around me. I want to project this information to you as they did in my basic police academy. I want to give you step by step information on how to control people; people who do not want to be controlled. But I have to keep it in the realm of disturbances and riots. So here we go. I guess the first question that I can ask is, “how do you prevent disturbances or riots from occurring?” The answer is, you cannot. Disturbances and riots have been occurring since there have been prisons. Think of disturbances within your institutions as you do contraband control. Have you stopped the contraband from getting into your institutions yet? If you have let me know so I can get this information out there for all to see.

In all of my past published training articles I have intended to educate the officer in the arena or recognizing and understanding what they are actually observing as they walk among the predators. The best you can do is educating your line staff on these three areas:
  1. Recognition and reasoning of an impending disturbance. This includes causes of inmate violence and triggering events such as:

    • Corrupt or compromised staff
    • The God Complex
    • Institutional Food
    • Racial Tension
    • Security Threat Groups
    • Inmate subculture and inmate stress

  2. How a disturbances or riots evolve and manifest such as:

    • Rumor of a Riot or Disturbance
    • Mental preparation of officers
    • Staff perceptions of prison problems
    • Triggering events and signs an event is imminent

  3. And Managing and Surviving a disturbance or riot such as:

    • Emergency response planning
    • Hostage survival and coping
    • After event readjustment

It is our failure to educate our people that lead to operational mistakes, corrupted staff and eventually disturbances. We all need more money to update facility design, more time to prepare proper medical and dental care for the inmates. But when we discontinue educational programs, fast track initial academy classes in order to staff our facilities then we are a time bomb with a short fuse. As an administrator you are responsible for every action that goes on within your institution. You either knew, or should have known of the deficiency or problem that leads to the disturbance.

“A disturbance takes place when collective inmate behavior threatens the normal functioning, control, and good order of the facility and cannot be terminated by the facility staff on duty.” institutional disturbances have been an unfortunate feature of correctional operations throughout the history of such facilities. These disturbances have ranged from isolated incidents such as inmate-on inmate assaults to group actions such as large-scale violent events resulting in death, major injuries, and massive property damage. While any of these types of disturbances may create serious problems for institution administrators and staff, I will focus on those disturbances involving individual inmates or groups of inmates who threaten the security, safety, and order of a correctional facility. Such disturbances have become more frequent and more serious in recent years. The potential for such events exists at any institution at any time, regardless of security level.

It is important for everyone to understand the definition of a disturbance as well as a riot to assist them in their careers. I know when I was on a unit for the first time and an inmate fight broke out in front of me I thought It was a major disturbance and I couldn’t understand why the management couldn’t see it my way. Well only after I understood what the definitions were I could better judge the necessary response needed to my unit incidents.

In 1996, the American Correctional Association, in “Preventing and Managing Riots and Disturbances,” suggested there were three categories of violence and disorder that may occur within our correctional institutions. These are:
  • Riot: A riot occurs when a significant number of inmates control a significant portion of the facility for a significant period of time.
  • Disturbance: A disturbance is a step down from a riot in that there are fewer inmates involved, and there is no control or minimal control of any portion of the facility by inmates.
  • Incident: An incident is then a step down from a disturbance in that one or a few inmates are involved and there is no control of any portion of the facility for any period of time by an inmate.

Contrary to the belief of many, most disturbances are not due to inmate organization, but to institution disorganization. When administrative staff members are not visible and accessible to line staff and inmates, but are perceived as unwilling or incapable of responding to the concerns of the inmate population, the likelihood of inmate unrest is increased. Future articles will addresses fundamental line staff and mid level management strategies for recognizing and containing disturbances.

“If we cannot live as people, then we will at least try to die like men,” declared the prisoners. A thousand inmates had taken over Attica prison in upstate New York in September 1971 and held 43 hostages for four days. The eruption happened on the morning of September 9, when a group of prisoners resisted returning to their cells and badly beat three guards, stealing their keys. The violence quickly spread as prisoners flooded “Times Square,” where the four corridors leading to the separate cell blocks intersected. They started freeing other prisoners, beating more guards, and taking hostages.

“ISLAMIC prisoner extremists are using an al-Qaeda training manual to give them instructions for taking over the state’s toughest jails, Inmates are establishing an internal organizational structure to maintain morale, resist authority and recruit additional inmate members to Islam. Prisoners are setting up leadership groups in prisons, with their activities governed by the code outlined in the al-Qaeda manual for incarcerated followers. A number of Corrective Services staff has been targeted, some with violent threats by inmate groups. Other staff has been singled out for conversion to Islam.” Jihad Watch December 2007

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


  1. vosyxudo on 04/13/2020:

    Thanks for another wonderful post. Where else could anybody get that type of info in such an ideal way of writing? Zahnarzt in Zürich

  2. Mayor Dumo on 02/07/2012:

    I am Filipino student in St. Jude Thaddeus institute of technology.Taking a Bachelor of Science in Criminology i agreed all the important matters for respect not whole of my thought about what is the reason and what is inmates make disturbed.How should to prevent or protect all the inmates in the whole area of responsibly for being unbeliever of what the inmates problems, but for me as a student i really had supposed believing the important things that we need to know especially the life of our inmates that we need to protect as our jobs, then they have a chance to change and chance to live in this world..''If someday i will become a law enforcer i'll do my very best to serve in community and serve my service for the people in my beloved country Philippines. Salamat!

