Major Disturbances: A Review of the Literature

Research Highlights: Existing literature highlights key characteristics and causal factors of historical prison riots; further research is needed to explore major disturbances in contemporary institutional contexts.


No R-427

A full PDF is also available for download on the Government of Canada Publications.

Major Disturbances: A Review of the Literature

Research at a Glance – PDF

December 2020
ISBN: 978-0-660-36583-1
Cat. No. : PS84-163/2020E-PDF

Why we did this study

While relatively rare in number, major prison disturbances are key indicators of correctional performance. CSC defines a major disturbance as inmate-initiated incidents that disrupt the routine for the whole or a significant portion of the inmate population, such as riots and the seizure of units by inmates (Correctional Service of Canada, 2016). To better understand the causes and characteristics of major disturbances, we conducted a review of the literature, with a particular focus on prison riots.

What we did

We conducted a keyword search of academic databases and search engines and examined reference sections to identify literature for review. We analyzed the literature through an in-depth content analysis, focusing in particular on theoretical insights regarding both the causes and characteristics of major disturbances.

What we found

The literature on prison disturbances is marked by definitional and conceptual inconsistencies. The terms ‘riot’, ‘major disturbance’, and ‘major incident’ tend to be used interchangeably, and the literature focuses almost exclusively on riots. Furthermore, there is no single definition of what constitutes a major disturbance (Adams, 1994), and there is disagreement about what qualifies as a prison riot (Boin & van Duin, 1995). Despite this, there are certain characteristics evident across distinct definitions, including: involvement of multiple participants (collective action); a loss of institutional control; occurring over a period of time; and having significant consequences (e.g. violence; property damage).

Causal explanations tend to focus on the role of structural factors in precipitating riots. Such factors include predisposing environmental factors; a catalytic incident; inmate perceptions of deprivation; breakdowns in systems of power/social control and; a sudden change in mechanisms of control. Some explanations also identify individual-level factors (e.g. inmate characteristics, profile of the inmate population) as causal factors.

Research also suggests that prison riots are multi-faceted, with several forces intersecting to disrupt the institution (Carrabine, 2005). Resultantly, explanatory frameworks are best used in an integrated fashion (Martin & Zimmerman, 1990).

The existing literature on prison disturbances is dated, focusing significantly on historical prison riots or the history of prison riots. Additionally, existing research is primarily U.S.-based, with limited if any research considering major inmate-initiated incidents in Canadian institutions.

What it means

Given that institutional social conditions vary over time and across context, there is a need for more up-to-date research that reflects the contemporary Canadian institutional context, including the rise of security threat groups, the aging older offender population and marked changes in prison culture (e.g. McKendy & Ricciardelli, 2019). Further empirical and theoretical work is also needed to discern and understand distinct types of major disturbances to extend current knowledge beyond incidents of prison riots.


Adams, R. (1994). Prison riots in Britain and the USA (2nd edition). London: MacMillan Press.

Boin, A. and van Duin, M. J. (1995). Prison riots as organisational failures. The Prison Journal 75(3), 357-379.

Carrabine, E. (2005). Prison riots, social order and the problem of legitimacy. British Journal of Criminology, 45(6), 896-913.

Correctional Service of Canada. (2016). Commissioner's Directive 568-1, Recording and Reporting of Security Incidents. Ottawa, ON: Correctional Services Canada.

Martin, R. and Zimmerman, S. (1990). A typology of the causes of prison riots and an analytical extension to the 1986 West Virginia riot. Justice Quarterly, 7(4), 711-737.

McKendy, L., & Ricciardelli, R. (2019). Prison Culture. In M. Deflem (Ed.) The Handbook of Social Control (293-304). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

For more information

Stanley, D., McKendy, L., & Biro, S. (2020). Major Disturbances: A Review of the Literature (Research Report R-427). Ottawa, Ontario: Correctional Service of Canada.

To obtain a PDF version of the full report, or for other inquiries, please e-mail the Research Branch or contact us by phone at (613) 995-3975.

You can also visit the Research Publications section for a full list of reports and one-page summaries.

Date modified: