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“As the five men waited for the SaMarion case to reach trial in the summer of 1962, they planned a hunger strike protesting solitary confinement. The prisoners claimed that Bratcher’s segregation was “an excuse by the warden . . to make him seem that he was crazy concerning this trial that was coming up.” Writ writing had exacerbated fears among prison officials and became one of the most successful strategies for Muslim prisoners. The Nation of Islam successfully flooded the courts with writs across the country. Between 1961 and 1978, sixty-six reported federal court decisions were made on suits fled by prisoners affiliated with the Nation of Islam. In California the number of habeas corpus petitions rose from a mere 814 in 1957 to nearly five thousand by 1965. At San Quentin in 1965, prisoners were churning out almost three hundred petitions per month. As Judge Brennan noted at one trial, these were not “cases where uneducated, inexperienced and helpless plaintiffs are involved … these applications are part of a movement.” Prison litigation became the “peaceful equivalent of a riot” by catalyzing public support and bringing national attention to the otherwise-hidden struggles of prisoners.

One of the largest structural challenges to prison organizing was physical isolation from the outside world. Activists relied on what Berger has called “a strategy of visibility” to make their struggles known. Testifying has its political roots in slavery and has been carried forward through the black feminist tradition. As Danielle McGuire points out in her work on the role of the struggle against sexual violence in the civil rights movement, “testimony must be seen as a form of direct action and radical protest.” Black prisoners saw the courts as political pulpits, a breach in the walls allowing them to take their claims before the world outside. As James Jacobs wrote, “it is as if the courts had become a battlefield where prisoners and prison administrators, led by their respective legal champions, engage in mortal combat.” Sostre later wrote that the “court is an arena. It is a battlefield—one of the best. We will use these same torture chambers, these same kangaroo courts, to expose them.”

Nowhere was this more evident than during Malcolm X’s testimony during the SaMarion trial. Bratcher realized that the state would be mobilizing witnesses to testify against the Nation of Islam’s standing in the Muslim world and wrote to the minister that the “‘Key’ witness I am depending on to ‘seal’ our victory is ‘You’ Minister Malcolm ‘X.’” This set the stage for a four-day showdown between Malcolm X and the state’s witness, the Columbia University professor Joseph Franz Schacht. While Malcolm X admitted openly in court that he had an eighth-grade education, no formal theological training, and could not speak Arabic, Schacht had a “masterly knowledge” of the language, and his book Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, which argued for the historical development and sociological implications of Islamic law, was considered a seminal text in the Western study of Islam. Yet Malcolm X weaved around the meritocratic probing of the state. When asked if he had a degree in theology, he noted that if “my understanding of the word ‘theological’ is correct, the study of God, the science that deals with religion and the study of God, I studied theology in that sense under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad about our God.” When pressed on the length of his education, he replied: “I am still studying.” When interrogated on whether or not he was ordained or had a written certificate that permitted him to proselytize, he reminded the court that “Jesus sent his disciples forth with no written certificate or anything but his approval.” Malcolm X’s

testimony was so convincing that when Schacht took the stand and listed his membership in the Royal Netherlands Academy, the Arabic Academy in Damascus, and an honorary degree in Law from University of Algiers, the judge responded: “I don’t think it is quite thoroughly clear at this time to qualify him as an expert.” 

While Henderson had, in effect, apologized for and excused his racism in the same remark, his open respect for Malcolm X’s opinion shifted the tenor of the case. As Griffin recalled, Henderson was “impressed by Malcolm and his testimony … [and] respected Malcolm for his clear statements and responses.” Bresnihan, likely attempting to curry favor with the judge, then began adopting the phrase the “American Black Man” in his questioning. Malcolm X’s use of the courtroom as a political stage reveals the importance of testimony as a form of nonviolent resistance. His testimony lasted three days, and was over 20 percent of the two-week trial transcript, successfully compelling the judge to rule that the Nation of Islam was a religious organization. But more importantly, Malcolm X’s  political views took center stage and fundamentally altered the rhetoric and discourse of the case.

The case at Attica Prison also underscores the important role that the jailhouse lawyer played in organizing legal challenges from prison. Knowing that most prisoners were not qualified to draw up their own legal challenges, prisons such as Attica maintained rules prohibiting legal assistance. For example, “rule 21” at Attica stated: “Prisoners are prohibited except upon approval of the warden to assist other prisoners in preparation of legal papers.” This strategy was reproduced nationally as a means of combatting prison litigation efforts. In Texas, administrators employed a similar strategy, forbidding writ writers from possessing the legal materials of a fellow prisoner. In California this was known as Rule D-2602. Even if a prisoner wanted to use another’s paperwork as a template, officials concluded that any legal material in a cell not pertaining to that prisoner was evidence of prison lawyering. Just as grandfather clauses and poll taxes worked as state mechanisms to disfranchise southern black voters, rules governing legal access and jailhouse lawyering sought to curb legal literacy and prisoners’ access to the judicial system. Thus, when Sostre wrote to Walker, he urged him to copy the writ into his notebook, then flush it down the toilet, but not to “let this lay around. This is dynamite.” He then listed the “most essential weapons in fighting Shaitan” (Arabic transliteration of “the devil”): legal paper, an ink eraser, one dollar of postage stamps, a loose-leaf binder, and a ball-point pen.

Trough cases such as Pierce v. LaVallee, SaMarion v. McGinnis, and later, Cooper v. Pate, the NOI brought about judicial oversight such that, by 1974, the Supreme Court declared that no longer was an “iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” Yet, while the Supreme Court strictly forbade any “direct or indirect interference by prisons or state authorities” in prisoners’ access to the courts, prisons obstructed court access through measures such as rule 21. They also limited legal advice, intimidated writ writers, and disrupted the legal process through solitary confinement.

Despite these attempts, Muslim prisoners were more organized than the often uncoordinated strategies of local prison officials and state policy makers. In one example in California, San Quentin Prison officials set up a small office where three prisoners transcribed writs onto standardized forms and processed them on a duplicating machine. Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections attempted to clamp down on writ writers by prohibiting access to law literature and court decisions. 

But Sostre’s letter to Walker in solitary confinement also revealed another strategy pointing toward the concurrent tactics of prison organizing and the broader black freedom struggle. Prisoners appropriated the principal mechanism of prison repression—solitary confinement—as a tool of organized protest. Recognizing that most of Attica Prison’s Muslims were already in solitary confinement, Sostre urged Walker to not be sent back to general population. According to Sostre, they “made a pact not to go down until the religious persecution of the Muslims cease[s].” If Walker was sent back, he was told to threaten to bring contraband literature out of his cell and be sent back to solitary. They reasoned that each time the warden “snatch[ed] an aggressive Muslim out of population, he would send one down from the box and send another one up from population. In other words, he kept manipulating the brothers like monkeys on a string.” Yet Sostre astutely noted that when “the box ceases to work, the entire disciplinary and security system breaks down.” The take-over of solitary confinement was an example of prisoners creatively adapting the methods of prison control as resistance. NOI members filled solitary confinement until the box no longer was an effective form of punishment. Wardens were then faced with the decision of creating hotbeds of activism in segregation or undermining the arbitrary rules they had worked so hard to justify and enforce. 

The prisoners’ strategy of filling solitary confinement mirrored, and in fact predated, the developing civil rights strategy of “Jail, no bail” in the South. …

The prisoners’ strategy of taking over solitary can be traced back to Clinton Prison when the men were reported by the prison officer as discussing the tactics (over a year before the Friendship Nine employed this strategy). While civil rights organizers in the South and prisoners at Attica appropriated forms of state control, Chief Pritchett in Albany was able to mobilize a larger network of police and jails just as wardens at Clinton and Attica Prisons were able to transfer prisoners to other state prisons when their much smaller segregation units became filled with politicized prisoners. Both movements also attempted to garner national attention and press for federal intervention. As Len Holt

of the Congress of Racial Equality explained, “if we go to jail by the hundreds and thousands, the hearts of those who would maintain the old order will be inundated with the guilt necessary to bring about change.” For prisoners at Attica, solitary confinement and the loss of good time were crucial to their claims in state and federal courts. As Sostre wrote: “We have taken over the box and he is anxious to get us out of the box, especially with the big trial coming soon. So don’t let him clean up, for we are living proof of the religious oppression complained of in our writs.” Filling solitary confinement not only

undermined prison security but also built a case for trial and dramatized prisoners’ struggles before the courts and the nation.

But in both cases, appropriation of state repression had unintended consequences. As Berger argues, “mass arrests of political activists provided a dry run for mass incarceration, especially when joined with the economic transformations wrought by mechanization and migration. The civil rights movement gave states an early taste of what it would mean to arrest, prosecute, and imprison large groups of people.” In the case of Muslims at Attica Prison, it coincided with intensified surveillance and monthly reports on the group. Despite their similarities, the “Jail, no bail” strategy has its place in the annals of civil rights history as a heroic confrontation with southern Jim Crow through nonviolent direct action; meanwhile, the take-over of solitary confinement by Muslims at Attica Prison has gone unremarked. At best, the Nation of Islam has been depicted as a reluctant political participant, pulled toward the struggle by Malcolm X. At worst, it is portrayed as an apolitical religious sect that was marginal, or even antithetical, to such movements. Such disparate historical treatments raise important questions about what are seen as legitimate politics, legible activists, and visible sites of resistance in histories of the black freedom movement.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 84-90 

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“The transfer to Attica in 1960 was an explicit attempt at curbing Muslim activism in New York prisons and represented the first of a variety of methods of prison discipline by the state. The practice of transferring prisoners to “break up gangs, separate associates in crime, and prevent disorder” was decades old. Sostre later referred to it as “bus therapy.” It was not unique to New York, however. Chase notes that the Texas Department of Correction distributed Muslims throughout state prisons to limit their influence in any one location. These institutional transfers (referred to as “drafts”) and solitary confinement represented the two largest threats to the stability of Muslim communities in prison. The group was persistently under threat due to this constantly fluctuating base. Short sentences often meant the release of members, and several assistants were appointed for each officer position to assure continuity and sustainability. These multiple appointments were primarily meant to combat the “further reduction of our ranks by the implacable enemy through persecutions (solitary confinement).”

