Violent Institutions: The Hidden Brutality Within American Prisons

Date01 May 2022
Published date01 May 2022
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2022, Vol. 38(2) 225 –227
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862221096731
Violent Institutions: The
Hidden Brutality Within
American Prisons
Christian L. Bolden
Violence and American prisons are intertwined, yet it does not have to be this way.
There are prisons in the world where violence is not endemic. So, what is it about
American prisons that perpetuates the expectation and manifestation of violence? Part
of the answer may be that American prisons, in and of themselves, are violent. If we
use the perspective of Johan Galtung (1969), we can see that violence is more than just
direct physical harm; it is also the composite of cultural fear and structural unfairness.
“Violence is here defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the
actual, between what could have been and what is” (Galtung, 1969: 168). If harm is
present, though it was avoidable, violence is present. The violence of prisons may
refer to things such as structural and cultural chaos, entrapment, food insecurity, dehu-
manization. These harms extend beyond prison walls with unending alienation for
those that return to society. These things are choices. They are avoidable. They are
Violence is structural and cultural chaos. People have always attempted to create
some form of order in the face of normlessness. When institutions such as prisons fail
to provide for the basic needs of a population, alternate deviant subcultures, such as
gangs, will organize to impose order and meet those needs. Consider Texas’ unprece-
dented venture into mass incarceration. The state went from less than thirty prisons in
the 1980s to 110 prisons in the 1990s, yet operated them with persistently inadequate
corrections staff. Prisoners were constantly transferred from prison to prison, creating
chaotic instability. Each time they arrived at these new open-space warehouse style
penitentiaries, without even having the walls of a cell to protect them in their sleep,
they had to make immediate decisions to provide for their own safety. It is little won-
der that this ill-conceived attempt at a carceral empire resulted in Texas becoming one
of the top two generators of prison gangs and gang members in the US. Warfare was
all but a foregone conclusion. The prison authority’s use of “legitimized” violence to
respond to prisoners in conflict only emphasized its ineptitude at dealing with the
structural chaos of its own creation. For instance, one response to conflicts between
gangs was ethnic lockdowns, putting all members of a demographic into extended
1096731CCJXXX10.1177/10439862221096731Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeBolden

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