Prison Riots and the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Global Uprising?

At least 108 prisoners from 15 countries have died in coronavirus-related prison riots during the past month. In this post, Dr. Olga Zeveleva introduces the prison riots database she is building, and considers the question of whether we are currently witnessing a global prison uprising. Dr. Sofia Gavrilova, a geographer funded by the Christ Church Research Fund (University of Oxford), is mapping the protests and riots.

It is possible that we are witnessing the first global prison revolt, and we do not yet have a vocabulary to describe this phenomenon. As prisons worldwide have been going on lockdown in an effort to stop coronavirus from spreading, violent prisoner protests have shaken penal systems. Between mid-March and mid-April, at least 108 people lost their lives in prison riots all over the world.

Prison riots have broken out across 36 countries (see Table 1 at the bottom of this post). In 15 of these countries, they have resulted in fatalities, mostly among prisoners, and in once case (in Afghanistan) among prison guards. The most violent of these riots will enter history as some of the deadliest prison protests the world has seen. According to Amnesty International, around 36 prisoners may have been killed in two prisons in Iran. 23 incarcerated people died in one of the largest jails of Bogotá, Colombia. To compare, the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot, considered to be one of the most violent prison uprisings in American history, resulted in 33 deaths. The infamous Attica prison riot in New York took 43 lives in 1971.

Due to a lack of comparative global research on prison riots, it is difficult to identify what is new and unique about the current surge in protest behind bars. However, we can already see that riots have broken out in vastly differing prison environments over a short period of time. They have shaken regional and national prison systems, but they have taken place against the backdrop of a global problem – the coronavirus pandemic.

Below, I will discuss how coronavirus prison policies are producing a situation of hyperisolation in prisons, and how existing theories of prison riots help to explain the global prison protests we are seeing today.

Map: Sofia Gavrilova. The points on the map indicate riots taking place in specific countries, and do not reflect the geographic locations of the riots within each country. Click image to enlarge.

Hyperisolation in the context of the pandemic

My monitoring of prison policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in countries around the world has shown that the most popular tactic, implemented in over 80 countries over the course of March and early April, is to limit connections between prisoners and the outside world by temporarily banning visitors. All countries that have implemented this ban have primarily targeted family members of prisoners, and in some countries the ban extends to lawyers, teachers, and other prison staff outside regular guards. Some countries have also banned or limited the delivery of goods from family members to prisoners. Penal systems are designed to impose isolation on incarcerated people, but recent bans on visitation and deliveries has thrust them into a newfound hyperisolation in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the move towards hyperisolation of prisoners has been almost universal across the 80+ countries I included in my database, its effects are not uniform across penal systems. In some countries, prisoners depend on relatives for nutritious food, medicine, and other basic supplies. Increased isolation can also cut off the flow of drugs into prisons, causing withdrawal among addicted prisoners. 

All the prison riots that took place in March were reported on in the media as specifically coronavirus-related protests. They included protests against visitation bans, as well as calls on the part of prisoners for staff to supply them with hand sanitiser, soap, and face masks. In April, major riots took place in Syria and in Russia without a clearly formulated connection to the pandemic. Even so, we must not discount the pandemic as a backdrop to such riots: with ever more prisons going on lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus, the resulting hyperisolation has effects that go beyond immediate health concerns. Lack of access to prisons by lawyers, human rights defenders, NGOs, and public oversight groups leads to an unprecedented degree of prisoner dependence on prison guards. This, in turn, leaves prisoners even more vulnerable to corruption and violence. In the weeks to come, we may see more prison riots stemming from new structural conditions of hyperisolation rather than from the immediate fears of sanitary conditions or visitation bans.

What do prison riot theories tell us?

Existing research on prison riots tells us that they occur all over the world, in states with differing political regimes, in wealthier and less wealthy countries, in capitalist and mixed economies. The map pictured above, featuring prison riots occurring between mid-March and mid-April this year, reminds us of this fact. In this section, I turn to a typology of prison riot theories offered by Eamonn Carrabine (2005), and reflect on how these approaches help us to think about protests in prisons that are on lockdown due to coronavirus.

According to the “Breakdown” perspective, riots occur when there is a breakdown of consensus between the prison administration and incarcerated people, which leads the administration to shift towards coercive methods of control, making prisoners feel that they have nothing to lose by rebelling (see Colvin’s 1992 analysis of the 1980 riot at the Penitentiary New Mexico, where 33 prisoners died). During a public health crisis and subsequent prison lockdown, new rules of interaction must be swiftly established between the administration and the prisoners. In this new context of hyperisolation, old rules break down and new rules may not be transparent or consistent.