Solitary confinement—sometimes referred to as “the box” or “segregation”—was the prison’s primary tool of security and discipline. The practice of solitary confinement was honed over a century earlier at New York’s Auburn Prison, with a trademark system of strict discipline, labor for prison profit, and solitude. This drew on nineteenth-century penal thought based on the belief that collective work and isolated living would reform prisoners. By the 1960s, at Attica Prison, solitary confinement had shed all pretenses of rehabilitation and was used strictly as a disciplinary measure. The section consisted of fifty individual cells on the third floor of the reception building with each single cell containing only a bed, toilet, wash basin with running water, and a light. When assigned to segregation, prisoners often were required to stay for days or weeks in “keep-lock” or a strip cell before moving to the gallery. “Keep-lock” was a single solitary cell with doors that “do not open up any more.” The strip cell was bare, with only a bucket and blanket. As SaMarion testified, prisoners “do an initial twenty days on a concrete floor with only a pair of winter underwear, pair of socks, no sanitary facilities whatever. The only thing you

use for calls of nature is a bucket, a defecation bucket.” Rations in keep-lock were reduced to half of normal mess-hall food: water and two slices of bread. Magette described keeplock at Clinton Prison as even more medieval. The “Dark Cell” was completely empty, without even a blanket. He was put there naked with a half a cup of water and one slice of bread three times a day. 

But solitary confinement was used by prison officials as more than a physical deterrent. It was coupled with the loss of good time as a way to isolate prisoners while simultaneously extending their sentences. Good time, sometimes referred to as good behavior (and now called “earned time”), was purportedly meant to reward well-behaved prisoners with a shortened sentence through their good conduct. However, like solitary confinement, it was used as a punitive measure. For example, in the first year the men spent at Attica Prison, thirty-three prisoners were sent to solitary confinement and four hundred cases of discipline led to 8,525 total days of good time lost over a nine-month period.

The loss of good time and the use of solitary confinement also punished prisoners in two directions at once. First, prisoners lost an initial amount of time for the disciplinary matter. For instance, SaMarion lost sixty days for joining a hunger strike in protest of the solitary confinement of another Muslim prisoner. Te second loss of time occurred during solitary confinement, as each day in solitary earned three lost days. Finally, regardless of prisoners’ behavior in solitary confinement, good time could not begin to be reaccumulated until a prisoner had been readmitted to the prison’s general population. These good-time practices illustrate the vast discretionary powers wielded by prison officials. As SaMarion bleakly noted at trial, “it is taken at will, you have it one minute,
then you don’t have it.”

A year after the four men had been transferred from Clinton Prison, Attica Prison officials reported that a sit-down strike was being planned in protest of Sostre’s solitary confinement. They responded by putting the prisoners in keep-lock with a loss of ninety days of good time. The group was then divided and transferred to different blocks with the hope that “after a thirty-day cooling-off period and the dispersion of the members of this click[,] activity will abate.” This incident reveals the ongoing struggle between strategies employed by prison officials to suppress Muslim activism and prisoners’ resistance to such practices. The state used transfers and the combination of solitary confinement and goodtime practices to slow the spread of Islam in New York prisons. But prisoners continued to bring their plight before the courts, ending the unspoken “hands-off” policy that had previously sheltered prisons from oversight by the judicial branch.” 

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 83-84

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“On Christmas Day 1959 at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York, a small group of Muslims had gathered in the recreation yard. As one prisoner remembered, it “was snowing and it was very cold, but as usual, on Friday we would meet to [have] a short prayer regardless of inclement weather or anything else.” The men, numbering from ten to seventy prisoners, had routinely met in this area for almost a year. The group had grown over the years, and their physical space expanded as well, encompassing a fifteen-yard long-by-seventy-yard-wide area paved with stones the men had collected from the yard. A stove was used for cooking and an oven for baking since the mess halls did not offer halal preparations. A blackboard contained illustrations and notes on current events and readings from the Qur’an. As was common, a prison officer monitored the congregation from ten feet away. Joseph X Magette reflected, we “were tolerated. I wouldn’t say we were admitted, but we weren’t denied the right to meet.”

The men gathered at Clinton Prison had arrived from a variety of different backgrounds during the mid-1950s. None were Muslim when sentenced, and unlike members of the Nation of Islam incarcerated in federal prisons during World War II for refusing to register with the selective service alongside six thousand other conscientious objectors, they did not have political backgrounds or political charges that brought them to prison. William X SaMarion was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and raised as Protestant Episcopalian before converting in prison under the teachings of Teddy Anderson, a Muslim associated with the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (AMI). SaMarion was incarcerated for stealing two pounds of pork chops, a slab of bacon, and 172 packs of cigarettes before later denouncing such items after converting. James X Walker and Magette both made their profession of faith at Clinton Prison in early 1959. Magette had experienced run-ins with the law since his early teens, having fled the scene of a burglary in Harlem before being shot twice by a police officer when he was fifteen. Martin X Sostre had the most political upbringing of the four. He was born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents in 1923; his father was a Communist merchant seaman, and his mother was a cap maker. They settled in Harlem, where he was influenced by Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore and the stepladder orators on 125th Street. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade and was drafted in 1942. After serving a brief stint in the Korean War, he was arrested in 1952 for heroin possession. When asked if he used the drug, he responded: “I’m too smart for that. Only suckers use that stuff.” 

The men at Clinton Prison were part of a rich Muslim community, consisting, according to Sostre, of thirty believers belonging to “at least four different sects of Islam, both of orthodox and non-orthodox, namely Afamdiya [Ahmadiyya], Moorish, Science [Moorish Science Temple], Muhahhad [most likely Nation of Islam] and non-denomination.” Many of the men associated with the NOI credited their conversion to Anderson, who maintained the only copy of the Qur’an at the prison. “We would have to consult with him and borrow it from him,” Sostre remembered. “He was reluctant to lend it out, naturally, but usually he would loan it out to ones that wanted to peruse it.” Tomas X Bratcher later described a similar community at Auburn Prison: “some were Ahmadiyya, some were Moorish Science Islams, some were Sunni Muslims, some were Wahapi [Wahhabi]… . We had a non-sectarian class. Tat means that we did not lean to the teachings of any so-called sect in Islam.” Although many of the men were introduced to Islam through the AMI and other groups, they formed a small but growing community that gravitated toward the teachings of the NOI.

What separated the Nation of Islam from other Muslim sects also prompted concern from prison officials: its black nationalist politics and critique of global white supremacy. One of the principal activities of the brotherhood in prison was teaching a robust array of classes in the yard. SaMarion, along with Magette and Walker, was in charge of organizing these lessons; the group covered a diverse set of teachings, including business, Islam, Arabic, black history, and law. The “Mufti is known as the one that keeps the peace within the group, discipline,” SaMarion explained.

The treasurer is one that holds the finances, sees that—if we are short of toothpaste or tooth powder, or the brother has no money and is trying to buy some books, that he has the toothpaste or the tooth powder. Te librarian is the one that has the control of all the literature that we were able to fll our lockers with; literature pertaining to our own kind, Black Man’s literature, Black Man’s history, mathematics, Arabic, anything we thought would help us in our educational field… . The secretary is the one that would record the day’s activities, would record the statements of some of the brothers.

The Muslim Brotherhood (as the organization was known inside prisons) even had its own constitution and subscribed to a shared economic system that used tithing and organizational dues for “supplementing the diet of the members and further[ing] the cause of the Brotherhood.”

While the fundamental crux of prisoners’ legal cases against the state appeared to be religious rather than political, it is important to recognize how the Nation of Islam’s religious views were racialized by prison and state officials. For example, New York State prison inspector Richard Woodward described Demir Asan as “a Moslem but it must be assumed that he is of the legitimate religion as he is white and has a name that might be assumed to be from the Far East.” In the SaMarion trial, the prosecuting attorney Richard Griffin attempted to illustrate the way that “Muslim” was used by prison officials to connote blackness, while whiteness was often decoupled from reference to religious beliefs. Prisons even allowed access to The Glorious Koran, translated by the white English convert Marmaduke Pickthall in 1930 but refused copies of the Arabic translation with
English commentary by the Indian-born Maulana Muhammad Ali. In these ways the prison system’s distinction between legitimate (seemingly color-blind) and illegitimate (race-conscious) expressions of Islam underscored how the NOI’s religious beliefs were, in the state’s eyes, inextricable from racial militancy.

Despite prison officials’ efforts to divert Muslim converts toward the Ahmadiyya
Movement in Islam’s ostensibly apolitical teachings, the NOI continued to thrive in New York throughout the late 1950s. Because the Muslim prisoners were not given a formal space to hold services within the prison, informal prayers such as those described at Clinton Prison often took place in the prison yard. Prisoners relied on memorized prayer, passing surahs to one another through oral tradition. These prayers, SaMarion recalled, were “learned by heart, to be able to speak about.” The basis for many of these lessons were editorials by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, published in black newspapers in the late 1950s. “Most of us have never seen the inside of a Temple,” Tomas X Bratcher

wrote to Malcolm X, “we have had to make up our own lesson from articles appearing in the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch.” While the censorship of black newspapers by prison officials was never as thorough as their ban of Muhammad Speaks beginning in the 1960s, prisons nevertheless monitored and confiscated newspapers carrying editorials by the Nation of Islam; these included the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch

The stark contrast between the “tolerance” that Magette described at Clinton Prison prior to Christmas Day 1959 and the various punishments levied against Muslim prisoners after it reveals the strategies developed by the state to suppress political agitation and the spread of Islam in New York prisons over the following decade. “All of the sudden the situation changed completely,” he testified. “Thereafter we were in complete segregation” (solitary confinement). The officer monitoring the congregation that day had reported hearing one of the prisoners say that the group was going to take over solitary confinement. He then issued a disciplinary report charging them with hosting an “unauthorized meeting under the guise of an assembly for religious purposes.” The prisoner who made the remark was locked up immediately, and the other men were soon taken to disciplinary court and moved to a minimum-privilege area. Some even remained in solitary confinement until June of the following year. 

The timing of the response by prison officials was not accidental. An entire apparatus of state control emerged in the months following the airing of The Hate That Hate Produced in the summer of 1959. The serial documentary was almost singularly responsible for introducing the Nation of Islam to the broader public, and, as its name implied, it portrayed black nationalism as the by-product of white racism—a specter of “black hate” causing hysteria among white viewers while suturing their guilt by suggesting that racism was not racially distinct. The documentary positioned the NOI as a “hate group” not unlike George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan, often referring to them as “black racists” and “black supremacists.” As the historian Claude Clegg notes, the documentary marked a departure in media coverage of the NOI from the “othering” Orientalist tropes of “voodoo cults” and rumors of human sacrifice toward a discourse of “reverse racism.” In fact, the phrase “black racism” did not exist prior to the documentary, and within one month of its airing the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins had issued a public statement denouncing the group as teaching “black supremacy.”

The Hate That Hate Produced also played a crucial role in pushing the doctoral student C. Eric Lincoln decisively toward publication of The Black Muslims in America. The phrase “Black Muslims” was Lincoln’s creation and was later rejected by the Nation of Islam in part because it severed the NOI from a global Muslim community. Malcolm X recalled the years he spent trying to refute the label: “Every newspaper and magazine writer and microphone I got close to: ‘No! We are black people here in America. Our religion is

Islam. We are properly called ‘Muslims!’” The combination of Mike Wallace’s documentary and Lincoln’s book provided a framework for carceral actors, ranging from police to prison officials, criminologists, and even federal judges, to understand the Nation of Islam as a hate group masquerading under the auspices of religion. The phrase “Black Muslims” became linguistic shorthand for this argument by the state. 

