The following article gives us a good starting point for discussing
the increase in prison violence in AZ. It's authored by the director of
the Prison Law Office in
California, which is one of the entities suing the AZ DOC right now for
gross medical neglect and the abuse of the mentally ill in solitary
confinement (see Parsons v Ryan)
I've been getting a lot of mail lately from prisoners fleeing gang
violence at the AZ Department of Corrections - the gangs appear to
control the mileu on virtually all medium and close custody yards these
days, and it's unclear just what the DOC is doing about it, short of punishing those who are speaking out against it. The
detention units are full of
prisoners seeking protective custody for fear of being hurt or killed,
rather than being full of those who are assaulting and extorting them.
Maximum security cells are also filling with low-risk prisoners who are
being repeatedly ticketed for "refusal to house" - which means they are
too afraid to enter general population yard. That jacks up their
security score and custody/classification.
Chad, here, a non-violent burglar who is now treated as a maximum security risk, is just one example of who we're building that new Supermax
for - NOT the "worst of the worst", as the DOC would have everyone
believe. It's being built because Charles Ryan's crew ceded total
control to the gangs, and prisoners are intentionally getting ticketed
to get maxed out - losing all their good time in the process - just to
find a safe place in the system to finish their sentences. That or
they're assaulting other prisoners who get too close to them simply
because they are so afraid that they will be hurt first. Then there are
those who kill themselves to avoid what they fear is a worse fate.
The AZ DOC wants us to believe that the prisons are just getting more
violent people committed these days - but their own data shows only a
fractional increase in prisoners committed for violent offenses over the
past few years, which may well be because there's an increase in repeat
offenders coming through as well. That's just another sign, in addition
to the violence, that the DOC has been failing at its rehabilitative
mission as well as it's duty to protect the public - all that's
happening now is that vulnerable people are being thrown in with the
real bad guys to give them a little target practice until they come home
to act out their rage on the rest of us. Something really needs to
change in the way Arizona is running its prisons...
Community mural remembering the victims of prison violence,
neglect and abuse at the AZ Department of Corrections.
Firehouse Gallery (June 2012).
Making Prisons Safe: Strategies for Reducing Violence
Journal of Law & Policy 2006 (Vol. 22:125)
article is based on testimony to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in
America’s Prisons, April 2005. Donald Specter, J.D. is the Director of
the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public interest law firm located near
San Francisco, California. The Prison Law Office provides free legal
services to California state prisoners related to the conditions of
their confinement. During the past thirty years the office has
successfully sued California adult and juvenile facilities over
virtually all prison conditions, many of which directly relate to the
safety of prisoners, the excessive use of force, and the state’s
response to prison gangs. More information about these cases is
available at the Prison Law Office website. See Prison Law Office,
http://www.prisonlaw.com (last visited July 8, 2006).INTRODUCTION
people assume that prisons are dangerous because they house violent
convicts. In California, for example, the union representing prison
guards emphasizes the danger by calling the job “the toughest beat in
the state.”1 Yet, in the last twenty years in only one California prison
guard has been killed by a prisoner, but hundreds of prisoners have
died from medical neglect, suicide, or guard brutality. Prisons are
dangerous, but they are far more dangerous than they need to be.
prison administrators provide humane conditions and require strict
adherence to commonly accepted and nationally recognized techniques for
regulating the unnecessary use of force, prisons can be reasonably safe
for both prisoners and staff. Although the threat posed by gangs
presents special problems, the traditional approach to correctional
safety—suppression and isolation—has not been successful. The
experiences of some innovative programs around the country, as
discussed below, suggests the success of a radically different approach:
closely monitored integration coupled with incentives and tools to help
prisoners leave the gangs.THE CAUSE AND CONTROL OF PRISON VIOLENCE
Supreme Court recently stated that “[p]risons are dangerous places.”2
The Court implied that prisons are dangerous because prisoners are
violent.3 Some prisoners are violent and will be violent no matter what
the circumstances, but the degree of institutional violence is not
dependent on the prisoners. It is a direct product of prison conditions
and how the state operates its prisons.
