• Prisoner X

#2 The Worst - Part I

Horror stories about violence behind bars are never lacking. They proliferate like flies, rising from the bloated corpse of the prison system to haunt us, as if they are vengeful ghosts, mostly in the form of Hollywood films, and popular fiction. Such stories have permeated our society to the extent they are unavoidable. Everyone has heard a few, each more bloody and gruesome than the last.

Due to the prevalence of such stories, I am often asked about violence, and the threat of attack. The expectation is that it is the worst thing about being in prison, and that everyone lives in constant fear. The truth, however, is far different than the perception, and much more pedestrian.



Violence remains an integral part of prison life, which will never be completely eradicated from this setting, due to its very nature. Too many men, from too many differing backgrounds, in too little space, with too little to occupy their time, is always going to result in problems. Yet it is hardly one of the worst aspects of prison, especially for those here on death row.

Most maximum security federal prisons, known as United States Penitentiaries, or USPs, have their fair share of violence. Each averages between 200 and 400 assaults resulting in serious injuries per year. But even so, violence only constitutes a tiny portion of any given individual's time. Most become inured to it, to such an extent that unless it is directed at them personally, it is hardly noticed, and almost ceases to matter.

For those on death row, it is even less of a concern, for very pragmatic reasons: it simply does not happen. Longitudinal statistical studies, with decades of research to prove their validity, have shown that those incarcerated for murder are less likely to become involved in further violence than any other specific class of prisoner. The reasons for this remain heavily debated, but the truth of the matter is beyond dispute.

The Special Confinement Unit, or SCU (Commonly pronounced as "skoo" by prisoners and guards alike), was opened to house federal death row prisoners in 1999. In the twenty years since, there has never been a murder. There has never been a rape. There has only been a total of 5 assaults of any sort, and only one of those resulted in a serious injury. This is quite a contrast to the level of violence experienced in any other maximum security setting. If violence statistics are correlated and compared with those of the free world, the results show that prisoners on death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, are far safer, and far less likely to be exposed to violence that the residents of any major city in the U.S.


Please do not think I am trivializing prison violence. Prisoners are stabbed, raped, and murdered, every day, and it remains a significant problem in nearly every maximum security environment. What I am trying to say is it simply is not a factor on death row. And even in the settings where it is a concern, violence can be avoided, it can be compartmentalized, or dealt with in any number of other ways, which is why I contend that it is not one of the worst aspects of prison. Because there are some things which have no answer at all, and these problems are infinitely more difficult to endure, for having no possible solution.



Links to the other articles of the "The Worst" series:

#3 The Worst - Part II


# 4 The Worst - Part III

Picture: Danai Khampiranon/ Shutterstock.com

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