This understanding set the stage for a struggle between Muslim prisoners needing to legitimize their religious beliefs before the courts and prison officials fathering evidence to demonstrate that the group was, in fact, using religion to cover its subversive political aims. Bratcher astutely anticipated the attorney general’s defense in his letter to Malcolm X prior to SaMarion: “I can see that his main argument is going to be in the presenting of certain publications out of books, magazines, and papers about the Muslims… . He is going to try and justify the warden’s violation of our constitutional rights by submitting these published reports to the court saying that we are preaching ‘hate’ and we are a
fanatical group not recognized by the rest of Muslim World.”

Carceral authorities had an insatiable appetite for Lincoln’s book, positioned as an “objective” and nuanced portrait of the organization due to Lincoln’s identity as a black Christian scholar. As the NOI became a greater topic of conversation in race relations and as its presence in prisons grew, the state attempted to develop a consistent logic to justify suppression of Islam among prisoners. Lincoln’s book was widely read and distributed among criminologists and prison officials as the organization gained a stronger footing in America’s prison system. Soon after the book’s release, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) mailed Lincoln a copy of its review in the lapd newsletter with a personal note: “We thought you might like to see our Trainee’s review of your book.” Upon request, Lincoln had a copy of his book delivered to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and ensured his full cooperation. Reuben Horlick of the American Association of Correctional Psychologists invited Lincoln to participate in a panel discussion on the “Black Muslims” at the 1963 convention of the American Correctional Association (ACA). Bernard F. Robinson, a sociologist in the Illinois prison system, wrote Lincoln that not “only did I benefit by your very instructive statements regarding the Black Muslim Movement, but my fellow staff members also considered themselves well edified as a result of your correspondence.” And in May 1961 Richard Woodward reviewed what he called a “fine book by Eric Lincoln” for a new monthly memo on the Nation of Islam that would be distributed throughout the state prison system in New York.

These new highly confidential memos were instituted just after a meeting between Commissioner McGinnis and representatives from the offices of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz in January 1960. McGinnis called the meeting after having been named in a number of writs from Muslims at Clinton Prison. He reported that the Nation of Islam was “spreading like a cancerous growth and was becoming a most serious problem.” Since “it was going to be a continuing thing; and because of the racial feature, [McGinnis] felt that some policy should be formulated.” The Division of State Police then contacted what were known as “subversive units” in major cities across the country to cull information and form a special file on the Nation of Islam. Woodward would serve as a liaison officer between the Department of Correction and the New York State Police. More accurately than he could have known, Malcolm X noted in his autobiography that the NOI’s presence in prisons was “as big a single worry as the American prison system has today.” “I’m sure,” he added, that “they monitored what I wrote to add to the files which every state and federal prison keeps on the conversion of Negro prisoners by the teachings of Mr. Elijah Muhammad.” Indeed, in addition to these monthly memos, Woodward reported acting “in accordance with plans set up by the Commissioner of Correction” to turn over “arrest records and photographs of the following convicts who are confined in State Prisons throughout the State of New York.”

As part of this new programmatic suppression of Islam in state prisons, McGinnis promised those at the January meeting that he would “identify ringleaders and, upon

identifcation, transfer them to other prisons, pointing out to the receiving warden what to expect. In this way, he hoped to curb their activities in the Cult.” In June 1960, with many of the men at Clinton Prison still held in solitary confinement, the warden followed through on the commissioner’s promise, transferring four of the key organizers— Magette, SaMarion, Sostre, and Walker—to Attica Prison. There, they continued to grow through religious conversions and prison transfers until the group included almost sixty members and became one of the most active Muslim communities in American prisons.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 77-83

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“Here is a glimpse of a cell in the new state prison under construction at Attica, N.Y. The prison will be quite modern.”

– from Toronto Star, July 24, 1931. Page 19.

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“Come home, my daughter, come back home

A man has told us about America

That the factories are not safe there

That it’s dangerous to ride the iron-train.

People live there on the fifth floor — what a fright!

And a person’s life is not worth a cent

I can’t stop crying that you have left

Come back, my daughter, come back home!

Moishe Lipes writes his Yente bad news

“Work is cheap and inflation races forth

Poor people will work for any price”

If only I had never heard of America!

He writes that girls labor at the machine

Just like men sewing in the factories

What in tarnation drove you there?

Come back my daughter, because I’m passing away!

Rakhmiel Schmid took a chunk out

Of my life — I could not bear to hear…

“A hundred girls — he writes — turned to ash

In a fire at a sweatshop… ”

“Newark,” the city is called, isn’t that New York? Write!

May God have mercy, Daughter, did I hear it right! —

Take pity on your mother and don’t stay

In that accursed country any longer!

Through the windows of the highest floor

They sprang aflame into the street,

All America — he writes — is outraged,

“People trudge around in despair, sickly from their misery.”

Your portrait that you sent out,

Is now in my hand, you are, knock on wood, a beauty…

In you alone I could delight

My little girl, come home, don’t let me sit and cry!…

Don’t forget to light a candle at the second Seder!

Do you have a memorial light for your father yet…

Ach! We lost him unprepared

You, a good father, I, a loyal man!

Obey me! Come back, my sweet daughter, come!

Leave after the holiday, write immediately that you will,

Come my child mine, come, I wander desperately around —

Write me which day and on what ship.

Be well my daughter in that alien land

From where your old mother wishes you were far —

Come home, my only one, back to me,

And thrill your mother with your honeyed glance.

Your writing Mother, sweet and loving,

your sorrow-filled mother’s letter

Delivered a heavy blow

deep within my broken heart.

Your call dear mother moves me so,

Your grief becomes my wail —

No! Newark is not New York, No!

Don’t listen to that man,

There is no danger going on…

In the factory where I produce

There will never be such an affair,

Because it is “fireproof”…

It is built that way,

That death from fire

will ne’er occur.

It’s made of marble and of steel

The floors are stone

The doors from iron made

A fire will never

Burn it down…

I work, thank God, incessantly.

I’m making myself dresses for Peysekh…

It’s truly hard work,

But what can be done?

You get used to it…

When you don’t have a million

It must be so…

I’m sending you for matzah,

For mead and wine

For a new dress —

Use it with joy!…

I’ll put up a candle

For my father’s peaceful rest,

And cry as I do…

Do not fret, Mother

And have no vexation —

There is a heaven,

There is a God…

Her reply was sent in the morning,

That evening in fright

Her body was identified among the devastation,

A firebrand, fallen, burned

Along with a hundred other “hands”…”

–  Morris Rosenfeld, “Two Letters on the Death of the Immolated Worker Girls.” Forward. March 15, 2011. Originally published in the Forverts, April 2, 1911

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kulampara:

Christopher Street Liberation Day, New York City, June 24, 1978

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The courts occupy a “social” space. They define a system of social relationships within the courts, as well as a system of social relationships linking the courts to the institution as a whole.

First, they are used by a limited number of people for limited amounts of time and for limited kinds of available activities. They also manifest a simple organizational structure. Discussion [of] these limits will give use some idea of the dimensions of the social cubicle that the courts constitute.

Limited Time
The courts are open between 3:10 and 4:30 pm on weekdays; on weekends and holidays, they are open from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. Bad weather or prison wide disciplinary action may also close the courts temporarily. On weekends, these activities may be substituted by movies or religious services.

Limited Users
Not every inmate has a court; indeed, not every inmate may use the recreation yard. Without having made a census of the various functional or activity alternatives to the courts, it is impossible to put precise numbers on the various subpopulations. Nevertheless, let us begin by reviewing who uses the yard. Recreation in the yard is part of the daily routine of Clinton prison.

However, some groups of inmates are not within that routine system, for one reason or another. First are disciplinary cases who are remanded to Unit 14. This number may vary considerably. Idle men (men without jobs) have not been allowed until recently to use the courts or the yard.

I was given to understand that a morning period was being introduced in which these men would have recreation between 10:00 and 11:00 am. At this time, however, the considerable number of nonworking inmates are denied the use of the yard.

Ill and newly-arrived inmates are exercised separately, in the smaller courts between buildings or not exercised. A separate lawn behind the hospital is for men with tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. Men working on gangs, work crews that go outside the wall, do not use the yard when they are so working.

In all, therefore, a sizeable proportion of the inmate population does not use the yard – roughly 1200 men make up the yard population on an average afternoon. In round numbers, that constitutes about two-thirds of the inmate population. Some men simply prefer to stay in their cells during these times.

Access to the yard is not synonymous with access to the courts. Several kinds of activities exist on the yard, and, for the most part, these define relatively permanent groups rather than merely a menu of available diversions.

Involvement in a rigorous sport, for example, is seen as an alternative to membership in the courts rather than an adjunct to it. Once again, it is difficult to estimate the sizes of the various subpopulations of the yard. Nevertheless, the following groups appeared to me to have significant numbers of participants:

  • Body builders. Four platform type spaces, equipped with weight-lifting articles, occupy a space close to the entrance to the yard.
  • Football players. Organized (tackle) football is a big thing at Clinton. An inmate player reported that there are four teams, each numbering about 30 men.
  • Basketball players. The number of basketball (and handball) players is about the same as the football contingency.
  • Horseshoe players. A relatively small group.
  • Television watchers. Several inmates occupy an area near the building where they watch two hooded television sets. Unlike many prisons, Clinton has little access to television. A two-channel radio station is piped into the cellblocks and available to inmates by individual earphones. One channel, I was told, carried sports programs; the other often carried the soundtrack of a television program on the air at that time.
  • Isolates. Many prisoners have neither courts nor a sport group. They may be seen sitting on lawn space around the fringes of the yard or walking in unused areas. Several guards complained of this situation.

Our guess is that no more than half of the yard population belongs to courts. The de facto user population is probably somewhat less than that. Mancusi’s 1957 study of the courts reported that 63% of the inmate population were court members; we guess that that proportion has declined. In any case, the courts are not the quasi – residential bases for either all of the members of the inmate population or for all of the yard users.

The exclusiveness of these activities is not absolute – thus, a football player may “visit” a friend in one of the courts (although the reverse is more difficult, I imagine). Likewise, we should be cognizant that the courts are in some sense a select population, arrived at by something of a screening process.

There are several ways for an inmate or a group of inmates to get a court if one is desired. Perhaps the most common one is through friendship with an inmate who is already on a court.

An inmate may befriend another or re-establish a friendship tie that existed on the outside (this may not necessarily be a friendship tie: inmates may look out for men with similar interests, similar group associations, similar political or religious beliefs, similar educations, kinship relations or the kin of kinship groups, etc.)