American prisons promote
violence and abuse by their design and operation. The anti-social nature
of the prisoners themselves is not solely responsible for violent and
abusive behavior. In the Stanford Prison Experiment otherwise
psychologically healthy, normal Stanford college students changed
dramatically after spending six days as guards and prisoners in a mock
prison.4 The “prisoners” began to perceive each other as the guards
perceived them and progressively expressed more frequent intentions to
harm others: The guards, too—who also had been carefully chosen on the
basis of their normal-average scores on a variety of personality
measures—quickly internalized their randomly assigned role.
of these seemingly gentle and caring young men, some of whom had
described themselves as pacifists or Vietnam War “doves,” soon began
mistreating their peers and were indifferent to the obvious suffering
that their actions produced. Several of them devised sadistically
inventive ways to harass and degrade the prisoners, and none of the less
actively cruel mock-guards ever intervened or complained about the
abuses they witnessed.5
The conclusions of this experiment have
profound implications for the control of violence in our prisons: The
negative, anti-social reactions observed were not the product of an
environment created by combining a collection of deviant personalities,
but rather the result of an intrinsically pathological situation which
could distort and rechannel the behaviour of essentially normal
individuals. The abnormality here resided in the psychological nature of
the situation and not in those who passed through it.6 In other words,
the Stanford Prison Experiment teaches that prisons, as an institution,
tend to promote aggressive and violent behavior by correctional
The state is responsible for controlling that type of
behavior. The elements necessary to control the use of force in prisons
are well known. To prevent abuse, the use of force must be controlled
through (1) clear policies; (2) meaningful and constant supervision of
all uses of force; (3) timely and truthful reporting of all uses of
force by the officer involved and anyone who witnessed the incident; (4)
an accurate and unbiased investigation into allegations of excessive
force; and (5) the consistent imposition of progressive and proportional
discipline when excessive force is used or when it is not reported.8 A
breakdown in any one of these components will inevitably lead to abuse.9
it is not uncommon for correctional supervisors to lose control over
the use of force, resulting in abuse. Abu Ghraib,10 Pelican Bay State
Prison in California,11 the entire prison system of Texas,12 and Rikers
Island in New York City13 are prime examples of prisons that became more
dangerous not because of the prisoners, but because of management
breakdowns that let guards mistreat and dehumanize their captives.
abuse at Abu Ghraib is especially important to consider because two
factors distinguish it from other situations. Like the Stanford Prison
Experiment, and unlike maximum security prisons where prisoners are
considered extremely dangerous, in Abu Ghraib there was no public
suggestion that the prisoners were especially threatening or that their
conduct caused the guards to act abusively. This is a clear
demonstration that the situation, rather than the prisoners themselves,
was responsible for the guards’ misconduct.
The United States
Army’s investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib revealed another
factor that can cause an institution to spiral out of control: the
injection of an external rationale for mistreatment.14 In addition to
finding the usual management breakdowns in the control of force the Army
investigators also recognized that the “war on terror” and the
corresponding need to obtain intelligence were perceived by the soldiers
at Abu Ghraib as a license to exceed the bounds of sanctioned
A similar license was granted to guards in California
that led to even more serious abuse, often causing permanent injury and
death. At Pelican Bay, guards were led to believe that extreme force was
justified by the need to punish and control the “worst of the worst.”16
As soon as the prison opened, officials let the guards know that the
standard rules of conduct would not apply at Pelican Bay. What followed
were not only individual instances of brutality, but a deliberate
practice of using violence and pain to control prisoners’ behavior.17
on a constitutional challenge to the excessive use of force at Pelican
Bay, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California
catalogued unnecessary and excessively violent cell-extractions,
hog-tying of prisoners, caging of naked prisoners outside for long
periods of time in cold and rainy weather, and staff beatings of
prisoners.18 It concluded that violence was used by staff “not only in
good faith efforts to restore and maintain order, but also for the very
purpose of inflicting punishment and pain.”19
pervaded other California maximum security prisons as well. In the
mid-1990s California was confronted with the gruesome spectacle of
guards in the Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison
purposefully releasing rival gang members in small exercise yards and
betting on which of the “gladiators” would be victorious.20 And in 2004 a
videotape showed “counselors” at the California Youth Authority’s
maximum security prison mercilessly beating wards as they lay passively
on the day room floor.21
These and other scandals that have
plagued California’s prison system for the last fifteen years were not
hidden, nor were they accidents. They were known and tolerated by
high-level correctional administrators who showed complete indifference
to the lives and well-being of prisoners. Their utter failure to
strictly and appropriately regulate the use of force in a manner
consistent with nationally recognized principles of correctional
administration was responsible for untold suffering.
