Friday, 10 February 2017

Why do prisoners riot?

Before I go into the main text of this article, I will give you a brief rundown of my background in prisons. In 1955, I was a volunteer program director one day a week at the Vancouver Detention Centre for young offenders. In 1956, I was a full-time program director at the Boden Institute in Alberta where young offenders were kept. In 1962, I gave shelter to a friend being looked for by the police and subsequently, I was sentenced to 15 months in prison and served my time in a jail and three correctional reformatories in Ontario. When I later became a criminologist, I visited prisons in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, Florida, Minnesota and California. I also visited prisons in Spain, Venezuela and Thailand.  I studied two subjects of five at the University of Toronto as part of a five-year Criminology Program—penology for a year and for another year, I studied abnormal psychology. In 1976, I conducted group therapy in a correctional institution and in this century, I conducted both individual and group therapy in the same institution.

It seems to be a general assumption that a prison riot springs into existence either directly, from just grievances, or indirectly, from the tensions peculiar to prison life which make trifling grievances seem large and insupportable.

It is a natural phenomenon that people will risk their wellbeing in search of a better future if they feel that the present condition they are in has become intolerable. This is a reasonable assumption to accept.

Disorder in a prison is either clearly a minority action—or alternatively, a collection of individual actions that only superficially resembles an organized riot. Subsequently, total irresponsibility, indifference to consequences, wanton destructiveness are a primary ingredient in most collective inmate riots and they generally spring suddenly from the prisoners who have previously discussed with others about some complaint and are seeking some form of redress.

A prison revolt is generally slow-building—an inevitable sort growing out of general resentment and indignation. To many prisoners. it is easy for them  to assume that a riot will solve their problems and that redress can come no other way.  

An uprising cannot mature without whole-hearted main-line support. But many times a full-scale riot has taken place when hardly a man participating is genuinely convinced that violence--or rebellion of any sort is either right or necessary. They are caught up in it once it begins whether or not they really believe that it will serve a useful purpose.

Except under truly intolerable prison conditions, sensible prisoners oppose rioting, for they know that sooner or later that rioting is almost sure to leave them far worse off than before.    

Rioting inevitably brings restricted privileges, tightened discipline, an uprooting of the routines that make for doing easy time.  That is when the rioters finally realize after their riot that their losses exceed whatever gains they had hoped to acquire. 

The closer you look into the matter of prison insurrections, the more stupid explanations you will get from the inmates that prompted the riots.

Prison riots are often of the slow-building kind growing out of general resentment and just indignation but riots can also be quite sudden.

It has been conclusively demonstrated that nothing can so quickly arouse leaders of wildcat riot to full belligerency if a wrongdoing is committed by a guard. Many years ago, the prisoners in the federal men’s Kingston Penitentiary in the Province of Ontario suddenly rioted because a very stupid guard yelled through the bullhorn, “All right ladies. Pull up your skirts and fall in line!”

There can be exceptions however.   In one particular prison, the riot was engineered to obtain the release of inmate committee members who had wound up in the hole after pushing through many reasonable and badly needed reforms. The riot lasted two days and was successful. Besides releasing the men from the hole, the prison administration agreed to the election of a permanent inmate council and other reforms.

It is easy to say that such irrational behavior is an expression of accumulated, perfectly normal resentment of captivity. But sensible people don't lodge a protest by pulling their homes down about their ears. Yet upward of a half dozen times a year, this phenomenon of self-destruction by prisoner of their cells is repeated in the US  prisons.

Truly the rarest thing in prison is the convict who chooses to stand against group opinion. Even nonparticipants and nonbelievers in rioting decline to rise up and protest the rioting that disturbs their peace, or the disorders that threaten their well-being or even their lives. They prefer to obey the prison world's First Prison Commandment and that is; ''do their own time." In this light it isn't at all surprising that an entire inmate body should give at least passive support to a riot leader who demands that pepper be placed on the dining-room tables or that his brother be released from legitimate punishment in the hole. There is really nothing else for ca riot leader to do that will solve his problem by rioting.

Convicts, however many exceptions there may be, are generally not mature, fully developed people; and it is about time for high-minded idealists to stop assuming that they will respond to corrective techniques in the same way that normal adults would. Nothing could be farther from the truth than the notion that prisoners are a representative cross section of the human population, who, through mischance or uncharacteristic impulse, happen to land in jail.

They are for the most part truncated personalities--a separate breed whose natural habitat is prison and who seek an outlet for all of their limited facilities in prison surroundings. From a therapeutic view, the important thing is to find and to concentrate all corrective efforts on the relatively small percentage who are complete human beings capable of assuming the responsibilities of free citizens.