In any case, the “applicant” is suggested to the inmate “manager” of the court, who has the final say on the making of invitations to join the court. In practice, this “say” is not often a formal matter – it is informally given or withheld within the framework of day-to-day interaction in the court. A potential member may be scrutinized by the manager and other members of the court.

Rodehaver, Mancusi, and Smith (1964), in their article on the courts, reported that homosexuals, sex offenders, belligerent men, and shirkers were avoided. Preference goes to individuals who either fit in with the dominant activities of a particular court or whose connections on the inside or on the outside enhance the welfare of the fellow court members.

Thus men who have access to valued information, goods, or services are desirable members. A man must also be thought to be willing to share the court’s work–for example, stand in line when the wood-fuel is disbursed.

New memberships (and ejections from a court) must be approved by the yard sergeant. In most cases, this is a formality – although, in some cases, the new member is disallowed by the sergeant.

A second avenue to court membership is somewhat more formal. Rather than approaching a particular court, an inmate or several inmates put their names on a waiting list.

If a court becomes available by dint of the departure of all of its members, or disciplinary action against them or some other reason, the new list of names is given the court.

I am not entirely clear on the capacity of sergeants to suggest that certain courts take on certain members, but it seems that this is not done. The yard sergeant has only veto power.

There is, however, a norm regarding the toleration of depopulating or depopulated courts. Managers whose courts have not maintained a membership size that is up to capacity may often be warned by the sergeant that they should expand their membership or risk having the court handed over to a new group.

In this way, the ability of the courts to absorb a larger proportion of those desiring courts is enhanced.

Courts Organisation
Every court has a manager and an assistant manager. Officially, the manager is the “owner” of the court, and he is responsible for infractions that may occur on it. In practice, it seems that this dominance is mellowed by the informal group processes of the members. Nevertheless, the manager has disproportionate power with regard to accepting new members, evicting current members, and shaping the activities of the court. Seniority is a major factor in becoming a manager.

Courts are “inherited” in that they pass from one manager to the next on the basis of the pecking order of the court. Unless other factors obtrude in the process of leadership change (say, the heir does not want to be a manager, or another member asserts or suggests more leadership capacity or more capacity to improve the court welfare) the “succession” is left to the rank on a list of names that is kept by the yard sergeant.

Thus, in terms of succession, each member has a defined status, Names are added to the bottom of the list when they join a court; members move up as the old guard is released, transferred, dies off, or is otherwise removed, This system of succession has several rather obvious functions.

  • In the first place, the establishment of a formal succession order gives a measure of official sanction to the disproportionate allocation of power to the inmates. Thus, conflicts may be resolved more easily than in a system in which no internal structure exists.
  • Secondly, the rules of succession serve to avoid conflicts over leadership change.
  • Thirdly, seniority tends to stabilize and make continuous the institution – leadership being in the hands of inmates who are in most cases more, rather than less, socialized to the prison. Continuous membership in the same court – the prerequisite for managership – virtually implies a relatively clean record over some period of time.

There are other important functions of this system – for example, its capacity to diffuse the leadership of the inmate population – but these will be considered in our review of the functional position of the courts later in this report.

This bare structure serves to establish something of a “household” among the members of a court. Within this household are certain activities. Cooking was inevitably one of the first mentioned. Anyone who has spent a considerable time alone knows that cooking and eating are often casualties of solitude. Food preparation and eating become fueling rather than a meaningful and pleasant activity. Meal-taking and the preparation of food are quintessentially social activities.

In some cases, the preparation of food in the courts may become quite elaborate. But even when the fare is simple, the meals set in motion some of the social amenities. Eating alone and eating in huge mess halls are similar to the extent they bleach out the meanings of meal occasions.

It should also be noted that institutional (in the everyday sense of that term) food is often somewhat foreign and unpalatable to some groups of inmates. Thus, for example, inmates of Puerto Rican identification are able to supplement their diets with their own food.

Court-Induced Strain
Talking, chessplaying, cardplaying, and all of the activities that might go along with a more normally situated patio are also in evidence. Several kinds of activities are explicitly proscribed.

These are posted on a list of rules in the guard station and are brought to the attention of anyone in the process of becoming a court member. These rules can be used as something of a cipher for the problems brought about by the court institution.

No system of explicit rules, in fact, objectively or exhaustively describes the operating procedures of a social institution.

Thus, the rules that become explicit are more often codes for the points at which the “understandings” that comprise a social order have in the past been differentially interpreted or have caused friction between individuals or groups.

The nine posted rules are suggestive of the institutional problems the courts pose or have posed in the past.

Rule 1: Court numbers must be visible. The primacy of custody, and the necessity of the staff – as in all emergency-type organizations – to be “prepared for the worst” have several implications for the courts. Flat space, rectilinearity, and unambiguous locational coordinates make prison environments consonant with the needs for speedy, unambiguous, and highly rationalized action. This spatial factor is discussed in more length below. For the moment it is sufficient to observe that a numbering system for the courts became the halfway position between no “addresses” and a bulldozed plane of level, square plots.

Rule 2: Courts [are] not to be traded or sold. This rule is an argument a forteriori for the value of the courts to some inmates. Selling and trading, however, also suggest several potentials for the disruption of the court system. One need merely think of a social institution called escrow to be reminded that the transfer of territory from one person to another involves many points for disagreement and dispute. That the courts have value virtually entails that their ownership, transfer, and control require structuring.

There are probably some other important reasons for the sale stricture. In the first place, the inmate’s departure from the statuses, powers, and influences held on the outside is a characteristic common to all total institutions. The allowance of a free market on courts would inevitably allow the control of these courts to gravitate toward the inmates with “external” power (derived from their “outside” statuses and resources) rather than from “internal” power achieved through seniority.

This allowance would also run counter to the value placed on equal treatment of prisoners. Along with the abridgement of these values, moreover, come some rather practical considerations. If the rewards used by the institution to manipulate the inmate population were allowed to be purchased in “foreign” currency, the social control system would be threatened. “The rent for the courts,” wrote Rodehaver et al, “is good behavior." 

Rule 3: Court managers cannot be changed without approval.Managership is the point of contact between the courts and the official authority. Thus, in some cases – whether by election, collective decision, or the chance arrival of a particular individual to the top of a seniority list – some inmates are not acceptable to the staff as their intermediary.

This rule, then, is an insurance policy of sorts on the structure of succession. One gets the impression that it was rarely invoked since the inmates who pose sufficient problems to be barred from manager posts are the same as those who would lose seniority through sentences to the disciplinary unit. Further, known "troublemakers” are often shunned from the courts – the existing manager may not want to risk responsibility for his acts and ill-fortunes

Rule 4: Adding or removal of men must be approved. Same as above. One point that may be raised here, however, relates to the age old problem of monitoring – allegedly for the rehabilitative benefit of the inmate – his prison associations. The interviews revealed that an inmate will sometimes be barred from a court if it is known that the court to which he is applying includes his pre-prison criminal confederates… . Like many prison rules – and public laws for that matter – this rule lies ready and waiting should a perceived need arise.

A second implication of this rule pertains to the responsibilities of the yard staff. In part a central necessity of the staff is the knowledge of how many prisoners are within one’s immediate responsibility, if they are all there, and who they are. The court system poses a difficulty for this task, as does the yard. Thus, the court’s register becomes an element in this objective. Knowing how many men are assigned to the courts, and where they are may be part of the guard’s official role. In fact, a record of each inmate’s history on the courts is kept at the tower of the yard sergeant… .

Rule 5: Furniture arrangement must not block [the] view [from guard posts].

The interview suggested several functional interpretations for this rule. Hidden homosexual acts, production of alcoholic beverages, gambling, and other activities contrary to prison regulations might be concealed by the arrangement of the furniture. (Tall plants, incidentally, are also proscribed.)

More mundane problems, additionally, spring from the fact that the creation of household-like groups brings in its wake certain conflicts between the customary activities of households and the uniform code of prison regulations.

This is a wellspring of what might be called “technical deviance” that has required certain special compromises to be incorporated in the silent pacts between staff and inmates of Clinton prison.

Rule 6: Illegal acts or goods on [the] courts will forfeit [the] courts. Catch 22. The key to this rule, I think, is that it gives official sanction for the staff prerogative to expropriate the real estate. Equally important is the sanctioning of the exercise of this prerogative on the group as a whole, rather than merely on individuals’ rights to a court. The strategy of group or unit discipline is too well known to require further discussion.

Rule 7: Absolutely no legal materials are permitted. The reason given for this rule provides a fine example of the conflict.that arises out of the separate realities of staff and inmates. The rule, first of all, means that the bringing to the courts (i. e. , the private plots of land) of legal documents pertaining to an inmate’s case is proscribed. Until recently, New York law prohibited prisoners from helping one another on their legal appeals; work on one’s own case was, however, allowed. The change in the State law may prompt a change in Rule 7, although some officers indicated that consultation may be permitted elsewhere in the prison, now, but not on the courts… . The rationale given to me for this rule, however, points up a structural conflict between the interests of the staff and the inmates… . The effective manipulation of inmates depends upon the ability of the staff to retain a monopoly on the reward system, such as it is… .

Legal expertise is highly prized by many inmates. Thus, inmates with it may obtain indigenous rewards by their services. Such rewards are gotten independently of the social control interests of the staff, and therefore are perceived by them to weaken their hegemony … a threat to the prison’s equilibrium.

Rule 8: Each court must have an assistant manager. In the course of my visit nothing was mentioned of the role of the assistant manager. In all probability this rule merely served to clarify the succession and the hierarchy of the courts so that, in the absence of the manager, the responsibility for the court could be unambiguously attached to someone. I have no information on this point, however, and there may well have been more important reasons.

Rule 9: Transfers from court to court requires [sic] permission.
Here, again, the inmate-finding, inmate-intelligence, inmate-associations functions of the courts are underwritten, possibly having closed up a perceived loophole in Rule 4, regarding the adding and dropping of men from the courts.

It is instructive to compare the staff rules to the inmate norms regarding the exclusion of a court member. In his 1957 study of the courts, Mancusi asked a sample of court members: “For what reasons might you drop or put off one of your court members?” Stealing on the court, homosexual acts, fighting and frequent arguments were the most frequent responses.

The disparity between staff and inmate rules suggests that, while inmate norms serve to protect the court from internal strife and the threat of staff intervention and expropriation, staff rules may largely be accounted for in terms of maximizing social control through visual observation, the monitoring of membership, the legitimation of the inmate court hierarchy, the explication of eminent domain, and the monopolization of rewards.

In short. the staff rules proscribe behaviors that would diminish their control and the inmate norms proscribe behaviors that would diminish their autonomy. This split in the transactional groundrules of the courts is important, and it will turn up later in our discussion of the courts functions and meanings.