  3. booch on 07/17/2010:

    A strong enforcement policy on behavior and enforcement application by our staff is a must. The inmates know who on your staff enforce the standards and those that don't. A good friend of mind an an outstanding Sergeant at Vaughn Correctional in Smyrna, DE., insists on ethical standards from all of us in our Department. A standard of excellance he not only adapted from his service in the U.S. Marines, but also through his service as a First Responder in his Fire Department and a proud father to his son. A balanced system of review on behavior infractions from the inmates and the fundemental practice of standards enforcement from the staff assists in situational awareness and aids our staff in keeping incidents at the level that our First Responder Teams and Quick Reaction Teams take care of professionally and safely as possible. The challenge to our staff start at the Basic Training level and is built up through continued training and good supervison. Thanks for the insight Tracy, we appreciate it!

  4. prznboss on 07/16/2010:

    It's not just staff actions that can cause a riot. Sometimes it's administrations' policies. The inmates have to know that staff is in control and not them. Some departments/facilities have policies where when an officer writes up an inmate the disciplinary hearing officer reviews video and questions other inmates! Then if there's a minor technicality in the wording or how it's done it's dismissed. If an officer says an inmate did something it should be taken as such and the inmate should be found guilty. Only if the officer has proven to be someone that's not ethical should he/she be questioned, video checked, etc. This creates an atmosphere where the officer doesn't know whether to take the chance of writing an inmate up knowing it could very well be dismissed which makes the matter worse. If dismissed, now the inmates openly defy the officer knowing his write-ups aren't going to stick.

  5. Warden Hood on 07/14/2010:

    During the past 35 years I have worked in local, state, and federal correctional facilities (retired warden of the United States Penitentiary "supermax" in Colorado). Although I continue to enjoy articles written by Tracy Barnhart, I totally disagree with the answer provide to “how do you prevent disturbances or riots from occurring?” The answer mentioned in the article is, "you cannot." Correctional professionals prevent unrest from occurring each and every day. Overall, the 2.3 million offenders incarcerated throughout the USA work well with staff who are professional, responsive, and dedicated. If correctional professionals cannot prevent disturbances or riots, then our staff might as well go home. I am proud of our correctional staff and give them more credit for their service. WardenHood@gmail.com

  6. jack_cowley on 07/14/2010:

    As a long time prison warden I can say without hesitation that riots and distrubances can be prevented in prisons. We in correctional management have convinced the public that we operate at the whem of crazy convicts and are lucky just to survive the day. With over incarceration and budget issues the public is soon going to demand more from us in terms of a reduction in recidivism. It is time to hold corrections systems accountable for the way prisons are managed and slow down the revolving door. It can be done.

  7. 13 on 07/14/2010:

    I have to agree with Diogenes and point out that in this day and age of risk management, mitigation of the factors that Mr. Barnhart so carefully outlined is becoming a necessity for successful prison management. As an addendum to Diogenes' post, an incident on Memorial Day this year at the Cerbat unit of the Arizona State Prison-Kingman, operated by Management and Training Corporation, also spun out of control, again due to under-paid guards running away. Clearly, riots and incidents of any sort are not in the best interest of any stakeholder, not the guards, the inmates, the state or the families of all involved, not to mention the public at large. It's time to start thinking "differently," beginning with the realization that with some exceptions, warehousing people is neither useful nor cost effective.

  8. Diogenes on 07/14/2010:

    I have to disagree with the contention that riots cannot be prevented. For-profit prisons, for instance, have far more riots than do public prisons. In 2004, CCA experienced four major riots in a four-month period in four different states. After the first, in Watonga, Oklahoma in May, Arizona analyzed the situation and told CCA that it needed to insure an intact chain of command (sergeants were being used as line officers because of staff shortages), that construction materials and other items which could be used as weapons needed to be secured, staff turnover meant the majority of the staff was green, etc. Two months later, in Olney Springs/Crowley County, Colorado, Washington state prisoners predictably rioted using construction materials left around on the job sites, spray cans as flamethrowers, etc. There were serious problems with abusive staff, inept management, poor food, wildly disparate contracts so that inmates from Wyoming, Washington and Colorado legitimately felt resentment. Green staff, poorly constructed pods and control rooms contributed to the extent of the riot, as did unsecured weight pile equipment. Breakdowns in communication were evident. A control room guard had been on the job just two days. Guards ran away. Dozens of low paid guards (about $10.50 hourly) and support staff quit, but they were quitting before the riot, aware of the heightened danger provoked by excessive cost cutting. The next day, Colorado inmates in Mississippi erupted. Causes were low paid, high turnover staff, cheap locks unfit to secure gates, etc. At Beattyvile, Kentucky, in September, Vermont convicts at LAC upset about food, sexual abuse of prisoners, whimsical treatment including gratuitous humiliation rioted, prompting Kentucky inmates to join them. Again, CCA did nothing to mitigate the resentment that the disparate state contracts precipitated. Poor security upgrades using inferior materials allowed inmates to roll up fences like venetian blinds, to break down a guard tower and gates to use as battering rams, etc. Guards were making $7.65 hourly and of course ran away. Dozens quit when they finally realized the danger in working there. Some of these riots required massive state intervention to quell the disturbances an facilities suffered massive damage. CCA's response was to ignore the problems, unless forced to deal with some. But it was never proactive. Kentucky guards are now being paid $8.25 hourly. Controlling for inflation, that is less in real wages than they received six years ago. If CCA hadn't only restricted security upgrades to the Watonga prison, but followed Arizona's advice pertaining to issues such as securing construction materials, Crowley would certainly have not suffered the damage and loss of control it experienced. All of the for-profit operators have suffered from these sorts of problems. In Eagle Mountain, California, poorly trained, $8.50 hourly guards ran away from a riot in October 2003. Kitchen implements were so poorly secured that convicts helped themselves to butcher knives, meat forks and cleavers, and used poorly secured 2x4s to kill African American inmates. During deposition the head of security admitted he knew nothing of the well-documented gang affiliations of inmates. Here's video of that riot. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ce3uXbZqKW8

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