Five Letters Re: Prisons and Other Institutions Amidst a Societal Collapse?

Mr. Rawles-
I just finished reading the letter sent in by the correctional officer regarding his prison’s security infrastructure and keeping the prisoners in during a SHTF scenario. I think he’s missing an important element regarding keeping prisoners in the prison: He assumes the prisoners will be attempting to get over or under the fences unaided. Prisoners have families and social connections on the outside. During a true SHTF breakdown, some of those outsiders will take risks on behalf of their incarcerated loved ones. The fences that should be an obstacle could be breached with a vehicle from the outside in just a few seconds, by someone coming to the aid of a prisoner during social upheaval.

In a situation where the wheels are really coming off our society, I believe people should assume the majority of prison inmates will get out, and become difficult to identify as they reintegrate with whatever elements of society are left.
Regards, – Rich S.


I enjoy reading your blog. Let me be the first to applaud you on your record of more than three years of daily posts without a miss. Good job! Now let me recommend that you start posting twice a day!

On the subject of prisons, something that hasn’t been mentioned other than obliquely is the possibility of outside help in the time of collapse. And I’m not talking about the help of peace-loving citizens in maintaining order in a time of society difficulty. If the world goes crazy, I suspect that family members, fellow gang members and some who just like to feed chaos will be assisting prisoners escape from the outside. This would include attempting to take out guards if they are still on duty, ramming the fences with vehicles to break them down, to even opening individual cells. Just something to think about, especially if you live near a prison. – Brian


James Wesley,
I have a friend that lives near a [high security] Federal prison. Complete with guard towers, COs carrying weapons, and a lot of inmates. We have talked about this at length and have some conclusions similar to your man that posted from the Midwest. I have one issue with his logic – here in our area a lot of inmates have family members that have purchased housing close to the prison to make for easier visitation (and bring a new low to our area). I would say that the local people might stop some of these guys from getting over or under the fence but I would also say that one ‘loved one’ with a semi or large box truck will make sure that these upstanding incarcerated ex-citizens will be able to make a break for it by crashing the fence. You can count on some bad guys getting their friends out in a time of crisis as they will have some people on the outside with out a doubt.

Just something that people over look – saying the locals are going to pepper them in to demise is not counting that they may have relatives or friends coming to rescue them from a sure end at the hands of the man. So it might be good idea to set up security both to and from the prison before that peppering action takes place. – Fitzy in Pennsylvania


I have enjoyed the illuminating, if somewhat chilling, discussion regarding the fate of correctional institutions in the event of a total TEOTWAWKI event. Joe in the Midwest paints a very interesting picture that, coming from an insider carries great credibility. The water issue alone pretty much guarantees the end of any possible uprising in a matter of days. Grim, but there it is.

It occurred to me, however, that while it may be possible to button up a facility on the inside, there may be serious gaps in security that might prevent a determined force, arriving on scene well equipped, to break in and free everyone. This has happened before, in Latin America on occasion. In fact, a sniper from outside the prison carried out a gangland execution from a hillside in France as late as Sept. 30th of this year. In Iraq and elsewhere, attacks from the outside to facilitate escapes seem to be getting almost routine.

In a situation where it was becoming apparent that law and order were breaking down across the spectrum, I find it unlikely that the Mexican Mafia or other robust organizations of that nature would sit by and allow their comrades to remain locked in a potential death trap. These organizations are more than capable of throwing the kind of party that could see the facility breached from the outside in while an uprising occurs inside.

The local community, as Jim pointed out, would be a key source of back-up for a beleaguered guard force but they had better be prepared to meet with a force that would undoubtedly be equipped with all the kinds of things you don’t find in sporting goods stores and prepared to commit extreme violence. In the case of the aforementioned organization, they undoubtedly have members in their ranks who have served in someone’s army somewhere, most likely in combat or severe unrest areas.

Making their way to their target would not necessarily be too difficult as many of these facilities are within range of a tank of gas from areas where these groups congeal in numbers. More than likely a number of gas stations along the way that can be looted as well.

Some of the figures in secure facilities mean a great deal to these organizations, sometimes even running them from the inside. That they would sit idly by and let them die I find unlikely. At that point, you’ve got serious problems on two fronts. Those fences can be breached by anyone with a chain saw with a metal cutting attachment…or a stolen dump truck. Defeat the cinder block in much the same way and saw through any re-bar they encounter. The corrections officers get pinned down in their secure fall back position by infantry and all the birdies fly the cage.
Any local law enforcement organizations or concerned citizens in these areas may wish to consider that possibility as they ponder our uncertain future. – Mosby

Mr. Rawles:
Having read the post about a large correctional facility from the perspective of one of it’s guards – I think that a few things need to be addressed.

It’s not necessary to go over or under a wire fence, you simply need to defeat some of it’s deadlier facets. Defensive obstacles are only as good as the people defending their integrity. With 30 minutes the convicts will have the concertina wire cleared away and the fence itself clipped. Among the many things taken from inmates on a regular basis are makeshift wire cutters. Worse yet, envision an accomplice outside the wire (realizing the fence is no longer defended) can simply walk up and toss a couple of small bolt cutters that will deal with the fence quickly. I suppose it’s even possible to simply drive a vehicle through both fences, although some are built with concrete bases and are resistant to this. The point is, the fence might as well not exist – there will be no folks on the other side of the wire to defend it, most of them in such a scenario will be at their homes looking after their families – the only ones available might be unmarried men and women, but – again – their labors are far more usefully spent preparing at their shelter, than protecting society at large by their actions.

Perhaps he should ask himself exactly how many COs will remain to defend the wire? And you have to remember that you are flanked, since each of those inmates has family, and if experience serves, quite a few families move to the area near the institution just to be nearby [to facilitate frequent visits].

