Prison riots: Why collective unity among inmates is a CO's worst nightmare

The biggest fear of any officer has to be collective unity amongst all the inmates that are housed within their area of control

A prison riot in Alabama has now become national news. Video footage depicts a prison dorm in utter chaos.  The public may be quick to ponder, "How does this happen?"  "How can inmates gain control of a prison?"  If the public were to spend just a day behind the prison wall with the professional staff who work within, the truth would begin to surface and all the myths that they were taught by the self-proclaimed "research experts" would finally be put to rest. 

As mentioned above, the video that has made its way through social media shows an uprising in a prison dorm.  For those who can't quite visually comprehend what a prison dorm looks like, picture a wide open space filled with multiple beds (in most cases, over 100), and one officer controlling the area.  When the officer does their rounds, they enter the dorm and walk amongst the inmates.  Speaking of the inmates who reside in the dorms, their crimes can vary from non-violent to extremely violent.  These brave officers patrol these dorms everyday so order and control can be maintained.

Collective Unity
The biggest fear of any officer has to be collective unity amongst all the inmates that are housed within their area of control.  If the inmates have a reason to unite and are provided a chance to do so (like a dorm setting), the well-being of the institution is in serious jeopardy.  In some cases, inmate unity can be centered around bare necessities (toilet paper, soap, food, etc.).  If these simple needs are not met, inmates will use that as a reason to unite.  We saw this type of unity during the riots in Attica.  During Attica, the inmates were not rioting for freedom, they were rioting to maintain their standard of living.  When their needs were deprived, they united and collectively took control of the prison. 

Another reason inmates may unite can center directly on upper management.  Nowadays, upper management will make a decision that must be carried out immediately without consulting frontline staff. This drastic change can have a powerful effect on the inmate population.  The public may be quick to think, "who cares what these inmates think?"  That's easy to say when you're not the one issuing out these orders that must be followed.  If the changes come too quick and inmates are given no time to adjust, they will unite in an effort to maintain what was previously established.  A good example of this is the policy of no smoking in state facilities.  For some, this change happened overnight and the inmates had no time to adjust. Therefore, the officers who have to implement the needed change are now going against a force who is united against it.

Let's not forget about gangs.  The number of gangs and gang members in prison is growing tremendously. And in most cases, to keep the inmate population safe, COs separate rival gang members by putting them in different housing areas. This can be an issue for any officer because their unit will then become filled with members of the same gang who share the same group mentality.  In a dorm setting, this could be particularly worrisome.  An open dorm setting is ideal for recruitment and gang activity.  If an issue happens with one inmate, the officer now may have an issue with the entire dorm.  With that in mind, the gang mentality already unites the group and the dorm setting solidifies their bond.  The officer becomes the enemy and the intragroup dynamic of the gang strengthens.  This unity threatens the well-being of the officer and the entire integrity of their respected facility. 

Regaining Control   
Therefore, staff must do whatever they can to eliminate a sense of unity amongst the inmate population.  Having said that, most issues deal with a small isolated group that can usually be maintained.  When an incident occurs that jeopardizes custody's sense of control, a response team enters and control of the area is soon taken back (which is not easy by all means, but these professionals get the job done). This becomes rather routine in the daily lives of these brave men and women who sacrifice their personal well-being so order can be maintained.  But when the inmates unite on a common cause and they are placed in an area that presents no barriers or limitations, riots will occur. 

In closing, before the public puts the blame on frontline staff, they must try to get an understanding of the complex working environment of a correctional facility.  The video mentioned above shows a dorm in utter chaos and inmates united.  Also mentioned above were certain factors that lead to unity and the environment (dorm) in which that unity can solidify.  These brave officers, who walk the beat, know that at any time the safety of their unit can be sacrificed the moment inmates unite for a common cause.  Therefore, they maintain their professionalism and deal with each inmate accordingly and in relation to the rules and policies that govern their facility.  If rules change suddenly in an area that is heavily populated and open, the officer's ability to maintain control is severely limited.  On another note, if inmates continue to be housed in a manner that prioritizes the safety of other inmates as opposed to the safety of staff, there will be groups of like-minded individuals (members of the same gang) uniting in their effort to gain control and live life according to their rules.

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