It is clear that the courts pose certain problems for the staff. We have suggested that in part these problems spring from the location-finding difficulties of irregular shape, the high potential for concealment of illegal acts or contraband, problem of “lost” inmates and the monitoring of inmate sociations, the creation of “valuable” property and the attendant threat of internecine conflicts.

To be sure, there are payoffs for the staff from the courts. But the question that arises in our minds is how the courts came into existence and how they grew to the status of a legitimate institution. Some commentators have described the appearance of the courts as a “hobo” encampment; inmates may themselves refer to the courts as “the Jungle.” The appearance alone, in other words, would tend to suggest that special factors and a gradual evolution may have been at work.

Few administrators would create such a space by fiat or on the spur of the moment; additionally, there are several important prerequisites, which probably became available over time. Thus, we turn next to what can be gleaned about the history of the courts. The doors of inmate spaces in total institutions inevitably lock from the outside rather from the inside, if they lock at all. From the perspective of the staff, in other words, all inmate spaces are public. Thus, the inception and evolution of the courts is an important element in the analysis of the “deviant case” of private property in a total institution.”

– Ron Roizen, “The Courts of Clinton Prison.” Clinton Correctional Facility report, 1972. Photographs are

Joshua Freiwald, 1972, from Jen Kirby, “The Prison in Dannemora Has a Bizarre, Fascinating History.New York Mag, June 10, 2015.

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Strict Gestapo-style lockup’: quelling the jail rebellions
With rebellions at five facilities involving some 4,000 inmates and the possibility of losing the Bronx House of Detention or Rikers Island, city officials changed their strategy. At 3pm on 3 October, Mayor Lindsay called an emergency meeting of his advisers and city officials at City Hall. Just as the men in the Tombs and Branch Queens had found McGrath and Lindsay untrustworthy, those who had participated in the negotiations now described the inmates as unreliable for breaking earlier agreements. By 6pm, Lindsay had chosen a harder line to contain the rebellions; addressing the inmates, he would make a final appeal for the release of hostages. If they refused, the jail would be retaken by force.

Lindsay looked to quell the four remaining rebellions by beginning with the two most recent, while preparing a larger force for the Tombs and Branch Queens. Shortly after midnight on 4 October, city officials offered inmates at the Brooklyn House of Detention an hour to surrender and then sent in roughly fifty correction officers to take back the 4th and 5th floors of the jail. Poorly trained, most of the guards had fastened their gas masks incorrectly. On their first rush of the building, they choked on their own tear gas and retreated. But many inmates had fled back into their cells from an anticipated onrush. After securing their equipment, correction officers charged the jail again, freeing the guards and locking inmates in their cells with 200 inmates and a dozen guards injured in hand-to-hand combat. Commissioner McGrath noted that ‘ringleaders’ were singled out to be dealt with ‘in a proper manner’. Within twelve hours, correction officers had quelled the rebellion at the Brooklyn House of Detention.

Backed by the Tactical Police Force, a Correction Department convoy arrived at Kew Gardens at 3am. Cutting their way into the building from the roof with acetylene torches, correction and police officers battled inmates to retake the facility floor-by-floor. By 6am, the last man was back in his cell, but five prisoners had to be hospitalised. ‘One had the feeling’, wrote Gottehrer, ‘that in the space of an hour or two the guards must have let out violence they had suppressed for years.’ Hundreds of inmates were injured in the fighting.

As the Lindsay administration turned its attention to the two remaining jails, concerned citizens rallied in support of the inmates. On Sunday afternoon, 4 October, there were several protests outside the Tombs and Branch Queens. And members of the BPP and the Young Lords Party organised impromptu rallies across the city. Into the evening, groups demonstrated outside the Tombs, chanting, ‘Free the Political Prisoners’. While supporters on the outside rallied in solidarity with the inmate rebellion, those behind the wall tried to hold together a sense of unity. Balagoon contends that in Branch Queens, the negotiation team had misrepresented their consensus by promising to release all the hostages after the bail review. Slowly, the fear of a possible assault on the jail began to sink in and the fear of that possibility cut into the will to resist collectively. In the Tombs, the same phenomenon played out. According to de Leon, the tension created further division:

Ethnic animosity between blacks and Puerto Ricans was smoldering, fanned by ignorance and fear of the oppressor. All our efforts to cool out this type of madness were useless because of the petty individualistic behavior of a few. No sooner had we dealt with one aspect of the insanity than something else would pop off. Between dealing with the pigs and trying to maintain a united front, all our efforts were being dissipated on the ineffectual activity because of the disunity.

These emerging divisions were the fault lines along which city officials effectively convinced inmates to give up their remaining hostages. Just as the radio had carried news of rebellions to inmates in NYC’s jails, city officials used the radio to quell the last remaining revolts. From last-minute negotiations on the afternoon of 4 October, it became evident that inmates and city officials were at an impasse. Tombs inmates wanted to meet with Mayor Lindsay before giving up their last hostages, while ‘the administration responded by saying that they would not tolerate “violence” that we had to give up the hostages’. De Leon mused: ‘they sounded like Nixon’s mouthpiece at the Paris peace talks. Unconditional surrender.’ To convey their demands and demonstrate their good faith to city officials and the media, inmates released guard Alfred Earl Warren to make known their demands of a general amnesty, the appointment of more Spanishspeaking guards and the introduction of educational programmes. In the midst of these negotiations, a handful of prisoners on the 5th floor of the Tombs revolted, only to be stopped by a team of correction officers.

In response to this deadlock and the threat of further revolt, Lindsay aides broadcast an ultimatum over WINS and WNYC ‘to reach all prisoners simultaneously and to carry the maximum dramatic effect’. At 10pm, the ultimatum was broadcast through the Tombs’ public address system as well. Calling upon ‘the men on the Tombs 11th floor’, Lindsay promised to meet with their representatives once the hostages had been released. Outside the prison, busloads of correction and Tactical Police Force officers were massing. According to de Leon, Lindsay’s ultimatum pushed all the waverers into agreeing to surrender. Two factions emerged: ‘those of us who did not want to give up without a commitment on our demands were out maneuvered by the compromisers on the committee, who took over the public address system and steamrollered the surrender’. Yet it was not until 11.40pm that inmates agreed to release the remaining seventeen hostages with the concession that there would be no reprisals. Just before midnight, Lindsay arrived at the Tombs to meet de Leon and ten other inmates in the 2nd floor cafeteria, where they, along with eleven hostages, who chose to stay at the jail once released, impressed upon Lindsay and McGrath the direness of the situation. After a two-hour meeting, the 11th floor was peacefully evacuated as inmates returned to their cells.

At Branch Queens, the men tried to halt the growth of divisions, translating committee discussions into Spanish. When rumours began to spread that the Panthers had taken over the rebellion to advance their own interests, Balagoon and his comrades voluntarily withdrew to their tier, agreeing to abide by any decision reached during a general meeting. But when debate shifted to whether or not to follow through on their threat to kill the hostages, splits grew deeper: ‘we were getting close to going to war between ourselves, different groups began planning moves to take the prisoners or to protect them’. In the end, inmates tabled the debate for later as it was clear that the Mayor would be addressing them over the radio. For Balagoon and others had been monitoring the radio and the recent news from the other jails added to the tension:

They reported that one by one the other rebellions were smashed, and that after a long delay the brothers in the Tombs had given up, letting their hostages go. Then they began reporting the situation at Branch Queens in the manner of a football game. One station began saying that the police were massed outside the building and their forces were mobilized so heavy as to have been unseen since World War Two. This was psychological warfare.

At 5.30am on Monday, 5 October, Mayor Lindsay presented his ultimatum over WINS and WNYC, explaining that he had met with Tombs inmates and promised to meet with their leaders once all the hostages were released. In response, inmates gathered on their tier and decided as a group on whether to fight or comply with the Mayor’s decision. In a final vote, the tiers voted four to three to release the remaining hostages. Though they vigorously disagreed with the final decision, believing that they still faced reprisals from the army of guards and police outside the jail, Balagoon and other militant inmates agreed to abide by the will of the majority. Within minutes, those opposed to fighting had released the last three guards unharmed. As inmates surrendered and evacuated the jail, they were forced to pass through a gauntlet of police and correction officers who kicked and beat them with baseball bats, nightsticks, and axe handles. Those who could be identified as leaders were forced down a double row of guards. ‘The yard echoed with screams and shouting and the thud of clubs.’ Both Drake and Cender were beaten unconscious and, with six others, ended up in hospital. The guards forced the rest of the inmates to sit in the yard as they waited for buses to relocate them to Rikers Island, hitting them with nightsticks whenever they turned round. Though police had barred the news media from within a block of the jail, two photographers captured the brutality from a nearby warehouse. For New York Daily News photographer Mike McCardell, ‘the whole situation was so disgusting, I resisted from vomiting only by holding my will back’. CBS and NBC evening news broadcast those photographs along with the witness accounts of the beatings.

However, not all inmates had surrendered. The nine Black Panthers along with several dozen other defendants had barricaded themselves in the Branch Queens annex. From the 6th floor window, they used a bullhorn to announce that they had witnessed the brutal treatment of fellow inmates and needed assistance to ensure that they would not suffer the same treatment. (The Lindsay administration had long since relinquished control over to the police and guards who now controlled Branch Queens.) The remaining inmates only surrendered after protests continued outside and negotiations between city officials and the lawyer for the Panther defendants allowed them to leave the jail in a Fire Department cherrypicker. Early on the morning of 6 October, the last man cleared the jail’s courtyard and boarded the waiting bus, ending the last of the rebellions.

Reprisals
Yet the repression continued. Generally, guards locked inmates in their cells for sixteen hours a day and then locked them outside of their cells for the remainder. But immediately following the end of the rebellions, correction officials placed inmates on twenty-four hour lockdown. All inmates, regardless of whether they had participated in the rebellions, were confined to their cells. Tombs staff provided reduced food portions, denied showers and visits and cut off access to the commissary. The official explanation for the heightened security was that two revolvers had been taken from Department of Correction lockers during the rebellion. But for de Leon:

This mad torture is being inflicted on us for the calculated effect of terrorizing inmates into believing that they should not rebel against dehumanizing and oppressive conditions. This insane strategy may work on a few weak minded individuals but a large number of us will not go for this B S. We are determined to stand firm and preserve in our struggle, keep on fighting to overcome all obstacles until we obtain our freedom and our inalienable rights to human dignity. We are convinced that success or failure is not determined by one battle, and that minor setback can help us learn from our mistakes. We do not consider our action to be a defeat.

