A brief history of prison riots
By Randy James
Using shards of shattered glass and metal scraps as weapons, inmates at an overcrowded California prison went on an 11-hour rampage on Aug. 8, leaving some 250 people injured and a prison dormitory burned to the ground. Officials believe the riot at the California Institution for Men — the state's worst since 2006 — was fueled by racial tensions among black and Hispanic inmates. The violence came as California's prison system is adapting to a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that makes it more difficult for facilities to automatically segregate new prisoners by race, as the state had done for more than 25 years to defuse potential violence. A spokesman for the prison system said integrated prison blocks may have contributed to inflamed racial tensions prior to the riot.
Prisons are violent places by nature. America's first recorded prison riot took place even before the Declaration of Independence, in Connecticut's Newgate prison in 1774, and uprisings continue to this day. One report estimates that U.S. correctional institutions saw more than 1,300 riots in the 20th century. Prison insurgencies can be tied to a wide range of causes, including racial tension, gang rivalries, individual feuds and general grievances against guards and prison administrators.
The nation's deadliest uprising took place over four days at upstate New York's Attica Correctional Facility in 1971. More than 1,000 prisoners rebelled, holding dozens of guards hostage and issuing a series of demands to improve living conditions (prisoners were reportedly allowed only one shower per week and one toilet-paper roll per month). After negotiations broke down, authorities forcibly retook the facility, using tear gas and live ammunition. The violence killed 32 inmates and 11 guards. (Decades later, New York State awarded millions in damages to surviving inmates who said they were mistreated following the insurrection as well as to the families of slain employees.) Other infamous prison disturbances include a particularly gruesome 1980 uprising in New Mexico that claimed 33 inmate lives (some of the prisoners were mutilated with blowtorches) and an 11-day siege in 1993 at a maximum-security prison in Lucasville, Ohio, in which a guard was killed.
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