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January 1982

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Introduction: Riots are a recurrent phenomenon in American prisons. In the 1950s and the early 1970s, major riots erupted in prisons across the country, and many have occurred in the past several years.' Riots will continue to occur as long as the dominant function of prisons is the custodial confinement of inmates. As one commentator explains, "The way to make a strong bomb is to build a strong perimeter and generate pressure inside. Similarly, riots occur where ... pressures and demands are generated in the presence of strong custodial confinement."When such a bomb detonates and a prison riot erupts, a variety of demands are placed upon the legal system. The violence and lawlessness characteristic of prison riots often result in extensive property damage, personal injury, and death. Prison riots thus may trigger the operation of both the civil and the criminal justice systems, for prison riots may give rise to tort actions against the state by prisoners and by guards and to criminal actions against the rioting prisoners. In addition, the legal system must resolve certain problems unique to the prison riot. To quell a riot, the state may grant amnesty to the prisoners or enter into agreements not to prosecute them for acts committed during the riot. The courts must decide whether a grant of amnesty or a settlement agreement should be given legal effect. Courts also may face first amendment claims involving the rioting prisoners' ability to communicate with the press and the press' access to the prison during the riot. This Article will examine the legal issues generated by prison riots from the perspective of three of the actors in those riots: the lawyer, the prisoner, and the prison guard. Each actor obviously has differing, and often competing, concerns and desires. In seeking to resolve these concerns, however, each must confront obstacles springing from a matrix of four factors: the traditional attitude of the courts toward prisons, the lawless nature of the prison riot, the doctrines governing the legal status of prisoners, and the jurisdictional rules governing law- suits against the state and its officials.