Not only had the jail’s terrible conditions not been addressed, but they were intensified by the ‘strict Gestapo-style lock-up’. Ironically, the new security restrictions did ‘work’ on a few inmates but not in the manner that de Leon might have imagined. Rather than another rebellion, there was a sharp increase in the number of fights between inmates as well as inmate deaths. Writing to the civilian members of the Board of Correction, one inmate noted that just twenty-seven days into the lockdown, there had already been two deaths, three attempted suicides, and two fights among inmates. ‘If conditions do not improve immediately there are going to be more suicides, more killings, more hostilities directed against the inmates all because of the animal like conditions here.’ Perhaps the most controversial of these deaths was that of Julio Roldan, a Young Lord militant who was found dead in his cell on 16 October, after having spent just two days in jail. While a report by the New York City Board of Correction (NYCBC) concluded that Roldan had committed suicide, it indicted the ‘intricate system of criminal justice which we have designed to protect the community and the individual [which] succeeded only in deranging him and ultimately, instead of protecting him, it permitted his death’.

In contrast, Roldan’s ‘Revolutionary Comrades in Jail’ expressed their ‘complete solidarity with brother Julio’s family’ as well as incarcerated revolutionaries, calling upon them to redouble their efforts in the wake of his murder. Another letter claimed that in the month and a half since the rebellion, ten men had been beaten to death by guards and many others had been hospitalised from their injuries. After its own investigation, Palente found that the Tombs guards had faked the suicides of Roldan, Lavon Moore and Annibal Davilla, all of whom turned up dead within a two-month period. Further, the paper claimed that when it took the evidence of murder by Tombs guards and presented it to the Board of Correction, there was no response. Regardless, the three men who died following the rebellions raised to eight the number of recorded suicides in the New York City jail system out of a total forty-two deaths. As jail facilities continued to deteriorate, there were another twenty-six deaths in 1971, including eleven confirmed suicides.

In spite of the assurances by Lindsay and McGrath of no reprisals, there were also criminal prosecutions against inmates who participated in the second set of rebellions. In November 1970, twenty-four inmates from the Brooklyn jail and eight from Branch Queens, including Cender and Drake, were indicted on a range of charges, including kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, incitement and rioting, all in the first degree. In response, one of the Branch Queens defendants, James Capers, wrote to Shirley Chisholm calling on her to follow through on her earlier promise to personally intercede if there were such reprisals. Reflecting the practice of solidarity among inmates, thirty inmates co-signed Capers’ request for legal assistance and Chisholm’s appearance at his arraignment. Though the felony charges related to the Branch Queens rebellion were reduced to inciting to riot, a misdemeanour, through a plea agreement, a Manhattan grand jury in January 1971 named eight Tombs inmates in a 72-count indictment and a Tombs guard in a 29-count indictment. All but one of the defendants was accused of first degree kidnapping, including the guard, indicted for allegedly encouraging inmates during the rebellion. Seven of the inmates and the correction officer went to court over the next three years, though on only a handful of the original charges. Ultimately, two inmates pleaded guilty to felonies, but were not sentenced to additional jail time, while the other five defendants were acquited.

On 9 October, four days after the end of the rebellion, the Weather Underground Organisation (WUO), a covert revolutionary group that had earlier split with other elements of the student-led Anti-war Movement, bombed a Queens’ traffic courtroom, rendering it temporarily unusable. Though its bombing was carried out in solidarity with rebelling inmates, WUO’s communiqué addressed students and other potential supporters of the radical prison movement:

Soledad, the Tombs, Long Binh and Con Thienh, the final solution of the Amerikan state-machines for breaking men and women and filth, rats, isolation, brutality and torture. They are instruments of genocide against the entire black and Latin community. When the inmates cut loose they showed the vulnerability of the empire. With thousands of pigs mobilized to guard the jails those of us on the outside should have moved to aid the prisoners. Put out wanted posters for Murtagh and McGrath. Wherever they go, treat them with the respect due enemies of the people. Keep them scared. The people will free the Soledad Brothers and the Panther 21.

More a symbolic response to state violence than a tactical counterattack, the bombing was intended to engage popular sentiment in revolutionary action. By linking rebellions in Long Binh, an army stockade in Vietnam, with jails and prisons in New York and California, WUO sought to demonstrate the centrality of incarceration to the system of imperialism as well as how broadly resistance was growing. With help from the outside, the prison gates could be prised open.

Though the jail rebellions did not lead to the sort of action advocated by the WUO, inmates did receive some support from outside groups like the Youth Against War and Fascism and the Committee to Defend the Queens House of Detention 8, which solicited contributions to a bail fund for those indicted and organised rallies outside court houses on trial dates. Following a reduction in his bail and a $2,500 bail collection organised by the Young Lords, Victor Martinez was released from Rikers Island and continued to organise the Inmates Liberation Front to assist inmates with securing legal assistance and putting together defence committees. With a small staff of six men and women, it also wrote to inmates, contacted families, and collected money for those who could not afford clothing or commissary.

Unsurprisingly, the small organisation was not able to sustain itself – first as the Inmates Liberation Front, and then, the Inmates Liberation Party – following Martinez’s indictment on charges of kidnapping and attempted murder. Fearing guard brutality if he returned to jail, Martinez went underground in early 1971.

In spite of this, the question of the inmates’ civil and human rights remained an important one. Though the Inmate Liberation Party did not last long, the NYCBC had been pushed to make inmates’ rights the centrepiece of its mission over the next decade. The rebellions had sent a signal to the criminal justice system. ‘After the jail riots in the Tombs and other city jails in 1970, judges were more lenient in their sentencing, fearing that overloaded prisons would spark further riots.’ Among the general public, the largest inmate uprising in the city’s history left a lasting impression. As the NYCBC later reported:

To many New Yorkers, rich or poor, black, brown, or white, and from those with lengthy criminal records to those who have never stepped into a courtroom for any purpose, the Tombs has come to represent the system’s inhumanity to our fellow citizens, particularly those who are too poor to meet bails set by the courts, too impecunious to hire outstanding private lawyers, and too disenfranchised to demand – and receive – what many now see as the minimum required by fundamental fairness, if not by the United States Constitution.

The 1970 rebellions placed the issue of the criminal justice system’s racial and class bias squarely on the table. In the midst of Nixon’s law and order politics, they also challenged the assumption that the innocent could be treated like criminals. These issues remained on the table as the NYCBC and other city agencies reported on the continued problems of overcrowding in jails, insanitary conditions, poor health services, suicide prevention, and the court’s cramped holding pens – some of which were issues first presented in the Tombs’ list of grievances.

– Toussaint Losier, “Against ‘law and order’ lockup: the 1970 NYC jail rebellions.” Race & Class, Institute of Race Relations, 2017, Vol. 59 (1). pp. 21-27

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“Bypassing
city government, inmates also sought to engage the federal
government. On 10 September, James Rhem, Robert Freely, Eugene Nixon
and Leo Robinson initiated a federal class action on behalf of all
those held at the Tombs, alleging that the treatment of detainees as
well as physical conditions deprived them of their first, sixth,
eighth and fourteenth amendment rights. Prepared with the assistance
of the Legal Aid Society, it
charged McGrath, Lindsay, Rockefeller, the Warden of the Tombs, the
State Commissioner of Correctional Services, and the Presiding
Justice of the Appellate Division, First Judicial Department, with
responsibility for the overcrowding, guard brutality and
unnecessarily restrictive security measures.
Though it was years before a verdict was reached on this class
action suit, its filing went on to have a significant impact on the
future of the Tombs itself.

Branch
Queens

Following their transfer to the Long Island Branch of
the Queens House of Detention, Martinez and others who had helped to
lay the foundation for the August rebellion continued to organise.
This time, they sought to influence inmates throughout the whole
jail, rather than just on one floor. ‘We had a local newspaper, the
Inmates Forum, through which we spread propaganda, our plans,
education activities, and political views’, Martinez offered.
Prepared in secret, 

the paper was printed by hand by men
on the different tiers. We didn’t have a mimeograph machine or
typewriter. Men would print in shifts. Somebody would have the job
for the morning and somebody else would do it in the afternoon.
Before we knew it, we had a circulation of 150 to 200 copies. The
paper was bought in the commissary. The purchasing of paper and
pencils was under the ministers of finance who were assigned to every
floor.

The circulation of the Inmates Forum helped
its writers to reach men throughout the facility, laying the
groundwork for a jail-wide protest, rather than one confined to a
portion of the six-storey facility. With a capacity for 196, Branch
Queens held 335 men by the end of September, all but forty-one of
whom were awaiting trial or sentencing.
McGrath later acknowledged that roughly two-thirds of the
overcrowded jail’s population had been in the Tombs in August.
Branch Queens also housed nine defendants in the controversial New
York 21 trial. Initially scattered across seven jails in four
boroughs, the defendants had gained injunctive relief through a
federal suit against McGrath that resulted in their being housed on
the 6th floor of Branch Queens.
Though held apart from the rest of the population and
uninvolved in the planning, several of the Panthers played leadership
roles in the ensuing rebellion.

At noon on 1 October,
guards unlocked the cells of inmates held on the 4th floor
for lunch in the dining hall. In an organised fashion, the prisoners
seized the unarmed guards, took their keys, and raced to unlock all
the cells in the 95-year old, six-storey jail. Taking control of the
entire facility, the men captured six guards and a civilian cook, and
released the nine Black Panther defendants.
Though he had not been involved in the planning of the
hostage-taking, Black Panther Kuwasi Balagoon was not surprised when
it occurred. Rather, the rebellion was an ‘inevitable’ outcome of
a broken justice system, ‘a people’s indictment of the corrupt
city and state government’. Free from their cells, inmates swarmed
through the prison, smashing windows and disconnecting telephones:
‘Everything that helped the jail to operate, that we did not have
any use for, was put out of order.’
Just like the rebellion at the Tombs, inmates sought fresh
air, in this instance, by using a wooden bench as a battering ram to
knock the glass and bars out of the large 6th-floor window.

Inmates
hung a Puerto Rican and a red, black and green Black Liberation flag,
that had been dyed beforehand on bed sheets, from the large 6th floor
window. On another floor, inmates displayed a sheet that read: ‘Equal
justice! Stop oppression, exploitation and persecution. Power to the
people.’ The
correction officers were ‘put on the right side of the bars … the
pig captain shook like a bowl full of clabber, although all captives
were assured that no unprovoked attacks would be made’. That first
day, Balagoon offers, could rightly be called ‘turnabout
day’.

While
many prisoners took advantage of their freedom by destroying parts of
the jails, others erected barricades, put out fires on the 2nd and
3rd floors, and took up defensive positions in preparation for a
police attack. Speaking
at a press conference one week later, the COBA’s President
recounted that the Branch Queens inmates operated ‘like a guerilla
movement, with an organisation staff, lieutenants and security
units’. Balagoon and
others who had served in the US Army applied their military knowledge
in securing the vulnerable sections of the jail:

The rest
of the day was spent tightening up the defense, and the brotherhood.
Everybody seemed to be flying. Messengers to carry out the word to
and from every part of the building were appointed. All tiers had
representatives, and guard posts and relief were set up. At least two
security teams roamed the building at all times. The battle plan was
mapped out.