“Deprivation” Theory suggests that levels of deprivation in prisons are so high that prisoners are driven to cathartic outbreaks of violence to protest unjust conditions. Rioting is a rational response of prisoners to the everyday arbitrary use of power against them. Similarly to the “Breakdown” perspective, prisoners have nothing to lose by revolting. According to this approach, all forms of imprisonment are a manifestation of the use of force and state coercion (see Scraton et al’s 1991 analysis of Peterhead prison protests in 1986-1987). This theory reminds us that in a context of hyperisolation during a prison lockdown, prisoners are deprived of even more freedoms than usual as visits and deliveries are suspended.

The “Administrative Breakdown” approach treats prison riots as micro-revolutions and argues that riots occur when there is a breakdown in administrative control over the prison. This can include poor communication, incoherent rules for staff and prisoners, conflicts among staff, and so on. Echoing state-centric theories of revolution, the precondition for a riot is the vulnerability of the governing administration rather than the inherent desires of rioters to overthrow the status quo (see Useem and Kimball’s 1989 comparative analysis of nine prison riots in America). This approach can explain a riot that takes place as a prison administration scrambles to adjust to new rules during a lockdown.  In some prisons in Russia, for example, prison guards have begun to work in shifts, remaining at work for several days in a row. Such swift changes in the daily routines of a prison can lead to conflicts, informal dealings, or chaos within a prison administration.

The “Ritual and Fatalism” perspective, as I would call it, allows us to see that prisons generate diverse forms of social order even in the context of unexpected and sometimes illegitimate distributions of power. Prison rituals (like degradation ceremonies or mundane repetitive routines) uphold this order. Prisoners fatalistically accept the prison regime even when they believe it is illegitimate (see Carrabine’s 2005 analysis of prison riot theories). This perspective can shed light on recurring patterns of protest in prisons all over the world, such as the burning of mattresses, or groups of prisoners simultaneously slitting their wrists. It also explains why riots are not occurring more frequently than they are, and why acceptance of the power structures in place prevails even when there is a breakdown of legitimacy in a prison. My own conversations with prisoners in Russia show that some of them vehemently support the administration in their efforts to contain the pandemic and are ready to comply to new rules, even when the are unsettling and disruptive.

Theories about prison riots focus on what happens inside penal institutions between prisoners and other prisoners, prisoners and guards, and within the prison administration. Today, the global pandemic and policy responses to COVID-19 constitute macro-level factors that are leading to similar micro-level responses from prisoners all over the world. While the theories above can explain what micro-level conditions can make a prison riot possible, we have to remember that the hyperisolation prisoners are facing currently has been caused by an extra-penal phenomenon, and prisoners all over the world are reacting simultaneously.  We must gather more data on these riots in order to account for dynamics of gender, race, class, religion, age, and ability. We must also consider factors like corruption, prisoners’ access to medical care and its quality, violence that preceded hyperisolation, and the power of local criminal gangs. Comparative work will be crucial here.

Concluding remarks

The analysis presented here is part of an effort to consider how the pandemic is affecting systems of social control around the world. I have shown how prison lockdowns are resulting in the hyperisolation of prisoners. This hyperisolation is producing ripple-effects that reach beyond immediate sanitary and health concerns of prisoners, leaving this already marginalized group even more vulnerable in relation to prison guards, corruption, and violence. 

Existing theories on prison riots have focused on micro-level dynamics between prisoners and staff to explain when a riot is made possible. However, national penal systems are now dealing with a global problem in the form of the COVID-19 outbreak. Local prison environments have been thrust into this global context. The hyperisolation of prisoners that has resulted from COVID-19 policies is now causing violent breaks from this isolation, as prisoners in different systems revolt simultaneously.

We have seen that prison riots are taking place across differing regime types, penal systems, and regions of the world. Yet despite the surge in prison riots globally, we should also keep in our field of vision prisons and prison systems where these riots are not taking place. We should be asking, for example, why riots are not occurring more often than they do.

My analysis has also pointed to a lack of macro-sociological and comparative studies on prison riots around the world. This gap makes it difficult to definitively claim that we are witnessing a global prison revolt stemming from hyperisolation. Nonetheless, we should remain open to such a perspective as we watch the situation unfold over the coming months.


Table 1: List of countries where prison riots have taken place, 10 March – 15 April 2020.
Last updated: 15 April 2020.

Riots and protests without fatalities Australia
France; French Guiana
South Africa
Trinidad and Tobago
UK (Scotland)
USA (Kansas; Washington)
Riots with fatalities (number of deaths) Afghanistan (2)
Argentina (1)
Chad (at least 2)
Columbia (23)
India (3)
Indonesia (1)
Iran (estimated 36)
Italy (13)
Jordan (2)
Mauritius (1)
Nigeria (at least 8)
Romania (3)
Russia (1)
Sri Lanka (2)
Venezuela (at least 10)


For a discussion of the term “prison riot” and a critical analysis of the sources I have used, see the Appendix at the bottom of this post.

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