Prison riots are some of the most explosive, violent events ever. It makes sense— they generally involve hundreds and hundreds of people. Some are caused by prisoners protesting inhumane living conditions, some are the result of prisoners attempting to escape, and still more are caused by prisoners who just want to incite bloodshed and chaos. Whatever the reason, many people die and prisons receive a ton of damage, with some of them coming close to being completely destroyed.
Ethical concerns over prisons have always existed— do they make people convicted of smaller, non-violent crimes worse by forcing them into that environment? Does prison ever rehabilitate a convict or are they just doomed to a cycle of prejudice? It’s no wonder that many inmates over the years have waged war against their captors, but maybe the saddest thing about these events is that there’s no escaping them. Other inmates and guards (always) get killed or severely injured in them all. Still, these events are interesting and worth knowing about. So here are 15 of the most intense prison riots in history.
15. Century Old Riot – Colorado State Penitentiary
The oldest riot on this list, the Colorado State Penitentiary uprising took place almost a century ago, in 1929. While many prison riots involve a lot of convicts, this one centered around a group of five. The convicts, led by Danny Daniels (great name, huh?) captured and disarmed a group of guards, taking them hostage. Another group of prisoners took this opportunity to set fire to various buildings in the prison.
Daniels and his crew demanded to be freed, saying that they would kill their hostages if not. The warden refused, calling in the National Guard and police from neighboring districts. After a failed attempt to break into the cell block using explosives, prison forces threw tear gas in through the windows. Refusing to be captured, Daniels killed his fellow inmates and then himself. Eight guards were also killed.
14. $30M Worth of Damage – Oklahoma State Penitentiary
In 1973, unrest brewed in the mess hall of Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Five inmates were reportedly drugged up and began causing disarray. The rioting quickly spread through the rest of the prison, as other inmates took the opportunity to try and escape.
Contrary to the idea you’re probably drawing up in your head about how long a prison riot lasts, this one went on for a total of three days. Although only three inmates died (21 more people were injured), the riot caused immense damage to the prison, with many buildings burned and inmates destroying anything they could to create chaos. In the end, the riot was estimated to have caused $30 million worth of damage.
13. Burning Bodies – New Mexico State Penitentiary
Still one of the most deadly prison riots to take place in American history, the 1980 riot at New Mexico State Penitentiary took place in the state’s maximum security prison. While some prison riots are started by an unruly group of inmates, this one was almost immediately prison-wide.
Authorities think it was because of the poor prison conditions. At the time of the riot, the prison was 300 inmates over capacity, with many inmates thrown together in large living groups. Their living conditions were dirty and their food was of exceptionally low quality. Although the twelve guards taken hostage were not killed, many were severely beaten and raped. By the end of the two-day long riot, 33 inmates were dead and some 200 were injured. Some sources claim the death toll could be much higher, as it is known that several bodies were dismembered and burned during the riot.
12. Riot in the Famed Prison – The Battle of Alcatraz
This one just has to be included, since Alcatraz is one of the most famous prisons in the world. Plus it even got a really cool name! “Battle of Alcatraz”! This 1946 riot is the classic prison escape story. Two inmates overpowered a guard from behind and snuck from their prison block to another, freeing a few more. The inmate who had begun the escape, Bernard Coy, starved himself in order to get through the bars and sneak up on the guard.
Unlike all of the other prison riots on this list, the inmates remained undetected for some time, collecting weapons and tools for themselves. They needed to get a key to the yard door in order to make it to the dock and escape. Sounds like a movie, right? Ultimately, two of the guards and three of the inmates were killed during the battle. In 1948, two surviving inmates were executed by gas chamber for their roles in the attempted escape.
11. 10 Days, $40 Million in Damage – Lucasville Prison
In April of 1993, 450 inmates of Cellblock L erupted into a riotous mob at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. Reasons behind the riot varied, some saying that certain prisoners were protesting vaccinations on religious grounds, others contending that the inmates just wanted to settle beefs. It was likely a combination of both. Once the violence started, it continued for a full ten days.
The first day included five inmates being beaten to death, and their bodies were placed in the exercise yard. Inmates also took a large number of guards hostage. The rioters actually controlled the prison over the ten days, and surrendered on April 21 of 1993. The death toll of inmates and guards was relatively low, but the prison was all but destroyed. The riot had resulted in $40 million of damage.
10. Power in Numbers – Northpoint Training Center
In 2009, this Kentucky prison was assaulted by a riot of around 80 inmates. The prisoners were subdued later that evening, and most of them only received minor injuries. However, in the short span of the riot, the inmates had set fire to five of the main buildings of the prison. The damage was so great that many inmates had to be transported to alternate prisons after the fact.
This prison makes the list because it demonstrates the explosive power prison riots can have. In a single evening, a relatively small group of prisoners destroyed a huge amount of property, leading the medium security prison to increase security. The prison had even been on lockdown for three days preceding the riot, following the assault of two inmates by a larger gang.
9. Time to Strike – Montana State Prison
In 1959, the former warden of Montana State Penitentiary had just retired and a new warden was put in place after a nationwide search, in an attempt to modernize the outdated facility. Inmates saw this transition of power as the perfect time to riot. For 36 hours, the prison and nearby town of Deer Lodge remained in flux as the prisoners caused the bloodiest riot in the history of the penitentiary.
