“Invisible Deaths”: A Critical Analysis of the Study of Prison Homicide

Published date01 August 2024
AuthorKaren Holt
Date01 August 2024
Subject MatterSpecial Issue Articles
Homicide Studies
2024, Vol. 28(3) 400 –417
© 2024 SAGE Publications
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10887679241238181
Special Issue Article
“Invisible Deaths”: A Critical
Analysis of the Study of Prison
Karen Holt1
Prison homicide, or homicides that occur between individuals who are incarcerated,
has received a dearth of attention in scholarly literature. These homicides have
increased over the past several decades with devastating consequences for those
housed within prison walls, correctional and administrative staff, the families of those
incarcerated, and the communities from which they are removed. Perpetrators of
prison homicides often continue to engage in violence despite incapacitation, calling
into question the ability of the state to house individuals safely. When fatal violence
occurs, victims of these homicides are constructed as deserving of violence. Drawing
from critical criminological perspectives of state-sanctioned violence, I argue that
treatment of these victims affects the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and
public safety.
prison homicides, critical perspectives, victimology
“The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,
And the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured,
And still more often the condemned is the burden bearer for the guiltless and unblamed.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked;
1Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA
Corresponding Author:
Karen Holt, Michigan State University, 655 Auditorium Road, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.
Email: holtkar1@msu.edu
1238181HSXXXX10.1177/10887679241238181Homicide StudiesHolt
Holt 401
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white
are woven together.
And when the black thread breaks the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall
examine the loom also.”
- Kahlil Gibran
On Crime and Punishment
The Study of Homicide
In 2019, Illinois federal prison Thomson Penitentiary opened a Special Management
Unit tasked with housing individuals who were identified as engaging in disruptive or
violent behavior. By 2023, the facility was closed after a report identified it as one of
the deadliest prisons in the United States. The violence was exposed through an inves-
tigation conducted by NPR and the Marshall Project. The investigation details one
case, that of Bobby Everson, who was nearing the end of his sentence but, as evi-
denced through communications to family and loved ones, was terrified that he would
not make it out of Thomson alive (Thompson, 2022). By November, he was found
dead in his cell from blunt force trauma to the head. Subsequent investigations revealed
shocking conditions, with at least five suspected homicides of incarcerated individuals
in the facility (Thompson & Shapiro, 2022). Several years later, in 2022, the federal
prison system in the United States was put on lockdown after violence erupted between
gang members at a federal penitentiary in Texas, leaving two incarcerated persons
dead and several others wounded (Balsamo & Sisak, 2022). Referring to an investiga-
tion into Lewisburg Prison in the United States, one defense attorney commented that
it was “not only a violence factory, it was a homicide factory,” where some perpetra-
tors were released into the community after they had committed homicides while
incarcerated (Thomasville, 2022).
The stories are countless, and the violence is enduring. Prisons are secure spaces,
functioning as total institutions centered on surveillance and control. Yet they are also
increasingly dangerous places where some of the most vulnerable are subject to vio-
lent victimization. For some, the punishments imposed by the criminal justice system
are rendered meaningless as lethal violence within the prison walls results in death
The criminological research on homicide is extensive. Strong empirical knowledge
exists regarding the nature of fatal interpersonal violence, the individuals who perpe-
trate these acts, and the primary, secondary, and tertiary victims. Books, journals, con-
ferences, investigative units, and working groups are dedicated to the study of and
approaches to homicide. Scholarly and practitioner-generated research has explored
nearly every type and classification of this criminal behavior, including but not limited
to, intimate partner homicide, femicide, mass homicide, familial homicide, gang
homicide, confrontational homicide, serial homicide, and sexual homicide. Serial and
sexual homicide, statistical anomalies among homicide offenses, are overwhelmingly
the focus of much scholarly inquiry and practitioner interest and continue to garner
attention from criminologists and investigators. Advances in DNA technology have

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