regulation of force is, by itself, insufficient to prevent abuse. Prison
conditions can and do breed violence. Many prisoners have committed
violent crimes, and many suffer from mental illnesses that inhibit their
ability to control their own behavior.22 When such inmates are placed
together in overcrowded, antiquated facilities with inadequate mental
health services and nothing constructive to do violence is inevitable.23
California Inspector General made clear the connection between
conditions and violence when he found that deplorable conditions and
poor management practices contributed to the murder of a correctional
officer at the California Institution for Men.24 The Inspector General
found that the prison violated basic classification procedures by
permitting the prisoner, who was incarcerated for attempting to kill a
police officer and had a history of recent and serious assaultive
behavior, to remain in the general population.25 Poor maintenance and
tool control procedures permitted prisoners to obtain and conceal
weapons.26 The victim failed to follow specific security directives
initiated after a race riot, the stabbing of a prisoner, and the
discovery of weapons in the same unit.27 Additionally, the warden and
her subordinate supervisory staff failed to ensure compliance with those
directives.28 Finally, nobody addressed the prisoner’s clearly
identified need for immediate mental health treatment.29
Inspector General’s findings express in detail what is common sense to
most correctional administrators: well-run prisons are relatively safe,
while those that are poorly managed are not. The control of violence,
therefore, depends not only on executing accepted policies for
regulating the use and supervision of force, but also on the overall
management of the facility. All of the prison’s operations, including
mental health care, must be integrated and functioning properly if
prisons are to perform their primary purpose of incarceration and not
subject their inhabitants—both prisoners and officers—to an unacceptable
risk of injury or death.GANG PREVENTION
problem of gang-related violence in America’s prisons is both well known
and well documented. Both prison and street gangs are reportedly
responsible for drugs, violence, and intimidation within prison walls.30
The traditional prison response to gang behavior is suppression and
isolation. Gang members are forced to spend long, indefinite terms in
segregated housing units in maximum or super maximum (supermax) security
prisons and their misconduct is often
targeted for administrative or criminal prosecution.
the success of these strategies in reducing violence is uncertain, it
is clear that they have not succeeded in eliminating gangs or their
influence. It is commonly understood that, while locked in segregation,
gang leaders continue to control the illegal activities of their members
both within the prison and in the outside community. Perhaps the most
graphic example of this is the fact that several California prison gang
leaders are now facing the death penalty for federal criminal charges
arising from their activities while imprisoned in the Security Housing
Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay, a supermax facility.31
restricted units such as Pelican Bay’s SHU are not provided any form of
meaningful recreation, education, vocational training, or rehabilitative
services.32 They are left in their cells every day for up to
twenty-three hours, with the remaining hour being spent either alone or
with their cellmate in a small enclosed space that approximates a dog
run.33 In this environment normal social relationships are impossible
and these inmates are left to associate with other gang members. It is
not surprising, therefore, that they will continue to perpetuate the
gang and its activities; they have nothing else to do.
some correctional systems have developed successful programs that use
the opposite approach. Instead of using extreme forms of isolation these
programs actively promote integration. Their aim is to reintegrate the
gang member into the general prison population. In the few programs that
take this approach, the strategy has proven surprisingly successful.
programs—utilized in Connecticut,34 Missouri’s Division of Youth
Services,35 and the Pelican Bay Transitional Housing Unit36—have several
things in common. First, they create housing units that are relatively
small, consisting of between fifteen and twenty prisoners. Second, the
adult programs allow the prisoner to choose to participate, although one
program conditions that choice on the decision to inform against his
former gang. Third, they create a set of expectations that include
mandatory integration with prisoners of other races and gangs, and a
very low tolerance of misbehavior. Fourth, prisoners are given extensive
orientation about these expectations. Fifth, prisoners are provided
with counseling services to help them control anger and violence and
foster healthy relationships.
These services come in the form of
formal group sessions, but also informally through guidance provided by
specially selected staff in the units. Finally, prisoners are provided
with real and substantial incentives to complete the program. This may
include contact visits with their family, jobs and a safe environment
when they return to the general population.
