When James Robertson strangled his cellmate Frank Hart to death in their shared Florida jail cell back in December 2008, he had a very specific and unusual motive for the crime. He wanted to get on Death Row. However, the reasoning behind most murders that occur behind bars is much easier to understand. That’s not to say that it’s always just ‘beef’, though. It turns out that there is a myriad of different reasons why a convict may decide to take another person’s life in jail.
Let’s be clear, though. Prisons are tough places, no doubt. But while they can be scary and violent buildings in which to dwell, the real world differs quite significantly from Hollywood. Prison murders aren’t actually all that common, even in developing countries. In fact, the homicide rate in US jails averaged just 3 inmates per 100,000 between the years 2000 and 2010, according to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Let’s put that into some perspective for you. In Detroit in 2017 - a city of some 675,000 people - there were 267 murders. That’s 40 people per 100,000. In St Louis that figure was 65. That’s a murder rate some twenty times higher than the one seen in US penitentiaries. In the UK in 2016 there were 354 deaths in prison, with just three of them being recorded as homicides.
While the number of murders inside might be lower than you might imagine, the brutality of these crimes should never be underestimated. In an environment where weapons must be improvised, the violence needed to kill is often quite extreme indeed.
We’re more interested in the whys than the hows here, though. We’ll touch upon the methods, but we’re more focused on the driving forces behind lock-up slayings. Let’s look into just why inmates might kill each other...
To fully explore the idea of murder in prison, it makes sense to separate victims into groups. That way we should be able to greater understand the motivation behind just why people kill behind bars.
The infamous serial killer
Serial killers, for a series of cultural and complicated reasons, are no longer as common as they once were. Back in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s though, they were the most (in)famous criminals on the planet. When finally caught and sent down, they would be huge targets for stabbings, shankings and strangulation.
But why? Well, some serial killer killers explain their actions simply as ‘justice’ for the often helpless female victims. Albert DeSalvo was seemingly killed inside just for being The Boston Strangler (although there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he wasn’t...). After all, killing a world famous killer will earn you some cachet yourself, even if you technically get away with it like Winter Hill Gang mobster Robert Wilson seemed to in DeSalvo’s case.
Rapists and child killers/molesters
Jailhouses are notoriously dangerous places to be for inmates convicted of sexual offences. No matter whereabouts in the world the prison is, the lowest status is in the pecking order is permanently reserved for rapists and child killers/molesters. Those whose crimes were committed against children are so reviled that they’re usually kept away from the general population. But not always.
John Geoghan was an American Roman Catholic priest accused of the sexual abuse of more than 130 boys in Boston down the decades. Eventually, in 2002, he would go down for indecent assault and battery of a ten year-old boy. Some four years after being formally defrocked by Pope John Paul II. In 2003 he would be suffocated and stomped into a pulp until dead by his cellmate, Joseph Druce. A man who had suffered extreme and life-changingly traumatic sexual abuse himself as a child.
Some gangbangers are sent down for crimes committed while in a gang. Some become gangbangers in jail purely for alliance and protection. But while gang alignment affords some level of security, it also - conversely - puts inmates very much in the firing line. Well, the stabbing line, at least.
There are literally thousands of prison gangs across the world and each has its enemies. Sometimes members will be asked to prove their loyalty by murdering a fellow inmate and rival gang member. In the case of Thomas Silverstein, he took his task seriously. As an inductee of the Aryan Brotherhood, ‘Terrible Tom’ happily committed acts of violence which soon escalated to murder. He violently killed DC Blacks gang member Danny Atwell and, later on, a prison guard.
In between those two murders? He killed a close friend of Atwell’s because he feared retribution from the man. With a fellow Aryan brother, Silverstein stabbed Raymond ‘Cadillac’ Smith 67 times and paraded the corpse up and down the corridor to prove a point to the rest of the wing. Soon enough, he rose to the feared level of ‘Shot Caller’ within the white supremacy gang, a position he still holds to this day.
Anyone in a riot who’s ‘a nuisance’
Few people in jail get shanked without provocation. That doesn’t excuse the heinous act, but some tit for tat is usually going on. Generally these incidents happen separately. But, every so often, the authorities lose control of a facility and the inmates effectively take over the place. It’s not terribly common and it’s a good job that it’s not, only the consequences can be dire.
In April 2018, an incredible incident at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina saw seven men killed and a further 17 injured during a huge incident that lasted well over seven hours. The reason given by the two men responsible for the seven murders? The men they killed were ‘nuisances’. Not much provocation, eh?
Inmates that ‘disrespect’ each other
Respect is, understandably, a big deal inside. To some prisoners, it’s everything. When you own very little physical possessions, having respect means a lot. So too do those few things that you own. So when a fellow inmate steals from you, it’s not like on the outside. In jail, your cellmate taking a handful of cigarettes from you is a big problem. Hell, another con stealing some stamps can be a big problem...
The United States Penitentiary of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. June 1st, 2010. Javier Oswaldo Jovel-Aguilar, incarcerated for an expired visa, decides to murder fellow inmate Arnold Smith. Over some stamps. Smith literally got his head stamped because of some stamps. Jovel-Aguilar beat him to death and got thirty years added to his sentence.
Cellmates of Death Row-seeking prisoners
And, of course, there are those poor souls that just so happen to be bunking up with violent criminals who have had enough of being in general population and seek the comparatively peaceful solace of Death Row. Like Frank Hart when he shared a cell, all too briefly, with James Robertson. It’s rare, but strange and terrible things can happen in jail.
This is by no means a fully comprehensive list. Prison is a bizarre and delicate ecosystem with its own ever-changing set of complex laws. Inmates kill each other in prisons across the world, for all sorts of different reasons. Some murders are easy to comprehend, others less so. If you don’t play by the rules, jail can be a tough place to survive in.
Listen to the producers discuss the making of the series in the official podcast.