IMPORTANT:This page has used Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia in either a refactored, modified, abridged, expanded, built on or 'straight from' text content! (view authors)

Prison mutiny redirects here. For the 1943 American film directed by Phil Rosen, see You Can't Beat the Law.


The aftermath of the 1988 riots at Fremantle, Western Australia.

A prison riot is an act of concerted defiance or disorder by a group of prisoners against the prison administrators, prison officers, or other groups of prisoners in attempt to force change or express a grievance.

Prison riots have received little academic attention. The papers that do exist tend to draw a connection between prison conditions (such as overcrowding) and riots,[1][2][3] or discuss the dynamics of the modern prison riot.[4][5] In addition, a large proportion of papers focus on specific cases of prison riots.[6][7][8]

Prison conditions

In the late 20th Century the conceptualization of explanations put forward to account for prison disturbances and riots has changed. Initially the actions by prisoners were viewed as irrational. Nevertheless, there is a shift in the form of explanation as external conditions like overcrowding are put forward by the authorities to interpret the events.[9]

Towards the end of the 20th century, the inmate’s narrative of events comes to be reported more often. As the inmates gain more power, they are more likely to be listened to, and their narratives have been observed to be reported. Initially this was in the media, but later they came to be reported in the annual reports and investigations done by the various Ministries and Departments that administered the correctional system in Western nations. Shifts in the style of the media reporting have been a major contributor to this shift in the narrative. So one has to be wary of attributing just the ameliorative reform to the change in the shift of power to the prisoners, as other groups within the figuration have also been empowered like the media and the psy-experts (although the psy-experts may have since lost a lot of power since the 1970’s).[10] The prisoner’s narrative from last century and early this century has not been preserved particularly well, especially in relation to prison riots. The main source of the early prisoner’s narrative is contained in prisoner’s memoirs. This gives a good indication of how little power the prisoners once had, as they did not have the means to express their position, even on the ‘outside’.

Since the inception of the prison there has been a steady shift in the societal perception of the prisoner where now in contrast with the horrific prison conditions of the 18th Century the victim has come to be seen as the prisoner. This has been matched by an increase in the number of prison riots that corrections facilities have been experiencing. We have experienced:

“…the gradual but undeniable lowering in the intensity of punishment…The amelioration of prison conditions in most states and even the legal recognition of prisoners’ rights in some of them, might all be understood as aspects of this more general move in sensibilities.” (Garland 1997:236)[11]

Due to the suffering experienced by prisoners, the imprisonment of offenders came to be seen as a shameful social activity. Consequently there have been attempts to make the prisons invisible while improving the conditions within them. However, it is clear that the increase in the incidence of prison riots prevented the prisons from being hidden.

The sensitivities towards suffering have caused an increase in prison riots and disturbances in a number of ways. When the prisons were initially commissioned for large-scale punishment in New Zealand, the suffering the prisoners experienced was immense, and the social distance between the prison administration and the inmates was very large. The prison administration and the prison officers held a lot of power compared to the inmates and the conceptualization of the prison environment espoused by the prison administration was the most influential. The social distance was so large that the inmates constructed their identity to include feelings of disgrace and worthlessness and they could not act to change their position.[12] The steady amelioration of the prison conditions slowly reduced the social distance between the groups as there was a fundamental shift in power between the groups. The authorities slowly lost power due to increased regulation, while the inmates were slowly empowered. The inmates, as they constructed a vocabulary of dissent and changed their identity, felt that they were in a position to protest as Pratt (1999:289)[12] summarizes:

“Perhaps what we now begin to see is the way in which the process of ameliorative reform, having narrowed the social distance between the established and outsider groups, allowed the prisoners to assume greater confidence in their ability to challenge their oppressors and to slowly undermine the very foundations of the prison edifice itself.”

The increase in violence and destruction in prison riots can be attributed to the decivilizing impact of the ameliorative reform. However, the legacy of identity continued from the 19th century, and as a result, the slow shift in power did not affect the prison riots until after World War II. During this time, the state steadily lost their monopolisation on violence in the prison environment. As the control of violence has fragmented, and the inmates have assumed control of a proportion of violence, then the inmates are more likely to resort to violent means. The loss by the state of the monopoly of violence does not fully explain all the shifts in the characteristics of prison riots, as there was a temporary shift away from violence to that of protesting in the early 1970’s.[13] Therefore, the wider social context needs to be considered in its impact on the types of prison riots taking place. During this period of time there may in effect have been a temporary civilizing of the riots, as the wider social environment espoused values of non-violent protest, which in turn temporarily affected the social behaviour of the prisoners.

