Prison riots as act of resistance

The media do love prison riots. When they involve anything more than a handful of prisoners, they make national headlines, with salacious and detailed discussion about their setting and nature, because everyone loves a good prison riot. It fits so well within the pop culture context of prisons and what prison life is like, and it contributes to the further demonisation and dehumanisation of prisoners — look at those animals, stories about prison riots say, who can’t even be trusted to engage in civilised behaviour. Reading about prison riots reinforces our sense of superiority and makes us feel secure about locking people up in grim conditions that in at least some cases the United Nations have identified as torture.

The narrative about prison riots that we don’t usually see is this: Riots are a form of empowerment, as one of the few ways prisoners speak out.

It’s not for nothing that people call them ‘riots,’ relying on coded language to encourage people to fill in the blanks. ‘Riot’ conjures up something very specific, something dark and dangerous, a disruption to the normal. It conjures up people who are utterly unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate — a prison filled with dangerous people who can’t even be patient enough to work with prison staffers to resolve disputes. Or it makes people think of ‘petty’ fights over food and grievances between prisoners, sending a delicious chill up their spines as they consider an elaborate imagined prison hierarchy and the dangers of stepping out of line.

Likewise, few media outlets speak out about the muzzling of prisoners. In the United States, inmates generally can’t access the internet, or can only use a censored and highly regulated version. They have limited access to reading material in prison libraries and through mail that’s opened and evaluated before materials are passed on. They can write letters out, but these, too, are examined before being forwarded. Meanwhile, other contact with people outside the prison environment is limited to scant phone calls and visitors. All contact is considered a ‘privilege’ which can be revoked for ‘bad behaviour,’ used as a tool to control prisoners and make them effectively powerless.

Imagine that you live in a world where anyone, at any time, can cover your mouth and still your hands, making it impossible to speak. Where people can throw you into a cell for 23-24 hours a day and deny any exposure or interaction to and with other human beings, leaving you utterly alone and in extreme isolation. The very ability to communicate is at the mercy of prison staff, which severely restricts the right to self-advocate and identify problems in the prison system.

Thus, rising up in a protest is sometimes the only way to achieve self-determination. Prison riots attract the attention of outsiders, something prisoners are well aware of, and in some instances, inklings of the reasons for them squeak out too, highlighting the fact that people are protesting, not mindlessly engaging in acts of sustained violence. Moreover, they’re protesting entirely reasonable and upsetting things. Most people would find themselves protesting, for example, the dismal food served in prisons, which in addition to being utterly foul is often severely lacking in nutrition. Many prisons actually deliberately practice caloric restrictions to keep prisoners more compliant. That’s enough to ‘riot’ over.

Prisoners are also protesting conditions like prolonged solitary confinement. Poor access to health care and being forced to live with agonising health problems like significant dental issues, open sores, and painful infections. Unclean conditions that lead to infections with staph and similar organisms or infestations with lice and scabies. Limited opportunities for exercise, with cramped, ill-lit, unpleasant exercise yards, if any at all. Poor opportunities for education and encountering a diversity of books and other materials to read. Nonexistent enrichment to make their quality of life bearable, rather than utterly unsustainable. Abuse by guards and other personnel. Abuse from other prisoners. The housing of trans prisoners in opposite-gender units.

The problems prisoners are attempting to get traction on are all significant and considerable. In the face of those issues, it’s not surprising that some prison organisers gather fellow inmates in protests in the hopes of pushing their complaints into the popular consciousness. Even though they know these actions will be read and reported as riots or isolated instances of bad behaviour (see the prolonged hunger strikes against solitary confinement occurring across the US), they’re willing to run the risk if they can reach members of the public with an interest in prison conditions and compassion for inmates.

Every time the media classifies protest — of any kind — as a ‘riot,’ it creates a neat and easy opportunity for dodging past and around it, rather than engaging with it and its root cause. When a community’s freedom to express is limited and members are painfully aware that the public doesn’t listen to them when they are allowed any kind of platform, it’s not surprising that they take to the streets, the halls, the cafeteria, to force the issue and demand that people listen to them.

And then it doesn’t work, that’s just evidence that they need to try, and try, and try again until they get traction. The civil rights movement didn’t win in a day, and neither will the battle for humane conditions in US prisons — and the larger discussion about the prison industrial complex and whether people belong in prison at all. But with every protest that hits the news with an accompanying sidebar on what triggered the event, there’s a chance to shape the way people think about prison conditions.

Image: Seodaemun Prison, Christian Senger, Flickr