During this time, the prison was completely under inmate control. The riot was incited by two prisoners, but when it was over three inmates were dead and a substantial number were wounded. The violence and fighting could only be stopped by the National Guard, who stormed the facility and forcefully quelled the chaos.
8. Prisoners’ Rights – Attica Prison
One of the more famous riots in American history, the riot in the Attica Correctional Facility, was carried out in 1971 during the Prisoners’ Rights Movement. Almost half of the inmates incited the riot, demanding political rights and more humane living conditions. They immediately took 42 members of the staff hostage, giving them a considerable amount of leverage.
Negotiations lasted for four days. One of the chief demands of the inmates ironically became amnesty from the criminal charges associated with starting the riot in the first place. At this time, the prison was detaining a disproportionate number of inmates of color. The facilities officers were overwhelmingly white, and reports of rampant racism and beatings were common, so the prisoners had a very good reason to riot. Police eventually stormed the facility and regained control, but 43 people died, including 10 correctional officers and civilian workers.
7. Control for 25 Days – Strangeways Prison
The Strangeways Prison riot took place in 1990 in Manchester, England. It lasted for an incredible 25 days, making it the longest riot in England’s prison history, as well as one of the longest ever. Over the course of the 25 days, forces slowly but surely dismantled the riot, with the last five prisoners being removed from their last stand on the roof on the 25th day.
More like a prolonged battle than a riot, there was an extraordinary amount of violence. Although only one prisoner was killed, the number of injured was over 200, including both inmates and police forces. It also caused an unbelievable amount of damage in the realm of 90 million pounds, leaving the prison and surrounding area desolated.
6. Over 100 Inmates Dead – Carandiru Massacre
This one’s called a massacre for a reason. In 1992, prisoners rioted in the Carandiru Penitentiary in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The prison staff quickly lost control of the penitentiary. Rather than the negotiation and slow de-escalation that occurs in many riots on this list, the staff immediately contacted a large force of police, who quickly stormed the prison.
By the end, 111 inmates died, 102 shot by police and nine killed from prisoner to prisoner violence. The execution style ending of the riot is now looked upon as a major human rights violation in Brazil’s history. The 68 police officers all lived and were relatively unharmed. To make matters worse, reports indicated that a number of the inmates shot had their hands up in surrender or were attempting to hide in their cells to escape the violence.
5. A Blazing Protest – Iquique, Chile
This 2001 riot saw 26 inmates killed— in a particularly awful way. Inmates set fire to mattresses and blankets inside the prison, and the fire soon got well out of control. As a result, 26 of their fellow inmates burned or suffocated (the lucky ones) to death, trapped by the quickly spreading fire in a prison dormitory. The fire took two hours to put out, leading to 150 more inmates suffering injuries (some severe). Authorities believe that the inmates who started the fire did it as an act of support, in the wake of a prisoner in a nearby jail burning himself to death in protest.
The jail has a capacity of 1,000 but was at the time holding 1,700, leading to extremely inhumane living conditions for the inmates. In response to this and other riots, the Chilean government has increased efforts to double the capacity of prisons in the country.
4. Gang Authority – El Porvenir Prison
This 2003 prison riot in Honduras had an alarming death toll of 86 inmates. It began with a fight among rival gangs. Members of those gangs then set fire to areas of the prison, and all of the inmates were pulled into the fray. The 86 that died were killed by fire and suffocation, but many also died from beating and violence between inmates. A number of inmates escaped in the confusion.
Around 70 inmates and guards were injured, as well. In this prison, security is limited, and many inmates openly possess weapons, with entire sections of the facility being controlled by a single gang. Due to this, it was easy for the riot to get started, and it took firefighters and law enforcement three hours to douse the flames and regain any semblance of order.
3. Human Rights Violations – Uribana Prison
Taking place in Venezuela just a few years ago, in 2013, the Uribana prison riot resulted in the death of around 60 inmates, and injured some 120 more. Another facility ruled by gangs where weapons were commonplace, the riot was reportedly incited by an announcement that the National Guard would be searching for and seizing weapons.
Because of this, inmates were apparently armed and waiting when the National Guard arrived, resulting in a particularly bloody riot. Almost all of the deaths were caused by gunshot wounds. Many of the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition, leading some officials to be charged with human rights violations.
2. A Brief Taste of Freedom – Davao Metrodiscom
The inmates involved in this riot not only escaped, but then took 15 members of a Protestant organization hostage. The 16 inmates were part of a gang known as “The Wild Boys of DaPeCol.” The gang members first created a hostage situation at the Davao Penal Colony. They each took a guard hostage using knives and eventually were able to escape after subduing them.
The gang and members of the Protestant group they captured got 75 miles away from the prison before being intercepted. Although some of the convicts surrendered, the intervention led to the death of all 16 inmates and five of the hostages.
1. Battle Royale – Ciudad Juarez
This riot erupted in 2009 in the state prison located in the city of Juarez. It led to the death of 20 people, and was really just a battle royale between three gangs. The riot began at seven in the morning after members of one of the gangs subdued a prison guard and stole his keys, after which they unlocked a number of cells and released 170 more inmates. A large group of this gang then surprise attacked members of the other two gangs, who were in the middle of conjugal visits with family and friends.
The chaos that ensued involved inmates beating and stabbing each other, as well as starting fires around the prison grounds. The police and army involved numbered at almost 250. Some inmates were reportedly thrown or pushed off the roof of a two storey building. The police and army finally got the riot under control after two hours of fighting, with the aid of an airplane and two helicopters.
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