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Staff Shortages Cited as Key Factor Leading to Prison Riots

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Prison riots are one of the most hazardous situations that corrections officers can face. They often result in violent clashes with inmates that can lead to a loss of life in addition to substantial damage to the institution.

[Related: Why Private Prisons Are Damaging to the Correctional System]

The officers are either on scene due to their daily job responsibilities or they are part of the emergency response team that is called in to help quell these types of emergencies.

The risk of a disturbance leading to a riot may also be mitigated when prison officials recognize the threatening situation in advance and take steps to address it. To that end, it is important for prison staff and administrators to recognize the indicators that a prison riot may be imminent and train to prevent any violence.

One of the Most Common Causes of Prison Riots Is Inmate Discontent

Based on examining prison riots in the United States and internationally, corrections officials find some common trends that can lead to safety problems. One of the most common causes of prison riots is inmate discontent. Prisoners feel that their concerns or complaints about their conditions are ignored.

[Related: Belize Central: A Model for Central American Prisons]

This can result in inmates developing a common aggressive attitude toward the facility. That stance is compounded by institutional shortcomings such as frequently failing to address inmates’ improper behaviors or failure to address the violent tendencies of certain inmates.

Additional factors that can lead to instability and eventually prison riots include:

  • Institutions that do not exercise significant internal control of contraband and drugs
  • Failure to uphold prison rules or ambiguous rules regarding inmate behavior
  • Prison overcrowding
  • Institutional failure to monitor, address, and control gang activity
  • A lack of adequate food quality and basic medical needs
  • A lack of vocational, recreational, stress management, and rehabilitation programs
  • Poor communication between prison management and inmates
  • The inability of inmates to air grievances to management

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which has an annual budget of over $7 billion and employs over 35,000 people, is experiencing a severe prison staff shortage. As a result, prison guards must work overtime almost daily. They are often required to work mandatory double shifts.

Staff Shortages Highlighted by Jeffrey Epstein’s Alleged Suicide while in His Prison Cell

The staff shortages were highlighted last year when convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein allegedly committed suicide while in his prison cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. Two guards were charged with falsifying prison records about making their regular inmate rounds.

[Related: Epstein Suicide Suggests a Breach in Prison Protocol]

Staff shortages are also one of the most common factors leading to prison riots in the United Kingdom. “The number of frontline prison officers has fallen by around 30 percent since 2010, mainly due to budget cuts by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ),” the UK Metro reported. “This has led to HM Inspectorate of Prisons warning that some jails are dangerously understaffed.”

Inmates Released from Their Cells Usually Protest against Poor Prison Conditions

Recent prison riots in Britain seem to occur most often when the prison’s daily routine is interrupted and does not return to normal for days or even weeks.

When this occurs and inmates are released from their cells, they usually protest against poor prison conditions. That often incites other inmates to become angry and join in. Prison guards— known as warders in Britain—are trained to evacuate the prison wing to avoid being taken hostage by protesting inmates which may exacerbate the situation.

In December 2016, rioting inmates at Her Majesty Prison (HMP) Birmingham gained access to staff keys and opened other inmates’ cell doors. That led to larger rioting and inmates gaining access to prison offices and stores. Prison offices and wings were burned and damaged.

Also in 2016, the Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville, South Carolina, was the site of the nation’s deadliest prison riot in over 25 years. Seven inmates died and nearly two dozen others were injured during the seven hours that passed without law enforcement intervention.

Prison riots are one of the most dangerous situations for prison staff and inmates. Federal and state authorities must take steps to mitigate the factors that lead to a prison riots, including establishing policies and procedures that respond to these life-threatening situations.

prison riotsAbout the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has over two decades of homeland security experience. Dr. Sadulski is a faculty member with American Military University and frequently engages in public speaking events. He presented at the International Human Trafficking & Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo on the topic of human trafficking in September 2019 and shared some of his research on human trafficking in Central America. Dr. Sadulski also presented at the Southern Criminal Justice Association’s Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in September 2019, and will be traveling to Central and South America to further his research in the coming months. In addition to domestic speaking engagements, he has spoken in Europe and Central America on topics associated with human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, and police responses to domestic terrorism. He has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2011. To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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