Yet,
it would be their brotherhood, more so than the barricades, which
would be tested over the next few days. Following the election of a
racially representative negotiation team – Martinez, a Puerto
Rican, Kenneth Cender, a white inmate, Robert Drake, a Black Muslim,
and three Black Panthers – they sought to build unity among the
inmates. But rumours threatened to fracture any consensus and
selfishness weakened this early practice of solidarity. ‘We were
plagued by dishonesty the entire time of the siege’, recalls
Balagoon, as a few shirked their guard duties and others took more
than their share of a limited store of food. Over the next five days,
the appeals to broad unity and selfless action would be undermined by
similar dissension.

‘None of the men belonged in
jail’: winning bail review

In the Branch Queens courtyard,
the negotiators made headway. During their first meeting with
correction officials in late afternoon, the six-member committee
demanded to meet with city officials on live television that evening.
Arriving at the jail in the early afternoon, mayoral aide Barry
Gottehrer complained that the sets of demands presented were ‘far
more political than those from the Tombs’, speculating that
participation in the last rebellion had made some inmates even more
militant. From 7 to 9pm,
the Branch Queens inmates held a televised press conference in the
visitors’ lounge. They released two hostages – one of whom was
notorious for his harassment of inmates and had tried to hang himself
in his cell – as a sign of good faith and pressed a number of
demands. The three Black
Panthers included on the committee had wrapped towels like a Muslim
kufiya to conceal their identity and demanded the restoration
of bail for fellow Black Panther Afeni Shakur and more black people
on their jury. The rest
of the negotiators requested that a number of prominent individuals
come to the jail as independent observers, a list subsequently
shortened to Representative Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, former
Bronx Borough President Herman Badillo, and Louis Farrakhan of the
Nation of Islam. Afterwards, Balagoon commented that ‘among the
demands was that a judge from the so-called Supreme Court come to the
jail and immediately begin hearings on bail reductions. The pigs
tried to bypass the issues, saying that it was impossible to submit
to anything so close to justice.’ Initially, city officials derided the demand for an immediate
bail review hearing as part of ‘a new and more bizarre series of
demands’, but events
would soon overtake them and force the government’s hand.

The
revolt spreads: the Tombs

As inmates in Branch Queens
tightened their defences so as to be able to ‘match an undetermined
amount of pig power against a determined amount of black, Puerto
Rican, and white power’, inmates at other jails followed their
example. On 2 October at
2.45pm, 235 inmates at the Tombs revolted, following a movie viewing
on the 11th floor. As a
group of inmates were making their way to the elevator to return to
their floor, a small group broke off, seized the guards on the
elevator, and placed them in the chaplain’s office. For BPP member
Ricardo de Leon, the take-over of the floor was ‘executed
perfectly, like clockwork. It was the complete surprise – a classic
guerilla operation’. The rest
of the group took the remaining clergy and guards hostage, capturing
eighteen in total. One of the largest open areas in the jail, the
11th floor contained the chapel, library, commissary and medical
facilities. Like those at Branch Queens, they quickly secured their
floor, barricading the gate leading to the elevator and forming
a broadly representative ‘revolutionary committee’ with the
participation of those inmates from the 9th floor who had been
involved in the first rebellion.

Similarly,
Tombs inmates demanded full media coverage of negotiations as well as
Lindsay’s and McGrath’s appearance at the jail to resolve
immediately the grievances that had already been brought to their
attention. In addition, they expressed ‘solidarity and complete
support of all demands made by the brothers at Branch Queens House of
Detention’. Though
communication between facilities was limited by the conditions of
their confinement, it was this sense of working in solidarity that
connected the October inmate rebellion. As de Leon recalled in a
Village Voice article a month later, what emerged was not a
riot:

It was a political act of rebellion, brought about
because of the oppressive and inhuman conditions prevalent in this
dungeon, made in support of the rebellion of our brothers in Branch
Queens House of Detention and to focus the people’s attention on
the fact that Mayor Lindsay, the Department of Correction, and the
New York state judiciary had refused to fulfill the promises made to
us after the rebellions of August 10, 11, and 12.

At
4.30pm, inmates allowed Chaplain Gibney to take a note written by one
of the correction officers to the officials on the 1st floor. The
note sought ‘to certify that none of my officers have been harmed
or misused in any inhuman manner. I hope that they will be released
promptly.’ They
emphasised that their hostages would be well treated, as long as
there was no attempt to attack or forcibly retake the floor. This was
tested when McGrath gambled on having a police task force storm the
floor through a back stairway. That night, armed police made a move
and inmates fell back to their defensive positions, handcuffing some
of their hostages to the front of the stairs. They had a captain
radio his superiors to explain how police actions endangered their
lives and urging them to listen to inmate grievances.

Kew
Gardens

As the independent observers arrived to meet the
Branch Queens inmates on the evening of 2 October, more than 900 men
at the Queens House of Detention at Kew Gardens refused to return to
their cells. Beginning at 9pm, they overpowered guards and took
control of the entire facility. Though no hostages were taken, the
men smashed furniture, water pipes and the building’s small glass
bricks. At 4am on Saturday morning, a group of rioters tried to
escape through a hole in the side of the jail’s wall, but police
smoke bombs forced them to retreat.
Gottehrer later observed in his memoir that by Friday night
‘the epidemic had spread’ to roughly 1,400 inmates holding
twenty-three hostages in three prisons.

The
rebellions that broke out at the Tombs and Kew Gardens on the second
day had a direct bearing on the negotiations at Branch Queens.
Arriving there on the afternoon of the second day, Badillo and the
other civilian observers were allowed inside to check on the
condition of inmates and hostages. That evening, they worked around
the clock to meet the demand of bail review. Gottehrer recalled, ‘we
were being asked late on a Friday night to set a legal precedent that
was logistically impossible and probably illegal’.
Badillo and Haynes were more sympathetic, recalling that
prisoners ‘argued that there was no reason for many of them to be
confined; that unreasonably high bail had been set; and that if a
judge were to come and review the situation, most of them would be
released’. Though
judges initially rejected the proposal, they relented only after
Badillo gained Governor Rockefeller’s support for the bail review
after midnight. With rebellion spreading through the city’s jails,
city and state officials had been forced to make further
concessions.

Three judges arrived at the Queens branch for
a bail review hearing at 9am. Setting up in an anteroom by the
Warden’s office, they heard thirteen cases, paroling nine inmates
outright, reducing bail for four others, and denying bail to another.
Translating for several Puerto Rican inmates, Badillo and Haynes
found that 

the proceedings were becoming embarrassing:
had the judges dismissed thirteen out of thirteen cases, it would
have been obvious to everyone that none of the men belonged in jail
at all – that they were in jail simply because they were poor. Any
decent legal advice would have won them immediate freedom. Over
two-thirds of them were being held for less than $1,000 bail. Any
middle class person can put up that kind of bail, but many of these
men were welfare clients, and the welfare department did not
authorize bail costs.

Forced
upon city and state officials by inmates, the day’s bail review
dramatically exposed the deep inequalities in NYC’s criminal
justice system. For Balagoon, the hearing had even greater
significance; for ‘a precedent was set; never before in the history
of this racist empire had judges been summoned to hold court’.
In response, inmates released two more hostages. Farrakhan’s
Nation of Islam delivered bean pies at dinner, which, like access to
the commissary on the first day, quickly became a point of
contention, as men who had been carrying out guard duty took more
than their share.

Disunity
also proved to be a problem among inmates on the eleventh floor of
the Tombs. In part, the space was too small for the several hundred
inmates and the closeness contributed to the confusion. From the
outset, de Leon noted that ‘on the internal front, our major
problem was maintaining unity and discipline; there were a number of
disruptive and anarchistic elements, whose sole concern
was
creating confusion, looting and dropping pills’.
These inmates had been able to get access to medicine in the
infirmary and tried to get high. Attempts by de Leon and others to
confiscate the pills provoked a resentment that would continue to
fester: ‘when we started to impose some discipline over the
disorder and chaos, there was mumbling and the sowing of the seeds of
dissension and disunity, promoted by those individuals who were
totally unconcerned with the collective and solely interested in
“doing their own thing”.’

Badillo
later recalled that, if all the detainees in the Branch Queens had
been given a bail hearing, only a handful would have remained. Yet,
this opportunity never arrived as the judges ‘completed’ the bail
review after just thirteen cases and did not return. By this point,
communication between the city and Branch Queens inmates had broken
down. According to city officials and civilian negotiators, inmates
had promised to release their hostages once some of the cases had
been reviewed. ‘But in fact the agreement was if we see some signs
of justice, then we would release two more’, wrote Balagoon. ‘And
all our prisoners would be released after all the bail hearings were
held.’ Only a handful of the cases had been reviewed, ‘a token
gesture, not a sign of justice’.
In contrast, Badillo and Gottehrer believed the men had
been carried away with their own success, demanding a continuation of
the bail review rather than releasing the remaining hostages.

Brooklyn and Rikers
That same
day, two more rebellions broke out. At noon on 3 October, inmates at
the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men, the most crowded
facility in the city’s system, seized four hostages and seven of
nine floors. The jail had a capacity of 960 men, but 1,591 were
confined there. As at
the beginning of rebellions in other jails, men broke windows and
threw out debris. As police and firefighters set up a barbed wire
perimeter and unloaded firehoses to prevent a mass escape, a crowd of
sympathisers began to gather. Within hours, some 3,000 were outside
the police perimeter. Towards the evening, when police and correction
officials began to move on the facility, around 200 threw bricks,
bottles and other garbage at the police.

The
fifth and last rebellion began at 3pm on Rikers Island.
An unspecified number of youths in the Adolescent Remand
Shelter were outside their cells, watching television, when they
suddenly overpowered three guards and a captain. The rebellion,
however, lasted only half an hour as policemen and correction
officers quickly stormed the facility, freeing the hostages and
forcing the youths back into their cells.

Over
the first three days, the rebellions spread without any direct
communication between the different facilities. Some had shared plans
for the rebellions beginning on 1 October. Weeks later, one guard
claimed that while he was held hostage, inmate leaders at the
Brooklyn jail told him that they knew in advance of plans to take
over the Tombs and Branch Queens. As Martinez explained, there were ways for inmates to
communicate with each other when confined in different jails: ‘you
have to go to court at some time. You can see a lot of people in
different courts. If you’re taken to the Tombs bullpen you’re
gonna see people there from all over.’
When brought to court in the morning, inmates would be held
for most of the day in these bullpens, generally large cages in the
basement of courthouses. Though
notoriously crowded and unsanitary, the bullpens somehow facilitated
the exchange of plots and rumours, a crossroads within the criminal
justice system where messages could be passed from one jail to
another.

