Doctoral Dissertation Research: Toward an Explanation of U.S. Prison Unrest, 1974 - 2000

Project: Research project

Project Details


The astounding increases in the rates of incarceration in prisons across U.S. states during the last three decades have received widespread attention from social scientists. However, less attention has been paid to how prison institutions have been affected. How have state prisons changed across time in their structural characteristics, institutional efficiency, internal conditions, state-level political context and, most importantly, their level of social unrest? How do changes in the structural characteristics, institutional efficiency, internal conditions, and political context affect levels of prison social unrest? The proposed research depends upon a synthesis of four theories of prison social unrest (administrative-control, inmate-balance, breakdown and state-centered) to guide the development of hypotheses about the relationship between prison social unrest and its predictors across prisons, across state prison systems and through time. Hypotheses will be tested with longitudinal data on the population of state prisons that is in the process of being assembled from a number of sources. These include, but are not restricted to, the U.S. Census of Prisons, which includes six waves of data on all male-state prisons for the years 1974, 1979, 1984, 1990, 1995 and 2000; information on prisons at the state-level gathered by the American Corrections Association for the years 1979 through 2001; and the Expenditure and Employment Data for the Criminal Justice System over the past 25 years. This diverse set of sources will provide multiple measures of key theoretical variables across time and at both the individual prison level and state prison system level. In order to model the distinct characteristics of the aggregated data set appropriate multilevel Poisson regression techniques will be utilized. Three-level models will be specified to initially determine the pattern of change in prison social unrest over time. In addition, the multilevel models will allow the examination of the relationship between prison level and state-level predictors of prison social unrest. The broader impact of this research lies in its potential contribution by systematically describing spatial and temporal variation in U.S. prison social unrest and conditions over the last three decades as well as by showing how variation in prison conditions and contexts dampen or encourage prison unrest. Considering that the current prison population exceeds more than a million inmates and annual expenditures for corrections is now straining almost every state budget, prisons are a critical issue on the domestic agenda. Policy makers and those responsible for carrying out policies will be better prepared to make informed decisions regarding prisons with the benefit of a historical understanding of the changes these institutions have undergone, as will be illuminated by this project. Moreover, identifying the causal mechanisms of social unrest that endangers both inmates and prison personnel will be helpful in informing both future and existing prison policy.

Effective start/end date8/15/037/31/05


  • National Science Foundation: $7,480.00


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