It is perfectly clear that the greatest threat to prison order always lies with the small group of violently unstable men who in many instances, are usually at least mildly paranoid, which every prison holds. It is equally clear that convicts who are unreasonably minded respond to specific kinds of treatment in a quite predictable way. They will respect strict discipline and not much else. They will interpret kindliness or a softening of discipline as a sign of weakness to be exploited. Obviously, then, the first requirement of prison management is to curb this element--vigorously, using whatever means are necessary.

However, in a general, all-purpose prison, this isn't as easy as it sounds. The disciplinary standard of any prison has to be geared to the requirements imposed by the most troublesome element in the total group-since one man's discipline, after all, is another man's repression. It is obviously neither just nor wise, from a morale or security view, to impose on tractable prisoners who accept and follow the rules, the relatively severe disciplinary measures necessary to whittle the troublemakers down to size.

As soon as the troublemakers are identified, they should be shipped off, bag and baggage along with their delusions and pretensions, to a separate, maximum-discipline institution.

Maximum-discipline prisons have always existed, but they are regarded as a special preserve for escape risks and bad men who for security reasons need closer watching. It is a perfectly safe bet that there are several prison wardens in the nation today who recognize (perhaps belatedly) that it is less disastrous that an occasional convict should escape although some maximum prisons are pretty hard to escape from.

Why is it that no dissenting voices are raised before the pot boils over?  The main reason is that when the riot takes place, those that expressed rejection of a riot may find themselves in deep trouble when the troublemakers that prompted the riot get their hands on the naysayers.

When I was serving my time at the Guelph Reformatory in Ontario, I was brought before Charles Sanderson, the superintendent of the reformatory and he told me that he was hearing rumors about a planned riot. He was aware that I was fairly popular with the men at the reformatory since I was referred to by many inmates as “The Professor” since I helped a number of inmates who asked me to write their letters and appeals for them.

The superintendent asked me what the inmates wanted.  Since I had no idea who the leaders of the proposed riot were, I simply proposed what I suspected what was on all the minds of the prisoners. “Mattresses for our beds.” His reply? “NO!”  “Wine at supper.”  His reply?  “STOP FOOLING AROUND BATCHELOR!” Obviously, I expected that response. I just wanted to see how far I could go to push this opportunity to benefit my fellow inmates. . “How about hot chocolate once a week?”  His reply? “OK.”  “The projector always breaks down during the Saturday night showing. Can we have a new one?” His reply? “OK.” As I opened my mouth to make another proposal, he interrupted me and said, “I am authorizing you to wander around this reformatory to talk to the leaders of the proposed riot and tell them what I have promised and what will happen to the rioters if there is a riot.”

I was probably the only prisoner in history that had so many grills opened in a correctional institution by merely walking towards the grills without any guard asking me why I wanted to enter the next area. When I went into the playing field and began talking to inmates, I noticed guards on the roof of the building watching me talking to inmates. Perhaps they thought that they were watching me talking to the ring leaders of the pending riot. If I was, I didn’t know it. I even talked to men who had just arrived at the reformatory the day before. What I did tell the men I spoke to was that I overheard the Superintendent tell his second in command that we would have hot chocolate once a week and a new projector was going to be ordered. It was my hope that that information would cool things off.

It didn’t. Two days later, (a Monday) I was directed to one of the two large dining rooms for lunch. Minutes later, the 400 of us in that dining room heard yelling and screaming and dishes being thrown around in the other dining room. Then we heard the popping noise of tear gas canisters being fired into that dining room, Minutes later, the gas to a lesser degree drifted into our dining room. Then a minute later, the superintendent walked into our dining room with a handgun in his right hand pointed upwards in case some fool leaped towards him. In every crowd, there is a fool, and as God made little apples, some young fool stood up and yelled. “LET’S DO IT!”  Within seconds, three guards leaped on him and dragged him out of the dining room.

The rest of us were marched out of the dining room and finally we ended up in the bullpen (a very large enclosed secured area) where the 400 of us inmates were to remain for two days.

The head of security who was a former friend of mine, called out my name. After I reached the grill, he asked, “Batchelor. Is everyone here cool? I replied. “Were OK.” Then I asked him to bring me a small writing pad and a pencil as I wanted to draw cartoons about the reformatory and pass them around to the men to cheer them up. He agreed. Within three hours, i had drawn ten cartoons and passed them around. One of them showed five inmates in hospital garb standing around a bed in which the patient is a female staff member. The doctor is speaking to a guard. At the bottom of the cartoon I wrote the words, IT IS A GOOD THING THAT THE INMATES DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO THIS ROOM It brought lots of chuckles from the inmates. A couple of days later, I showed forty of the cartoons to a guard and he asked me if could have them for a day as he wished to show them to his wife. The next day he returned them to me after telling me that the Superintendent enjoyed them also.