He’s right, of course, in that there are typically only a core of troublemakers bent on violence, for the most part America locks up a lot of non-violent people, our incarceration rates per capita are staggering compared with the worse third-world hellholes for human rights. Yeah, there is summary execution in those places that aren’t factored in, but we seem to be the only on that is bent on rearing millions of people that have been disenfranchised and alienated from their own society.

According to The Christian Science Monitor: “More than 5.6 million Americans are in prison or have served time there, according to a new report by the Justice Department released Sunday. That’s 1 in 37 adults living in the United States, the highest incarceration level in the world.”

Now let’s look at the ripple, each of those persons is a member of some family for the most part, most have children – all of these people have a bone to pick with society as a whole. So it is not unjustifiable to contemplate that there are a few hundred people outside of the prison that will make it their business to free those that are still inside. Then there are the families, who, realizing, that their loved ones are in a locked-down prison, starving and subject to the basest brutality imaginable – will mount some sort of rescue effort.

Let us hope that it’s not a family member with access to a M1 Abrams tank or even a Bradley [tracked Infantry Fighting Vehicle], not to mention the several different varieties of armored transportation our military uses and stockpiles around the country.

Long before this happens, the administration of each prison (and since it’s more and more often a private corporation with no intrinsic duty to serve the public trust) needs to identify their core population that are the violent offenders, put them in the deepest lockdown, then release the non-violent ones. It really is a small percentage of the population. Get them back with the only societal control that has any chance of working, their families. But you need to do it before you have 2,000 violent felons looking for a way out. They will find a way out.

I, frankly think that if things collapse too hard that the prisons in California alone will be overrun by the gang members who are not in the prison. Pelican Bay Correctional Facility had 3,301 prisoners as of 2006. While located in the far north of California hundreds of miles from S.F. and L.A. – it’s only a hop and a skip to Salem, Oregon. And it’s where California houses the worst of the worst. Fortunately for San Francisco, a far larger prison exists just north of the bay – San Quentin. With a paltry 5,000 maximum security inmates. It costs $210 million a year to run. In a collapse can you really foresee any state government allocating that?

If you live in California, you really want to avoid the areas on this map. They have 318,000 inmates in their system with an annual turnover of about 14,000 (leaving and being replaced) It costs almost $10 billion a year to run with a per inmate cost of $35,000. That $10 billion represents the budget shortfall that California is currently struggling with.

The correctional system and it’s repercussions on our society is yet one more lie we as citizens have been allowing our politicians to use to manipulate us. The truest statement ever made about prison, is that most people go into it fairly naive and non-violent, they get their real education once they are in there. If someone burglarizes my home, for instance, I figure he owes me to fix it and to replace stuff – that’s pretty much it. As our current legal systems exists, the bad guy doesn’t commit a crime against me, but against “The People of the State of California” – huh? Recently a burglar duo had their sentences ‘modified’ – they had been convicted of 32 separate residential burglaries – most while the residents were at home. In the original sentence one got 18 months and the other got six months, reimbursement was ordered and each was to write a letter of apology to the victims, along with 500 hours of community service. Without telling the victims, about 9 months later, the sentences of both were modified to credit for time served, the writs of restitution were vacated and they were both released without spending one hour doing community service, and not one penny to restitution. And it was all done without the knowledge or consent of the real victims, who no longer had the right to object simply because the crime was against, “The People”. No kidding.

I’m pretty sure that we turn out more violent offenders every year than we do doctors and nurses in a given year. Heck, in California alone it’s 14,000. And most of those aren’t first offenders, it is very rare to spend time in a real prison on your first offense in California.

So while the fence looks formidable, and I’m certain someone would make some effort to secure it in the event of a total lockdown – there are factors that we have been breeding out of control for decades now that will influence the ultimate outcome of it.

Oh, did anyone notice that the California Penal System map didn’t include Federal facilities? There are 11 of them. Here’s a map of Federal Prisons in the BOP’s farthest western region.

Not all federal facilities are true prisons, some are temporary facilities (like those attached to courthouses)

Oops, have we forgotten all the local prisons (county jails) Each county has at least one, but most have at least two (one for temporary – awaiting trial, short sentences) and one for longer term. Hmmm… Let’s see: California has 58 counties, and officially 117 jails according to records. Most of these have a wide mix of inmates, in most cases those sentences to misdemeanors go to county jail, but a lot of inmates there are held by contract with state corrections due to overcrowding, and lets not forget that when a prison inmate must undergo a trial while still incarcerated, they are transferred to a county facility until the trial is over. At any one time in California there are 6,000 people awaiting trial on various felonies, some will plea out, some will go to trial, etc. It is estimated that current capacity is 75,000 – add that to the state prisoners and federal prisoners and you come up with 20,133 in California (according to the Bureau of Prisons web site) as of Nov 2, 2008.

Aw, gosh – I almost forgot the seven military prisons or confinement centers in California! This rounds out the current population to around 180,000 people in California alone – and they are everywhere that people are. That, by the way – does not include the county jails. It is difficult to get a day to day count there because so many of them are operating well above their rated capacity

People whine all the time about the money we ‘waste’ on military interventions – and nobody seems to care about the number one growth industry in America today – prison.

Oh, this doesn’t count those people who are currently serving their sentences in house arrest or other non-incarceration capacity – but that number is statistically small compared to those locked up and dehumanized. Do I sound like a bleeding heart type? Well, if you knew me you wouldn’t think so.

Along the same lines of Elizabeth B. who recently explained that stocking up on food wasn’t enough, you have to learn to grow it too – you cannot sit back and expect that criminal acts will disappear in a societal collapse – neither will the criminals who existed before starvation set in, not to mention those that will turn criminal when their survival is on the line. – LDM