This thesis is focused on the central question of why prison riots occur. To answer this question, I describe and analyze three case studies of prison riots: the 1971 riot at Attica Correctional Facility, the 1980 riot at New Mexico State Penitentiary, and the 2002 riot at Folsom Prison. I analyze these using theories of collective behavior, such as the minimax theory, the emergent norm theory, and the value-added theory. By identifying the central structural and organizational problems that contribute to these riots, I am able to test which theories of collective behavior best explain why riots occur. By recognizing these patterns, it will be easier to predict prison riots in the future.
Hometown: Maryville, Tenn.
Thesis Title: Collective Behavior and the Factors that Cause Prison Riots
Advisor: Dr. Tricia Bruce, Assistant Professor of Sociology
While some little girls dream of becoming princesses and ballerinas, Julie Pate ’09 has always had quite a different dream…
To work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
When the time came for Pate to select a Senior Study topic, the sociology major knew she wanted to write about something interesting within the field of criminal justice.
She landed on prison riots. More specifically, she decided to focus on the questions of why prison riots occur and how to predict and prevent future riots.
“When Julie first said ‘prison riots,’ my eyes lit up,” said Dr. Tricia Bruce, assistant professor of sociology and Pate’s Senior Study advisor. “Julie’s interest aligned not only with my scholarly expertise in collective behavior and social movements, but also with my personal intrigue with criminology.”
In her 49-page study, Pate analyzed three notable prison riots to determine their causes: the 1971 riot at Attica Correctional Facility (N.Y.), the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, and the 2002 riot at Folsom Prison (Calif.).
In her analysis, Pate concluded that several theories of collective behavior explained the cause of the three riots: the value-added theory, inmate-balance theory and administrative control theory.
The value-added theory states that when six related factors are present at the same time, collective behavior – in this case, a riot – will occur. A few factors include: needs of individuals not being met by the current social structure (e.g., inmates allowed only one shower per week); spread of a common belief through the population (e.g., inmates can improve circumstances by use of force); and a dramatic incident occurs which incites people to take action (e.g., inmates enduring beatings and solitary confinement for minor infractions).
The basis of the inmate-balance theory is that a mutual relationship exists between inmates and guards. Guards allow risky behaviors and, in exchange, the inmates police themselves. When a disruption of order occurs, privileges are revoked, causing anger among the inmates.
The administrative control theory says that conflict results from poor management of correctional facilities, including inadequate conditions, weak security and strong gang activity.
In her conclusion, Pate noted that the keys to preventing prison riots are improving rehabilitation programs and solving the problem of overcrowding.
“One of the reasons prisons are overcrowded is because prisoners are not being rehabilitated. They get out and do not know how to achieve success legally and end up committing a crime and going back to prison. Rehabilitating prisoners would help to reduce overcrowding so that they can make it once they get out of prison,” Pate concluded in her study.
In addition to identifying patterns of behavior that may predict future riots, Pate hopes that her study will function as a conversation piece for graduate school and future employers.
“It shows that I am willing to put a lot of time into research and bring light to something most people don’t ever think about,” said Pate.
The most challenging aspect of Pate’s study was locating sufficient information to conduct a complete analysis of the Folsom Prison riot due to an alleged cover-up attempt. As a result, she had less information to analyze.
“I managed to find a video with a few people who were trying to uncover the truth about what happened. It had security footage from the riot, as well as documents and other evidence proving the cover-up,” Pate explained.
Bruce complimented Pate on taking ownership of her thesis by devoting her time, passion and sociological imagination to make it a great project.
And Pate credited Bruce with keeping her organized and focused.
“She encouraged me to make the paper my masterpiece, to keep digging and finding more to connect the pieces,” Pate said of her advisor.
Bruce was so impressed with Pate’s Senior Study that she recommended it for the College’s permanent library collection.
She pointed out that the study bridges knowledge Pate acquired through courses in social problems, social theory, social inequality and other major courses with newly acquired knowledge in criminology and collective behavior.
Bruce commented, “Julie’s creative application of theories of collective behavior offers a lens through which we can better understand the reasoning behind prison riots. I am confident that Julie’s knowledge will find real-life application in addressing structural issues facing the American justice system.”
As an intern with the Knoxville Police Department this summer, Pate spent time in the crime lab with the forensics team, learning about evidence collection, handwriting analysis and fingerprinting.
The recent graduate plans to pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice; she is currently exploring her graduate school options.