The success rate in
each of these three programs is reportedly very high. Connecticut and
Missouri report that the recidivism rate of gang members is under 10%.37
In California, prison officials report that only 5% of prisoners fail
to complete the program, the recidivism rate sent back to segregation
for gang-related activities.38 These successful programs place the
prisoner or ward in a culture where violence is not “business as usual”
and provide them with the tools they need to succeed. They prove to
prisoners who have never had a meaningful conversation with a rival gang
member or a prisoner of another race that they can live a different,
less violent, and more meaningful life. Instead of creating a culture of
suppression and isolation, they provide a transition to a more normal
way of life, even if it is limited to the confines of the prison. Given
time and help, the prisoners adapt to this culture and recognize its
These promising programs should be studied, evaluated, and
replicated. They offer positive alternatives to the traditional
reaction to prison gangs. It is an approach that uses the institution of
a prison to create positive change rather than to promote further
It is easy to blame
prisoners for prison violence. But, the lessons of the last few decades
of court intervention and academic research have demonstrated that the
amount of violence in a prison is a function of its culture, the
effectiveness of its management, and, at times, the political reality
that excuses the mistreatment of prisoners. No prison illustrated this
better than Pelican Bay in the early 1990s. It suffered from an
administration that condoned and perpetuated violence, it opened at a
time when being tough on crime meant brutalizing prisoners and there was
no effective management of the prison. The violence in that institution
has largely subsided through better management required by intensive
court intervention, and promising inroads have been made into gang
membership through the Transitional Housing Unit program, demonstrating
clearly that it is not the prisoners but the prison as an institution
that is the key to safety in correctional facilities.
1. See California Correctional Peace Officers Association, http://www.CCPOA.org (last visited July 8, 2006).
2. Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499, 515 (2005).
Id. Threats to the safety of prisoners also spring from other, less
obvious sources. In our experience, the single biggest threat to
prisoners’ lives is the absence of adequate and appropriate health care.
Neglect and malpractice kills more prisoners than do guards or other
prisoners. Although difficult to quantify, death and serious injury due
to medical neglect, preventable suicides, and mental decompensation far
exceeds the harm caused by the more overt uses of force. For example, in
2003 only fourteen California prisoners were killed by other prisoners
or staff. CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, INMATE INCIDENTS IN
INSTITUTIONS: CALENDAR YEAR 2003, at 15 (2004), available at
(follow “December 2003”hyperlink). In a recent independent review of
193 recent deaths in California’s prisons, court-appointed medical
experts found eleven cases of terrible medical care in 2003. A review by
a court appointed special master of suicides within California’s
prisons in 2003 found that out of thirty five suicides, twenty-five
(74%) received inadequate treatment and were foreseeable or preventable.
Coleman v. Wilson, Special Master’s Report on Suicides Committed in the
California Department of Corrections in Calendar Year 2003, at 8
(2004). Therefore, although it is beyond the scope of this presentation,
any analysis of safety failures and abuse must consider the effects of
ineffective prison health care systems.
4. Craig Haney & Philip Zimbardo, The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy, 53 AM. PSYCHOLOGIST 709 (1998).
5. Id. at 709.
6. Id. at 710 (citation omitted).
7. Craig Haney et al., Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison, 1 INT’L J. CRIMINOLOGY & PENOLOGY 69, 93–94 (1973).
See, e.g., Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1199 (N.D. Cal. 1995),
rev’d and remanded by 150 F.3d 1030 (9th Cir. 1998); U.S. ARMY SPECIAL
REPORT, INVESTIGATION OF INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES AT ABU GHRAIB 2–5
(2004), available at http://www4.army.mil/ocpa/reports/ar15-6/ar15-6.pdf
(citing lack of effective leadership, ambiguous policies, inadequate
resources, and ineffective supervision and discipline as reasons for the
9. This was proven true in California by the special
master appointed by the federal court to monitor the conditions at
Pelican Bay who conducted an inquiry into the code of silence within the
California Department of Corrections. Madrid v. Gomez, Special Master’s
Report Re Department of Corrections “Post Powers” Investigations and
Employee Discipline (Jan. 15, 2004). The inquiry arose from the decision
of the director of the Department of Corrections to terminate the
investigation of perjury by several correctional officers in a federal
civil rights trial for excessive force against prisoners. The special
master concluded, A minority of rogue officers can establish a code of
silence, threaten the majority, damage cars, isolate uncooperative
co-workers, and create an overall atmosphere of deceit and corruption.
And if the minority are supported by a powerful labor organization, and
the union as well as management condones the code of silence, the
consequences are severe. Id. at 99.
