Monitoring hostility: avoiding prison disturbances through environmental scanning.

Author:Labecki, Lee Ann S.
Position:Stemming the Violence

There is little doubt that with the current levels of prison crowding, the task of effectively managing our prisons has become more difficult. These difficulties are exacerbated in times of fiscal shortfalls as correctional agencies are being asked to manage more and more offenders with less staff and fewer resources. To meet these challenges, we must manage our institutions effectively or we will be overwhelmed by the changes that are occurring in and around our systems. One of the most critical tasks in meeting this challenge is to ensure that incidents of assault and violence are limited, if not eliminated. The question is, as administrators, how can we effectively meet this challenge?

One strategy to improve institutional management of violence is to establish comprehensive environmental scanning systems, which empower administrators to better monitor institutional climate on a regular basis and anticipate institutional "hot spots." Before discussing these scanning systems, however, it is important to frame this discussion within a brief consideration of the current state of affairs in corrections and existing literature on prison violence.

Criminal Justice Policy and Impact

The current criminal justice policy, which favors incarceration as the primary means of criminal sanctioning, has resulted in unrivaled growth in the offender population and prison crowding throughout the United States. Interestingly, the recent explosion in the incarcerated population has not occurred in isolation. As noted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the incarceration growth has paralleled similar growth during the 1980s in the use of all forms of criminal justice sanctions (including incarceration in state and county prisons and jails and community-based sanctions). Furthermore, the growth in use of these sanctions clearly exceeded that which was projected based on traditional offender population indices such as crime-prone age groups, index crime and arrest rates.

Criminal justice sanctions placed one in every 50 adults and one in every 24 adult males under some form of correctional supervision in 1990--twice the 1980 rate. As a natural extension of the "lock-them-up" mentality that has swept the United States in recent years, the use of existing federal, state and county criminal justice programs has outstripped the systems' capacities. The most visible example of over-reliance has emerged in correctional facilities, which have been required to house more and more offenders in a limited number of cells. Unfortunately, given the recent emergence of additional get-tough legislation of the "three-strikes and you're out" variety and despite unprecedented capacity expansion efforts, crowded prisons likely will be the norm rather than the exception in the foreseeable future.

Crowding and Institutional Violence

What, if any, impact has this significant reliance on incarceration and the resulting crowding had on the incidents of prison disturbances and violence? Certainly, the media have frequently cited crowding as a cause of prison disturbances. In considering the merits of this position, we need to remind ourselves that riots and disturbances are not a new phenomenon: The first prison riot in the United States was recorded in 1774, and some 300 riots have taken place since then. However, it appears that the frequency of these events has increased significantly in the past 40 years (90 percent of all reported prison riots have occurred since 1952) as has the violence and cost of these incidents (as evidenced by the New Mexico riot in 1980 and Pennsylvania's Camp Hill riot in 1989). Therefore, since inmate populations are continuing to grow at an unprecedented rate and the construction of new prison space is not keeping pace with population growth, correctional administrators have an obligation to try to better...

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