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Experts weigh in: Is inmate unity a direct threat to safety and security?

Inmates are constantly pushing the envelope, testing our ability to maintain control of our facilities and looking for weaknesses


"When inmates feel they are powerless and they have lost their sense of identity accompanied with years of built up resentment toward a system that they might perceive to be oppressive, unity is inevitable.” —Dr. Michael Pittaro, American Military University

September 9th, 2016 marks the 45th year of the Attica Prison Riot. In an effort to commemorate this event, there is a national attempt to coordinate a work stoppage amongst the inmate population. The idea behind the work stoppage is centered around mass incarceration and slave labor. This call to action has spread to social media.

In an effort to educate the public, listed below are reasons why inmate unity can threaten the safe and secured running of any jail, prison and correctional institution. Keep in mind, listed below are facts that come from experienced correctional staff members who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

  • “Inmate unity is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on whether the unity is intended to help each other through positive role modeling, which leads to personal growth and betterment.  However, if it appears that this unity is nefarious in purpose and intent, then it might be prudent to divide the group into separate housing units or if necessary, transfer some to another facility.  Uniting in large numbers for nefarious purposes places officers and inmates alike at an increased risk of harm, including death.” —Dr. Michael Pittaro, American Military University
  • “Any perceived slights or disrespect can cause inmates to unite since we work in a constant state of an us against them mentality by the inmates. Inmates are constantly pushing the envelope, testing our ability to maintain control of our facilities looking for a weakness. Inmate unity is a significant security threat because it is a direct reflection of exactly that, their unity against us, and the authority we represent.” Lt. G. Salazar, NMDOC
  • “As a former prison inspector, I have seen inmates unite for both the good and the bad. Inmates have united to protect an officer from danger. They also united for religious beliefs. The times that scare me, regarding the safety of officers, are when inmates unite for gang riots or hunger strikes. Another dangerous area I investigated was inmates uniting from different gangs for the purpose of gain, such as drug smuggling. This type of behavior can result in death for inmates and the correctional officers. We must maintain a vigilant watch over inmate activities to prevent this from occurring.” Gary York, author of Corruption Behind Bars
  • "For such unity to take root there must be an issue or issues that significantly affect all. Poor food, significant staff abuse (perceived or real), an deprivation of privileges. Good food, good recreation, medical care and a forum or venue for settling grievances goes a long way to keeping them from uniting." Russell Hamilton, retired sergeant CDOC
  • “It depends on the unifying factors. If left on their own without proper and effective supervision ‘inmate unity’ usually leads to problems for staff. On the contrary, if staff are able to unify a segment of the population with positive reinforcement for accomplishment of common goals, the results can be positive.” Dave Wakefield, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (retired)
  • “Inmates often unite to rebel against perceived inequities, thus reinforcing the importance for staff members to treat all inmates fairly and equally. Inmate unity is not always bad. However, if that unity is being used to rebel against authority, rules and regulations, policies and procedures, it needs to be dealt with swiftly and harshly. Identifying those encouraging unity to defy authority is essential, as is may result in their removal from the general population. I equate it to cutting the head off of the snake.” Captain Keith Hellwig, Wisconsin Department of Corrections
  • “Unity in society is great – it emphasizes hope and solidarity. With inmates, unity is dangerous. The riot mentality tends to be instigated from the coalition of like-minded offenders. The more inmates that act as individuals, the better we all are. Proper classification and utilization of segregation can help offset unity. Acting within the purview of your duties. Excessive force or blatant policy violations tend to bolster inmate unity." Curtis Isele, Officer of Probation and Parole
  • “Correctional officers can prevent inmates from uniting in negative ways. First, things that we take for granted such as food, mail, TV, and visiting are important to inmates. If things that are basic are not running right or are misused to play head games, inmates will gripe, become angry and come together in mutual anger. Second, to keep frustrations low, the rogue CO will make inmates angry and that serves to keep the cohesiveness going. Finally, the CO should make sure to keep the climate humane, fair and positive as much as possible.” Gary Cornelius, retired lieutenant Fairfax County
  • “Inmates seek strength in numbers by trying to overcome the loss of personal freedoms and support in the traditional way we look at it. In a prison, the intent is to overcome the individuals strengths through a system designed to minimize their threat. But when like-minded individuals group together without positive interaction or influence, it leaves COs extremely vulnerable due to the sheer overwhelming number of officer to inmate ratios. The answer is not as simple as more COs or less inmates; the real answer is a multifaceted blend of effective inmate programming, training for staff, better mental health treatment and proper funding to assure operations are not sacrificed and good staff can be retained." Ed Wall, Former Secretary Wisconsin Department of Corrections
  • “By doing our jobs and maintaining our professionalism, by keeping to the standards of being firm, fair and consistent, there should be no cause for inmate unity and uprising. If we give a reason for the inmates to unite, they will.” Anthony Gangi, host of Tier Talk

Inmates can unite for many reasons. Let’s not give them a reason. Let’s remain professional in our duties and maintain a working environment that promotes our standard of being firm, fair and consistent. The last thing we want to do is give them a reason to unite in an environment that allows it. Once the inmates collectively feel they are justified, the safety of our facilities will be in serious jeopardy. 

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