Deadliest U.S. Prison Riot in 25 Years

the bloody violence that broke out Sunday night at a maximum security prison in South Carolina, leaving seven prisoners dead, 17 others seriously injured, the deadliest prison riot in the United States in a quarter of a century. A coroner said all the prisoners were stabbed, slashed or beaten. Six of the seven were African-American. No guards were hurt. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling held a news conference Monday to describe how authorities responded after a, “inmate-on-inmate altercation”—”inmate-on-inmate altercation”—started in a general population dorm around 7:15 p.m. at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina.

Heather Ann Thompson talking:

horrific violence, as is becoming routine in our nation, in no small part because we just continue to fail with the understanding that when we lock people in cages and we deny them basic human rights—and in the case of South Carolina, keep them on lockdown for months and years—people become desperate and furious, and eventually human beings explode. And this has happened again and again. But the response is always: We need to make the facility more secure, not more humane.

in South Carolina, the murder of inmates has gone up, has quadrupled in two years. And again, this stems from this endemic problem of human rights groups, judges, all the way back to 2012, telling the Department of Corrections that they need to remedy the situation in the prison, things such as letting people out of the cells more, more vocational training, more educational opportunities, and, frankly, less—fewer people inside of the institution. The response instead has been more lockdowns, fewer people outside of their cells, you know, strange things like putting metal bars—I’m sorry, metal plates over windows, that restricts airflow, cutting down on yard time so that people are actually in their cells even longer than they would normally be, problems with food distribution.

The department is talking about cellphones. The fact is that cellphones are the only reason we know anything about what’s going on in these institutions. This is not just true in South Carolina, it’s true across the country. These are public institutions, but they’re super-closed. We don’t know what’s happening in them. So, if we take away cellphones, we have a real problem.

The real issue is, in fact, that we do have deep hostilities in prison. We do have a situation where we put rival gangs in the same unit. Often, in the California system, for example, we’ve seen that as absolute sport, to see what will happen, on the part of corrections officials.

But at the end of the day, again, we have a situation where we know how to make prisons safer. One of the worst-ever prison uprisings that turned violent, killed 33 prisoners, was in New Mexico in 1980. And that was in no small part because Pell program had been shut down.

All of the educational programs had been stopped, and much more time in the cells, much more frustration. And so, again, it’s this willful lack of recognizing what creates violence in a prison.

Nikki Haley, for example, you know, as governor, had proposed— $18 million to go to making these institutions more secure. And meanwhile, of course, we know that what we need is not so much of an emphasis on security, even though it seems that way with these murders. What we need is less prison cell time and more family time.

even the cellphones, actually, are the way in which people on the inside are tethered still to their families, because we’ve privatized the phone industry in prisons so that it’s too expensive for them to call home. So, this is really an extraordinary moment where we are, again, missing what folks know to be the problem and what might the—what the solution should be.

we know that it’s not just that it’s staggeringly racially disproportionate, it’s also the poorest people in the state—a state, incidentally, that has 30 percent of its children living under the poverty line, almost 19 percent of adults. So, this is a deeper problem.

Attica’s lessons are that if you do not treat people as human beings inside of institutions, they will eventually erupt. And in the case of Attica, it was quite different, in that the prisoners had a quite remarkably peaceful and democratic uprising, and the bulk of the violence in that instance was when the prison was retaken by law enforcement, law enforcement killing 39, both prisoners and guards.

it was all guards then who did the killing. State troopers. and a few corrections officers. And there were also deaths inside of the prison, just as in this case, at the hands of fellow prisoners. But the overwhelming uprising was peaceful. And we missed the opportunity to take the lesson from Attica. We missed the opportunity to understand what it takes to make institutions safer and what it takes to treat people humanely.

the report that was issued by the National Academies made very clear that we are going in the wrong direction, that longer sentences do not make us safer, that prisons do not make us safer, and that we took a very, very bad policy turn 40 years ago, and that this is something that we can correct, that we can reverse what we’ve done. But it’s going to take political will. And notably, we were on the verge of doing some of that prior to the last election. And I think we’ve lost tremendous ground. It is remarkable that, again, this is one of these state problems, local problems, city problems, where we know the solution, and yet politicians repeatedly go back to the punitive playbook.

this is the other part about the Lee Correctional facility uprising that we need to think about: Why is it that we don’t know anything that’s going on in these institutions until they erupt?

in the case of Attica, there were experimentation—there was experimentation relating to the treatment of leprosy, countless, countless other experiments. And it’s very common. I mean, prior to the 1980s, there was a lot of experimentation in prisons. Just one of the many things that goes on behind bars of which the public is unaware, and yet we continue to throw money at the problem.

Heather Ann Thompson
historian, author and activist with a long history of examining violence in prisons. Around this time last year, her most recent book won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s titled Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. She is a professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

— source


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