A riot broke out on February 20 at Willacy Correctional Facility, a Texas prison for “illegal immigrants.” 2,000 inmates demonstrated against their subjection to neglect and overwork. The situation quickly escalated as inmates armed themselves with blunt instruments, swarming the yard and dismantling and setting fire to the structures they’d been shackled to for too long. As the situation grew from prison riot to an inmate takeover of the facilities, guards sought to quell its progress with tear gas, but the wind favored the rioters. As tensions mounted, the inmates faced inevitable defeat, ceding control back to the facility’s managers.
Prison riots are frequent phenomena. Fortunately, this particular riot resulted in no deaths. The costs were ultimately imposed only on the facility’s owners. In fact, this uprising literally shut down the prison. As of February 24, 921 inmates had been transferred to other facilities pursuant to completely vacating the prison.
Many liberal reformists object to rioting as a legitimate tactic of effecting positive change. They cite, as all anti-revolutionaries do, crackdowns on prison life and the possible negative response of outsiders. However, prison riots have historically proven a very useful tool in achieving the demands of malcontent prisoners or at least giving voice to the voiceless. In 1986, a riot broke out at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in response to overcrowding. Guards were taken hostage. Inmates’ lives were lost. But it ended with dialog between the governor and inmates and agreement to the prisoners’ demands.
In Manchester, England the Strangeway Prison saw an extended riot and occupation by inmates which began at a meeting in the facility’s chapel. Guards turned out in force, anticipating prisoner action that day. The chapel services degenerated into inmates letting their captors know precisely what they thought of them. Tensions built and the inmates eventually subdued the guards and took their keys. The actions of the inmates convinced other guards to high-tail it out, securing the prisoners’ first victory and beginning a 25-day stand off.
Prisoners, some having previously only been allowed an hour out of their cells per day, were freed. Riots broke out at other institutions in solidarity with the Strangeway inmates. By the end, £55 million in damage was done and public sympathy for the inmates’ horrendous conditions improved, resulting in national reforms. There are many more cases within prisons and in other oppressive conditions where violence is the best tool for reform.
The people in these prisons do not belong there. In the case of the prisoners at Willacy, they are people who simply don’t have the right government papers, forced to live in makeshift tent cities. Claims that the prisoners caused the riot are backward. The prison officials caused the riot. The state caused the riot. The guards caused the riot. The riot was the inevitable result of locking away and neglecting people who wanted nothing more than to improve their material conditions. It would be a bleak, passionless world where prisons were not burnt to the ground by the people trapped within them.
And no, the horrendous human rights abuses that occur in these facilities are not the results of privatization, as many reformers claim. They are the result of the totalitarian environment that all prisons create. The disposition of a person locked inside a cell, craving human contact, yearning to have his or her own life back does not turn sunnier because the prison is owned by a state rather than by private officials. Perhaps these state contractors will be convinced that their business model is faulty when their facilities begin going up in flames. Empirically, there is little variation in the quality of prison life whether the facility is managed by governments or contracted out. All prisons should be scrapped, scorched, and relegated to the past along with the lash and the hangman. There is no substitute for abolition and there is no prison undeserving of a riot.
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