Prison environment indicators

Criminology Research Council grant ; (12/87)

Recent events in the United States and the United Kingdom have highlighted the destructive potential of major prison incidents. The study entitled 'Predicting Major Prison Incidents' (1990), carried out by the Policy and Planning Unit, Office of Corrections, has important implications for prison administrators who wish to avoid major incidents within their system.

The original objective of this study was to develop a statistically based system for predicting the occurrence of major prison incidents or disturbances such as fires, riots or hostage-taking. Previous attempts to predict major disturbances have focused on monitoring changes in the frequency of minor prison incidents, especially those involving violence between prisoners or against staff, damage to prison property and complaints by prisoners. This study found that in prisons of the size generally found in Australia the reported rate of occurrence of these incidents is too low to permit statistically accurate prediction on any reasonable time-scale.

Operational issues also give rise to major difficulties in the prediction of major incidents. These issues include the discretionary powers of custodial officers in reporting incidents, problems arising from any system that gives 'false positives' (that is incorrect predictions of major incidents), and the availability of other, often informal information sources.

While major incidents cannot reliably be predicted in advance, there are a number of important ways that prison administrators can prevent (or at least minimise) their occurrence. Major incidents are always possible within a prison system because prisoners, as a group, are not subject to the same social and environmental constraints that apply to people in the wider community. Major incidents are most likely to occur when prison conditions are very bad (particularly if they deteriorate quickly), if relations between prisoners and staff are characterised by hostility and aggression, by the arbitrary, inflexible or confrontationist application of custodial powers, or if there are significant changes in the power relationships within the prison, such as a new administration or conflict between prisoner factions.

Therefore, the preventive measures that can be applied in order to minimise the possibility of a major incident include:

  • maintaining a reasonable standard of prisoner accommodation and services;
  • providing meaningful activities such as employment, education or recreation;
  • dealing with prisoners in a fair and just fashion;
  • advising prisoners prior to necessary program and procedural changes;
  • training staff to recognise the warning signals of an impending incident, and training managers to accept and act on realistic staff warnings; and
  • developing graduated response procedures that allow minor incidents to be dealt with appropriately.

The study reviewed a range of reports on major prison incidents from Australia and the United States and concluded that Australian reports did not provide a systematic basis for understanding the causes of major incidents, or for developing means to deal with them. The study recommends that investigatory and reporting systems should:

  • be undertaken by persons who are knowledgeable about prison environments but not directly involved in the actual incident under investigation;
  • follow a formal, comprehensive and systematic review process; and
  • focus on identifying feasible, appropriate changes to the prison system that will reduce the probability of future incidents or increase the system's capacity to manage them when they do occur.