List of notable prison riots









Gulag uprisings

List of fictional prison riots

The following is a list of prison riots which have been depicted in various forms of media, including books, film, and television.

  • The riot at Fox River that occurred during Prison Break's first season's two-part episode "Riots, Drills, and the Devil".
  • Network Ten created a TV series called Prisoner (Prisoner Cell Block H in some countries), a show set in a prison in Melbourne, this had multiple riots through the series run.
  • Multiple riots occurred in the television series Oz during its six season run.
  • In The Simpsons episode "The Homer They Fall", a prison riot in progress is halted instantly when imprisoned champion boxer Drederick Tatum petulantly asks the inmates and guards to "Shut up." They apologize and begin extinguishing the flames and tidying up.
  • The riot in the film Natural Born Killers[1].
  • In the film Blood in Blood out, in San Quentin State Prison, after gangleader Montana was killed.
  • In the movie Scum, by Alan Clarke the borstal inmates protest the official indifference that led to the suicide of one of the boys on the night before that he had been raped. It is not clear whether the perpetrators of the rape had participated. During the scene the inmates refuse to eat breakfast, and one by one they start chanting the eponymous "scum" and proceed to demolish the canteen, with the staff locking themselves into a secure area. The movie ends shortly after in the final scene with the governor claiming to mourn the death of the boy, whilst informing the inmates there is full loss of privileges "until the damage has been paid for".
  • In the graphic novel and film Watchmen, after a burn victim of Rorschach dies, a prison riot breaks out in an attempt to kill him. Rorschach escapes with the aid of Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre.
  • In the episode "A Game of Checkers" of the HBO television series Oz, a riot breaks out in Oswald Pen.'s Emerald City, with Muslim activist 'Kareem Saïd' (real name Goodson Truman) leading it (with the help of a gun given to him by a Muslim prison guard. It is eventually broken up with tear gas and a SWAT team.
  • In Episode 6 of the 3rd season of the British TV show Ashes to Ashes, a prison riot occurs at Fenchurch East Prison.
  • In the episode "Redemptio" in season 6 of CBS television series CSI: NY, Sheldon Hawkes gets trapped in a prison riot while investigating the death of a prison guard.
  • Critically awarded Spanish film, Celda 211 is largely centered around a riot in a Zamora jail.
  • In Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Irving Lambert has two splinter cells stage a riot to help Sam Fisher escape with Jamie Washington in an effort for Sam to gain Jamie's trust and lead him to Jamie's terrorist organization, the JBA.
  • In Call of Duty: Black Ops, Reznov and Mason plan a prison riot by fighting and when the guards stop them they escape.

See also


  1. Bidna, H. (1975). Effects of increased security on prison violence. Journal of Criminal Justice, 3. 33-46.
  2. Ellis, D. (1984) Crowding and prison violence: Integration of research and theory. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 11 (3). 277-308.
  3. Gaes, G. (1994). Prison crowding research reexamined. The Prison Journal, 74, (3). 329-363.
  4. Useem, B. (1985). Disorganization and the New Mexico prison riot of 1980. American Sociological Review, 50 (5). 677-688.
  5. Newbold, G. (1989). Punishment and Politics: The Maximum Security Prison in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
  6. Colvin, M. (1982). The 1980 New Mexico prison riot. Social Problems, 29 (5). 449-463.
  7. Useem, B. and Kimball, P. (1987). A theory of prison riots. Theory and Society, 16 (1). 87-122.
  8. Dinitz, S. (1991). Barbarism in the New Mexico state prison riot: The search for meaning a decade later. In Kelly, R. and MacNamara, D. (eds.). Perspectives on Deviance: Dominance, Degradation and Denigration. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing Company.
  9. Ellis, D. (1984). Crowding and prison violence: Integration of research and theory. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 11 (3). 277-308.
  10. Pratt, J. (1997). Governing the Dangerous: Dangerousness, Law and Social Change. Sydney: The Federation Press.
  11. Garland, D. (1997). Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pratt, J. (1999). Norbert Elias and the civilized prison. British Journal of Sociology, 50 (2). 271-296.
  13. Martinson, R. (1974). What works? Questions and answers about prison reform. The Public Interest, 35. 22-54.
  14. Mayor: 'Full Scale Riot' at Ind. Prison


he:מרד אסירים

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.