Our loyal correspondent Humongous sent me an email on this topic. He works in a Maximum Security Prison and wondered about my thoughts on what would happen if things went all SHTF. I do not have a ton of knowledge in this area but that hasn't stopped me from writing about all sorts of other topics so why should it be an issue for this one?
I think prisons fair more or less OK (I think some prisoners in Katrina had a rough time but not out of purportion to everyon else) for short term and localized disasters. Just about everywhere has power outages and such so they have (at least I imagine) plans for that. As for local disasters I think bussing to somewhere else is pretty much the answer everywhere. That works if there is a flood in this region or the like.
For a slow slide sort of situation in general I think prisons would fair reasonably well. They are the kind of think that a government (at whatever level) would have to fund. When you are broke you stop eating out but keep buying toilet paper. The wildcard for this sort of situation is that political types could make radical changes is policies or early parole to drop their operational costs.
Me thinks a genuine full on TEOTWAWKI is what our correspondent was mostly thinking about. Broadly speaking I think there are 3 possible options: 1) The prisoners dehydrate/starve/freeze to death in their cells. 2) The prisoners leave the prison and are free. 3) The prisoners are intentionally killed by the guards. I will talk a bit more about each of these broad options a little bit.
1. In my opinion this is probably the least likely scenario. Unless all the prisoners are securely locked in old school small cement cells with heavy metal bars and all the guards decide simultaneously to just go home this would not happen. This would be somewhat probable for an individual or two in a small isolated local jail if the deputy who was on duty was for whatever reason unable to return.
2. This scenario is the most likely in the big picture though it would depend on some other factors. It is also the most likely because it is the most openly defined. In this scenario the prisoners could be freed or escape. I would not be supprised that if a lot of lower security facilities ended up turning the prisoners loose. As for the more dangerous prisoners in more secure facilities me thinks their large scale freedom would be the result of an escape. I think in the security area older prisons would face far better than newer ones as they tended to rely on lots of metal and big walls not security systems and electric fences which rely on power.
In a prison with lowered security because of less/ no power the odds of prisoner escape would be high. Also if prisoners had enough info about what was going on outside to come up with a plan and execute it knowing the guards could not hunker down and wait for help it could get ugly. Most likely I see a combination of those two factors leading to most of the prison breaks.
3. The guards intentionally kill the inmates. I do not see this happening at minimum security jail camps and such. This one would need a couple of conditions for it to come to pass. First of all the facility would need to have the capability to keep inmates controlled in their small cells for awhile regardless of their desperate attempts to free themselves. Second of all the person in charge (might not be the head guy but the one on the scene who is functionally in charge) would need to have a grasp of the true seriousness of the event they were involved in and the implications for letting these violent dangerous criminals loose in a world without law and order. This would take a combination of being pragmatic and a really cold hearted mother fucker. Third the guards who were left (some would not show up and some might abandon their posts with useful equipment and guns) would have to have the means to kill the inmates in a not up close and personal manner, basically guns and enough ammo to do the job. That shouldn't be a big issue unless someone has already cleared out the gun cabinet and or ammo storage on their way out for the last time. I think that in more conservative areas with more of a law and order type philosophy there would probably be more dead violent prisoners than escaped violent prisoners.
I could see the guards potentially separating the non total psycho inmates and putting them on their way then making sure the real nut jobs never get out.
As for what I think would go down by and large. Prisoners in minimum and medium security facilities would mostly go free be it by jumping over the fence or walking with their personal belongings through the front gate. For maximum security prisons I think it would be more likely to see a combination of escape attempts (large or small, peaceful or violent) and mass executions. Also a few would probably have one botched by the other and darn near everybody ending up dead. Maybe the inmates make a go of it and a guard in a good position with a rifle takes a lot of them out or the guards try to make like it is the bloody days of the French Revolution and the inmates rush them and do some real damage.
I do know that JWR considers prisons in his regional/ local retreat advice and this makes a lot of sense to me. Do not make a mistake of underestimating them because they would be poorly equipped. Pretty darn quick these predators would arm themselves and most would start reaking havoc.
I would not want to live near a prison (I say prison intentionally there are jails all over the place) say within a 40 mile radius of one.