How To Reduce Violence in Prison

By · Monday, December 1st, 2008

Prisons become violent atmospheres as hope is diminished. When administrators implement policies that decimate an individual’s opportunities to distinguish himself in positive ways, the prisoner feels as if reasons do not exist to even attempt to reform. Instead, he focuses on improving his life within the chaotic boundaries of the penitentiary. Those efforts frequently lead to primal power struggles, and violence frequently results.

To reduce violence in prisons, administrators ought to consider modifying the infrastructure – the rules by which they are governed. Instead of simply threatening prisoners with additional sanctions and punishments, they ought to rely on incentives that motivate those in prison to embrace the principles of good citizenship, even in the community of the confined.

When I was confined in a medium-security prison known as FCI McKean, in Pennsylvania, the warden implemented progressive leadership techniques. Although prisoners were serving lengthy sentences, some without release dates, the warden was a firm believer in the use of incentives. Wardens do not have the authority to change release dates, yet they do set the policies by which prisoners live. At FCI McKean, Warden Dennis Luther offered numerous incentives that prisoners could work toward earning. For example, he allowed those prisoners who kept their disciplinary records clean to choose their housing unit so they could live with like-minded individuals. Those who preferred a quiet atmosphere could share the same space while those who passed time playing table games could live together. That was a big deal, enabling prisoners to have some control over their lives.

There were many other incentives Warden Luther used to inspire good behavior. Those incentives did not come at taxpayer expense. For example, he allowed prisoners to earn the right to purchase food from local restaurants on occasion; he allowed prisoners to earn the right to purchase athletic apparel from local stores rather than from the limited selection of prison commissaries; he allowed prisoners to earn the right to watch videos or listen to cassette recordings of music; he allowed prisoners to earn the right to additional visiting and telephone privileges.

As a consequence of Warden Luther’s progressive policies, prisoners with long histories of violence got along. Instead of challenging the system or causing disturbances, they worked to earn the additional freedoms and privileges that were available. His leadership led to success as measured by the prison system’s own metrics: lower incidents of violence, no suicides, no escape attempts.

Warden Luther retired in 1995. The new warden eliminated Warden Luther’s progressive management techniques and reverted to oppressive practices. Within six months of the administrative changes, a riot broke out that caused more than a million dollars in damages. I wrote about my experiences of confinement under Luther in articles available at They convince me that incentives are effective.

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