Racial Tensions in Prisons

October 20, 1971

Report Outline
Racial Factors in Penitentiary Riots
Trends in the Control of Prisoners
Outlook for Bringing About Reforms
Special Focus

Racial Factors in Penitentiary Riots

Racism as Volatile Ingredient in Prisoner Unrest

The expletives “nigger” and “pig” were heard frequently by reporters at the Attica, N.Y., prison rebellion which ended Sept. 13 with a heavy loss of life. In many prisons, new inmates are inducted quickly either through pressure or preference into racially exclusive groups. Moreover, friction between guards and prisoners is often portrayed as having deep racist undercurrents. Dr. Norval Morris, director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice at the University of Chicago, has said: “You have gathered into prison some of the most acute race relations problems and the prison environment intensifies them.”

Whether as a cause of prison upheavals or merely as an attendant disorder, racial tension is a highly visible and ugly aspect of the growing turmoil in the nation's prisons. Penologists talk of an intractable “new breed” of inmate which now makes up a significant portion of the 200,000 prisoners in state and federal penal institutions. Typically, this prisoner sees himself as a political victim of a racist society which deprived him of dignity and drove him to crime in the first place. He sees law enforcement agencies, the courts and particularly the prisons as racist institutions designed to keep him in subjugation.

William Vanden Heuvel, chairman of the New York City Board of Correction, declared recently that the men in charge of prisons in his state were “basically and racially hostile” to the inmates. Kenneth A. Gibson, the Negro mayor of Newark, N.J., said: “When we look at prison conditions and the brutal use of force at Attica, we see the same force of racism which caused and then put down with force civil disturbances in this country's ghettos.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Apr. 12, 2019  Bail Reform
Oct. 19, 2018  For-Profit Prisons
Mar. 03, 2017  Women in Prison
Jan. 10, 2014  Sentencing Reform
Sep. 14, 2012  Solitary Confinement
Mar. 11, 2011  Downsizing Prisons
Dec. 04, 2009  Prisoner Reentry
Apr. 06, 2007  Prison Reform
Jan. 05, 2007  Prison Health Care
Sep. 17, 1999  Prison-Building Boom
Feb. 04, 1994  Prison Overcrowding
Oct. 20, 1989  Crime and Punishment: a Tenuous Link
Aug. 04, 1989  Can Prisons Rehabilitate Criminals?
Aug. 07, 1987  Prison Crowding
Nov. 25, 1983  Prison Overcrowding
Feb. 26, 1982  Religious Groups and Prison Reform
Jun. 18, 1976  Criminal Release System
Mar. 12, 1976  Reappraisal of Prison Policy
Oct. 20, 1971  Racial Tensions in Prisons
Oct. 13, 1965  Rehabilitation of Prisoners
Oct. 09, 1957  Prisons and Parole
May 02, 1952  Penal Reform
Jan. 30, 1937  The Future of Prison Industry
May 08, 1930  Prison Conditions and Penal Reform
Race and Hate Crimes
Sentencing and Corrections