At the moment, prisons are the best tool society has to keep its criminals in check. Unfortunately, it seems kind of inevitable that when you put hundreds of socially maladjusted people into a confined space, violence will sometimes ensue. Unless things are handled with extreme care - and often they aren't - prison riots can erupt at a moment’s notice and swell until no one on the premises is safe.
Throughout history, prison powder kegs have exploded in some truly brutal jailhouse riots that have claimed the lives of both prisoners and guards. Whether it’s because of gang violence, an escape attempt, or brutal prison conditions, prison riots can kick off for a variety of reasons. Of course, the result is always the same: death and destruction.
Even today, prison riots are a regular occurrence throughout the world’s prison system. In late 2016, the United Kingdom’s Bedford prison saw 200 prisoners besiege the institution for more than six hours. Fortunately, only one prisoner was hurt in the riot, making the Beford incident one of the more contained prison rebellions in history. Here are some prisons who didn’t fare quite as well.
On the cusp of the Iranian revolution, as the Shah was preparing to get out of Dodge, a computer company called Electronic Data Systems (EDS) was preparing to do the same. EDS had previously agreed to work on some of the Shah’s computers. As Ayatollah Khomeini was preparing to siege the country, EDS found itself in a precarious position (and out five million dollars in owed fees). As the company employees tried to evacuate the country, two engineers were captured.
EDS engineers William Gaylord and Paul Chiapparone were put in prison on trumped-up charges in 1979. Though the American government took no interest in the prisoners’ plight, the owner of EDS, one Ross Perot, decided to swing into action. He hired a mercenary named Arthur Simons, who refused to accept money for his services.
The prison in which Gaylord and Chiapparone were held was once considered a symbol of the Shah’s power. Working through some intermediaries, Simons convinced a mob of revolutionaries loyal to Khomeini to storm the prison in the hopes of releasing the Shah’s prisoners. It worked, and all 70,000 of the prison’s detainees - including Gaylord and Chiapparone - were allowed to escape into the city.
A prison riot that broke out in Rio de Janeiro left 56 people dead and several more injured. Officials said it began as a fight between two of the country's biggest rival gangs that spiraled out of control. Prisoners were beheaded and dismembered in the melee, guards held hostage, and the fighting last more than 12 hours. Some inmates were able to escape during the chaos. It was the biggest prison riot the country has ever seen, officials said.
News agencies reported the prison was overcrowded. There were 1,224 inmates in a prison meant to hold 592.
In 2001, several Taliban prisoners being held in Afghanistan’s prison in Qala-i-Jangi revolted, gaining access to weapons and opening fire. The resulting violence was horrible to behold. CIA agent Mike Spann was the first person killed in the riot. Reports say that a prisoner rushed him with a live grenade; when it exploded, both the inmate and Spann were killed.
Two days later, authorities raided the fortress, launching RPGs at the prisoners. The military also purged the basement where the prisoners were holed up by drenching the rooms in gasoline and setting them on fire. The defense for one of the victims, American Taliban sympathizer John Walker Lindh, said the basement floors were littered with human remains by the time everything had settled down.
In 1992, the inmates at Brazil’s Carandiru Prison were playing football (that’d be soccer to Americans) when the game turned into a brawl that quickly spread to the rest of the prison. The general air of violence made authorities extremely uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that they only bothered to negotiate with the prisoners for about an hour before sending in troops to squash the rebellion.
Over the course of thirty minutes, agents swept through the prison, killing 111 inmates. Each victim was supposedly shot more than five times each. Though 74 of the assaulting agents were convicted of both murder and human rights violations (which would have netted the lot of them more than 700 years of combined jail time), the verdicts were vacated and no one was ever actually sent to jail.