10. See, e.g., U.S. ARMY SPECIAL REPORT, supra note 8.
11. See Madrid, 889 F. Supp. 1146.
12. See Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265, 1302 (S.D. Tex. 1980).
13. See Fisher v. Koehler, 692 F. Supp. 1519 (S.D.N.Y. 1988).
14. U.S. ARMY SPECIAL REPORT, supra note 9, at 5.
The army acknowledged this problem in typical bureaucratic and
understated fashion: “Demands on the Human Intelligence (HUMINT)
capabilities in a counterinsurgency and in the future joint operational
environment will continue to tax tactical and strategic assets.” Id. at
16. Madrid, 889 F. Supp. at 1155.
17. In one instance,
guards placed an African American mentally ill prisoner in a bathtub so
hot that it caused third-degree burns and made his skin peel off parts
of his body and hang in large clumps around his legs, which had turned
white. Id. at 1166–67. This was in retaliation for the man biting a
guard one week earlier. Id. at 1166. A prison nurse overheard a guard
remark, “[L]ooks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is
through . . . .” Id. at 1167.
18. Id. at 1162–78.
19. Id. at 1200.
AMNESTY INT’L, CALIFORNIAN PRISONS: FAILURE TO PROTECT PRISONERS FROM
ABUSE (2000), available at
21. See S.F. Gate: Multimedia,
(last visited Oct. 15, 2006).
22. A recent survey by the United
States Department of Justice found that more than half of the nation’s
state prisoners had a mental health problem. DORIS J. JAMES & LAUREN
E. GLAZE, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, U.S. DEP’T OF JUSTICE, NCJ
213600, MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS OF PRISON AND JAIL INMATES 1 tbl.1
(2006). An older survey found that 16% of prisoners were mentally ill.
PAULA M. DITTON, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, U.S. DEP’T OF JUSTICE,
NCJ 174463, MENTAL HEALTH AND TREATMENT OF INMATES AND PROBATIONERS
23. For the connection between overcrowding and violence
see, for example, KATHERINE BECKETT & THEODORE SASSON, THE POLITICS
OF INJUSTICE 177 (2004); ALEXIS M. DURHAM, CRISIS AND REFORM: CURRENT
ISSUES IN AMERICAN PUNISHMENT 48–49 (1994); CRAIG HANEY, REFORMING
PUNISHMENT: PSYCHOLOGICAL LIMITS TO THE PAINS OF IMPRISONMENT 202, 205
24. OFFICE OF THE INSPECTOR GEN., SPECIAL REVIEW INTO THE
DEATH OF CORRECTIONAL OFFICER MANUEL A. GONZALEZ, JR. ON JANUARY 10,
2005 AT THE CALIFORNIA INSTITUTION FOR MEN 3–4 (2005), available at
www.oig.ca.gov/reports/pdf/Review_03-17-05.pdf. The California
Institution for Men is a large, overcrowded intake center located near
Los Angeles. See California Institute for Men (CIM),
http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/ Visitors/fac_prison_CIM.html (last visited July
25. Id. at 16–17.
26. Id. at 37.
27. Id. at 5.
28. Id. at 19–24.
Id. at 79. The independent panel of experts appointed by the California
State Board of Corrections also noted the “deplorable” conditions at
the prison and the fact that the reception center was overcrowded and
serving more prisoners than it could safely process. CAL. STATE BD. OF
CORRS., INDEPENDENT OPERATIONS AND INCIDENT REVIEW PANEL ON THE
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTIONS FOR MEN 12 (2005), available at
30. See, e.g., GEORGE F. COLE & CHRISTOPHER E. SMITH, CRIMINAL JUSTICE IN AMERICA (2005).
Press Release, Thom Mrozek, Pub. Affairs Officer, U.S. Attorney’s
Office, Cent. Dist. of Cal., Racketeering Indictment Targets Aryan
Brotherhood (Oct. 17, 2002), available at
32. Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1229 (N.D. Cal. 1995), rev’d and remanded by 150 F.3d 1030 (9th Cir. 1998).
See Connecticut Department of Correction, http://www.ct.gov/doc/
(follow “Recidivism” hyperlink) (describing Connecticut’s Gang
35. See Missouri Division of Youth Services, http://www.dss.mo.gov/dys/ (last visited Oct. 15, 2006).
36. See Pelican Bay State Prison, http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Visitors/fac_prison_PBSP.html (last visited Oct. 15, 2006).
Department of Correction, supra note 34. Recidivism in these states is
measured differently. In Connecticut, the test is whether the prisoner
is redesignated as a gang member.
Id. Missouri uses the more
traditional measure of whether the person reoffends. 38. Telephone
interview with Ted Roberts & Chris Hizer, Mgmt. Staff, Transitional
Hous. Unit, Pelican Bay State Prison (Apr. 8, 2005).
38. Telephone interview with Mark Steward, former Dir. of Mo. Div. of Youth Servs., Mo. Dept. of Soc. Servs. (2004).