While we were still in the bull pen, the head of security asked me if it was safe for him to come into the bullpen. I told him that it was. He then wandered about talking to the men and said that blankets and sandwiches would be brought to us—which they were.

There were several hotheads wanting to attack the guards when they re-entered the bullpen but I convinced them that we would all be severely punished if that happened. They promised to do nothing towards the guards and kept their words.

The next morning, sandwiches were brought again to the bullpen and after we had eaten them, we were told to strip naked and be prepared to return to our own cells.

One of the guards was a man who the prisoners referred to as “Dum Dum.”  He was a snotty SOB who always barked at prisoners if he saw them do the smallest infraction. He was barking at the prisoners in the bullpen so I approached the head of security and said quietly. “For God’s sake, Sir. Get that dammed fool out of here before all Hell breaks loose.  In seconds, Dum Dum was gone. When we arrived at our cells in which the grills were open, our replacement clothing and boots were on our beds.

The men in the other dining room were treated quite differently.  On the way to the enclosed yard, they had to run a gauntlet with guards swinging small clubs at them. Once in the yard, they had to sit next to each other. They weren’t given any food and that night it rained all night and still they had to sit there unless they had to go to the urinal in the yard. Unfortunately, not all the inmates in that yard had anything to do with the riot. They were simply trapped in the melee. Several ring leaders were taken to the basement and secured to hot radiators for several days before they were transferred to the Millbrook Reformatory which was considered a very tough reformatory.

During the time of the riot both before and after, I was taking a plumbing course at the reformatory. Out teacher was a certified plumber. A week later when a new shipment of inmates arrived, I was told that I was going to be given a new job. As I waited in the line for the interview by the second and third official in the reformatory, I kept being moved to the back of the line. Finally there was no-one behind me so I was taken into the small office.
It was then that I really got a shock. I was to be given my own office on the fifth floor of the administration building. At first, I believed it was because I was so helpful in making sure that the inmates in the large bull pen didn`t attack the guards that came into the bull pen the second day we were there.

I was only asked to do one thing while in the administration building. That was to cut out letters of the alphabet and place them above the back board of the small classroom in the reformatory. After that, I wasn`t asked to do any anything.  I finally found something to do. A nurse arranged for me to get Christmas cards brought to me so that I could make enlargements of them that could be placed on a wall in the administration building.

But a couple of weeks later, I then realized why I was given that office to be in during the days. As soon as I got up for breakfast, I wasn`t permitted to eat my breakfast in a dining room. I was to eat it on the floor in the small bull pen on the main floor of the administration building Then when I was finished, I was to take the stairs to the fifth floor and go into my office. The same applied for lunch and dinner except that after dinner, I was to remain in the small bull pen until I was taken to my cell at nine at night.

I learned from a guard that the reason why I was undergoing this treatment was to keep me from being in contact with the other inmates. The guard told me that the superintendent didn`t want me having any communications whatsoever with any inmates. He said that the Superintendent was afraid I might talk them into having another riot. That fear on the part of the Superintendent was ridiculous.

One day, I sassed a smart-ass guard and was thrown into the hole. The senior official on duty tried to get the guard to withdraw his complaint. The guard (whom the inmates called, `Half Nose` refused. Days later I was sent back to the administration building and placed in a cell in an area where troublemakers are kept. I was there for at least three months.  I was only given a blanket at night which I had to fold several times and place it on the springs of the bed as no cells in the reformatory had mattresses except in an area where mentally disturbed inmates were kept and the hospital ward. I had to eat my meals sitting on the floor. I wasn`t to be given anything to read however a guard felt sorry for me and he would give me a book to read until his shift was finished. Alas, I had to listen to music blaring though the speaker in the area where the cells were located. I could however communicate with fellow detainees nearby.

A week before Christmas, I was awoken at five in the morning and brought into the Captain`s office. The superintendent was standing behind the desk and then he said to me.  “You don’t fit in this institution so I am sending you to the Brook.”  (Milbrook Reformatory)

I had mixed feelings about going to the Brook. I didn’t want to get beaten by the guards, however the Superintendent of the Brook had years earlier been the superintendent of a young offenders facility in Bowmanville which is east of Toronto and he had offered me a job there which I decided not to accept. 

I won’t go any further in my experiences in the Brook and later at a minimum correctional facility where I was later released back into society. Greater details of my life as a prisoner will be in Volume IV of my Memoirs.

I am happy to add that Charles Sanderson (also known as Goodtime Charlie since he removed all earned remission of sentence for the slightest infraction) was eventually fired.

Future articles will deal with really serious prison riots around the world. 

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