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Security Threat Groups: The Important Elements in Prison Riots

Prison riots have been a part of such institutions for a long time. They are romanticized by popular culture, and they are known to be extremely violent. There are many causes of such events as well as special patterns. Meanwhile, there is a phenomenon of Security Threat Groups. While being widely associated with prison violence and especially riots, they are the product and attribute of the system where they function.

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To begin with, it is vital to define the notion of the Security Threat Group. Some belief it to be a form of euphemism for the phenomenon of prison gangs (U.S. Legal, 2019). These terms do appear to be synonymous. As Crank and Marcum (2016) define it, “those are cohesive groups with an identified leader that participate in criminal activities while incarcerated” (p. 98). Members of such groups comprise about 11% of the total prison population: their number was estimated at 2.2 million people by 2016 (Crank & Marcum, 2016). Some join such groups seeking protection or just as a result of emerging into the prison subculture (Crank & Marcum, 2016). It is essential to note that many participate in these groups in continuation of the life outside the prison as loyalty to a gang are expected despite any circumstances (Crank & Marcum, 2016).

Speaking of the causes of the prison riots, gang activity is among them, but it is undoubtedly not the only one. First, there is typically a lack of response to inmate requests and complaints. Second, it is uncontrolled violence among the ones imprisoned or from administrative workers and the overall vague lines of authority. Moreover, riots are sometimes caused by a conflict between the official administration and the criminal authorities, tending to control some prisons. A situation like that occurred in Irkutsk in Russia in 2020 (Reuters, 2020). Another cause to mention has to do with contraband control that frequently becomes an object of conflict. In a word, there are various roots of prison riots; however, most of them are focused on the question of power and control that seem to be the vital elements of prison life.

As for the riots stages, the expert community usually defines five steps. The first one is explosion or initiation. For instance, the famous Attica riot in 1971, occurred when inmates headed to breakfast and overpowered a couple of guards (Thompson, 2016). It is typical of this stage to cause mass violence. Secondly, it is time for the organization and expansion of a riot. Thirdly, these events face confrontation which can be understood as the peak of a riot. Fourthly, it eventually comes to a termination, and, hence, reaction and explanation from various perspectives. Overall, prison riots typically follow a common pattern of a five-stage cycle.

Finally, one must consider Security Threat Groups’ influence on prison riots. To begin with, their “critical mass’ is the factor inspiring the articulation of inmates’ concerns. Another aspect is that such groups tend to recruit and radicalize other members of the community. The latter significantly contributes to further riots, especially at the initiation and organization steps. Therefore, Security Threat Groups are a vital element of prison riots. However, it would also be fair to claim that they are not a reason for the latter but rather an attribute of a system.

To conclude, Security Threat Groups appear to be an a priori element of prison culture, inspired and cultivated by its fundamental principles of power. The notion can be understood as groups executing criminal activity in prisons. There are multiple reasons to join such groups as well as to start a riot. The latter goes through several stages and always comes to an end with reactions and explanations.


Crank, B., & Marcum, C. (2016). Orison gangs and Security Threat Groups. In C. Hilinsky-Rosick, J. Walsh, C. Buist, B. Crank, & E. Lasko (Eds.), Issues in corrections: Research, policy, and future prospects (pp. 97 – 110). Lexington Books.

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Reuters. (2020). Fire breaks out at Siberian prison after violence. Web.

Thompson, A. (2016). Blood in the water: The Attica prison uprising of 1971 and its legacy. Pantheon.

U.S. Legal. (2019). Security Threat Group (STG) law and legal definition. Definitions U.S. Legal. Web.

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