As the rebellions moved in stages from jail to
jail, inmates followed radio news coverage over personal
battery-operated transistor radios. In addition to television and
print, radio stations covered the rebellions extensively, spreading
news of the revolt. In his account of the Branch Queens rebellion,
Balagoon recalled, ‘over the radio, we heard about all the other
uprisings in other jails and the support we were getting from the
outside’. In
particular, the WBAI, New York’s Pacifica radio station, suspended
regular programming, a regular practice during newsworthy crises.
Beginning on 2 October, the station interviewed former prisoners in
the studio and sent reporters to the different prisons to speak to
inmates and officials. The following day, a station employee spent an
hour calling the 11th floor of the Tombs until an inmate
answered. Soon, men began calling the station themselves to explain
their situation to the public.
When officials at the Tombs closed their phone lines, inmates
set up loudspeakers in the windows facing the street, describing
their situation to the crowds below in English and Spanish.”

– Toussaint Losier, “Against ‘law and order’ lockup: the 1970 NYC jail rebellions.” Race & Class, Institute of Race Relations, 2017, Vol. 59 (1). pp. 15-21

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‘No more long court dates’: launching the first rebellion
Early on the morning of Saturday, 8 August, 1970, David Felder, an inmate, got into a dispute with a correction officer. In the middle of breakfast,

the two exchanged harsh words. When Felder struck the officer, other guards physically removed him from the ninth floor. Believing he was being brutalised, roughly thirty black prisoners took two white prisoners hostage and beat them, demanding Felder’s return. When their demand was met later that afternoon, the prisoners released their hostages. Here, racial solidarity dictated the trajectory of the initial rebellion as black inmates demonstrated the power they could wield when working together in opposition to a nearly all-white guard staff and a small population of white prisoners, who they claimed benefited from preferential treatment.

There were no repercussions for the beatings or the hostage taking. And in the hours after Felder’s release, inmates on the 9th floor planned another rebellion, preparing a carefully hand-written list of grievances, complete with a prologue and conclusion. On 10 August, the Tombs held 1,991 though it only had capacity for 932. At 6.30am, a group of inmates took five guards hostage, locked them in two cells, and erected a barricade around the entrance to the cell area. White inmate William Hickey testified at an 18 August hearing of the State Senate Committee on Crime and Correction, that, even though black inmates had assaulted him, there was no serious racial tension two days later: ‘It was, more or less, inmates, black and white, trying to get things changed.’ During this moment of racial solidarity, someone wrote on a piece of paper: ‘We are holding a captain and four correction officers. No harm will come to them if we are not attacked. We want to see the mayor and the Press.’ The note was tucked inside the pages of a paperback book, stuffed in a sock, and dropped out to the street.

Following some initial confusion, the Mayor’s counsel, Commissioner McGrath and three reporters ascended to the 9th floor to assure the inmates that there would be no reprisals if the officers were released unharmed. In return, they listened as an inmate read their list of grievances. Towards the end of their list, the inmates conceded that ‘the manner in which we chose to express our grievances is admittedly dramatic, but it is not as dramatic and shocking as the conditions under which society has forced us to live. We are indignant and so, too, should the people of society be indignant.’ A New York Times reporter promised to have the grievances published unedited in the next day’s newspaper.

In three days, the unrest at the Tombs had spread in stages from several dozen black inmates to a large proportion of those held on the 9th floor. On the next day, the rebellion flared up once again, this time at 3pm, beginning with inmates on the 8th floor taking three guards hostage. ‘Several other floors joined in the rebellion and attempted to bring their plight to the people.’ Later, one man claimed that he had started the rebellion on the 5th floor after correction officers had denied commissary for the day: ‘The food is bad and the inmates look forward to pies and cupcakes and candy bars. So when they can’t have this …’ The reporter noted that the man’s voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, as if to emphasise obviousness of his point. Where the previous actions had been tightly organised, this rebellion seemed almost chaotic. Inmates set fires, smashed the building’s three-inch brick glass windows, and rained books, furniture, the bodies of dead rats and other debris onto Centre and White streets. Through a broken window, two men held a bed sheet reading ‘All we want is to be treated like human beens [sic]. There are no medications for the sick. Unhealthy cells. Unhealthy food. Three men in cell built for one.’ Signed, ‘The People’. Inmates hung another sheet with ‘Power to the People’ and a giant fist from the 4th floor window. Still another, smaller sign read simply ‘No more long court dates.’ In the midst of this seeming chaos, inmates collectively demanded that the list of demands issued the previous day by men on the 9th floor be met immediately.

From the open windows of the jail, inmates sought to directly convey their grievances to the hundreds of onlookers below. From the upper floors, the men shouted that they were living four to a cell and waiting long months for trial. ‘The prisoners wrote notes to the people and tossed them out of the broken windows in order to let the people know exactly what was going on’, wrote Brenda Hyson in The Black Panther. ‘Of course the notes were quickly seized by the police.’ That evening, CBS news broadcast video of inmates chipping away at entire sections of the jail’s opaque windows, setting fire to white sheets and letting them hang out of the window. Below, columns of riot-helmeted policemen ran, ducking for cover from the falling debris, inside the front entrance of the jail. Broadcaster Walter Cronkite also mentioned that police had shot tear gas canisters into the building, only to have inmates throw them back.

Just as the structure of the Tombs confined inmates to their floors, preventing them from moving to other parts of the building or escaping en masse, it also limited the ability of correction officers to retake the facility. Storming any portion of the jail required taking the elevator up to a particular floor, a slow process that would leave guards at a strategic disadvantage. Once again, McGrath negotiated with rebelling inmates, promising that an investigation of city jail conditions would be completed within three weeks. Though these negotiations secured the release of the hostages by that evening, correction officers were not able to regain control of the entire jail for the next week and a half. In the interim, inmates continued their protest by other means. Some continued to break windows and drop notes to the ground. One read, ‘Peace and Love, Everything back to normal and everything is looking up. We hope it stays this way. The Inmates.’ Men also refused to go to their court hearings. On 16 August, ninety-four prisoners in the Tombs sat down in their cells and refused to leave for trial. The next day, fifty-two Tombs inmates boycotted their hearings. Thirteen men at a Queens jail boycotted their hearings ‘in sympathy’.

The Tombs rebellion continued until 20 August, when correction officers were able finally to re-enter the floor where inmates had gained control, to check locks and search for contraband. In twelve days, an inmate rebellion had grown in fits and starts, spurred forward by various acts of solidarity. It expanded in stages from the 9th floor to four floors of the Tombs, to inmates in two other jails. Yet, this solidarity had limitations. Indeed, Tombs inmates harassed those who did not go along with the boycott, allegedly beating at least four. Thirty inmates, most on only minor charges, demanded to be transferred to another jail; at least twenty-one were sent to Rikers Island.

In the six weeks that followed the initial Tombs hostage taking, inmates continued to seek some change in the conditions of their confinement. In late August, Mayor Lindsay received a handwritten petition signed by 122 inmates from the 9th floor as well as forty-two from other floors, stating that ‘the grievances presented to a member of your party by an inmate of the ninth floor of the tombs were not in spite of the rambunctious way they were presented, the grievances of a fanatic or radical individuals, but the grievances of the entire ninth floor and institution’.

Requesting a written acknowledgement of Lindsay’s support for their grievances, the petition sought to convince the Mayor that though the jail’s conditions prevented ‘100% representation here, we assure you we speak for all’. It concluded with the hope that Lindsay would move quickly to resolve the jail’s problems. There was no reply and, in the weeks that followed, the Lindsay administration took few steps to ameliorate conditions. Rather, officials prepared a series of reports investigating inmate grievances. Correction officials also arranged for the transfer of several hundred inmates to other city jails, quickly moving those identified as the leadership of the August rebellion as a security precaution. Meanwhile, city and state officials clashed publicly over who should be held responsible for the persistent overcrowding. On 11 August, Lindsay had personally appealed to Governor Nelson Rockefeller to place inmates in state correctional institutions and then criticised the governor’s decision to take only 670 inmates. Similarly, Commissioner McGrath clashed publicly with State Senator John Dunne during a hearing on the Tombs rebellions. As the days passed with few changes, some defendants complained that they could only get justice through UN intervention.” 

– Toussaint Losier, “Against ‘law and order’ lockup: the 1970 NYC jail rebellions.” Race & Class, Institute of Race Relations, 2017, Vol. 59 (1). pp. 12-15 

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“In 1902, a second Tombs was built on the same unstable foundation and was soon marked by a similar infamy. The jail was closed again in 1938. Three years later, New York City erected the third incarnation of the Tombs as part of an $18 million criminal justice complex. Built on a sturdier plot of land at 100 Centre Street, the twelve-storey, maximum-security facility was situated in the heart of the Civic Center. Inmates awaiting trial were held in single occupancy cells averaging 4’10” wide by 7’11” deep, each enclosed in solid steel on the sides with bar gates forming the back wall. On this back wall, the bars ran vertically from the ceiling to within roughly three feet of the floor, where it became solid steel. To the left of the back wall were a toilet and a washbasin as well as two metal shelves that could be used as a table and a stool. By 1965, a second bunk had been installed in each cell, providing a 932-person capacity on eight floors. 

These floors were actually organised in two-storey units around a central lockout area, which served as the space in which inmates were to be locked out of their cells for eight hours a day. Guards could use a catwalk running above this common area to oversee inmates whether they were locked in or out of their cells. Cell blocks on the east and west side of building were separated by a central hallway. This floor plan left little room for recreational activities as well as access to fresh air or daylight. Rather, each floor was intended to be an autonomous series of cells, holding forty to sixty inmates in a secure ‘city within a city’ without requiring their transfer to other parts of the facility.

Within a week of the opening of the ‘New Tombs’, the jail was filled to capacity. In 1954, the New York Times carried a three-part investigative study of the overcrowding in the city’s jails, with particular attention given to the Tombs and its unsanitary conditions. Soon, a mattress was placed on the floor for a third cellmate. By the mid 1960s, the correction officers were regularly packing four defendants into a cell, filling the Tombs to more than double capacity: ‘once again the old familiar cries of Tombs-gone-by were being heard as detainees complained of “favoritism by guards, poor food, dirty beds, little recreation, roaches, lice, rodents, and bed bugs”’. As conditions worsened and complaints increased, guards increasingly used force to squeeze inmates into packed cells, particularly black and Puerto Rican inmates.

However, overcrowding did not only plague the Tombs. On 7 August 1968, Correction Commissioner McGrath wrote to Lindsay to report an alarming rise in the population across the city’s jails. Rising incidences of crime and urban unrest over the previous three years meant political pressure on police to make arrests. For much of the 1960s, there had been a regular increase of eighteen prisoners per month, but between January and August 1968, the daily average of prisoners had jumped from 4,509 to 6,484, following an average increase of 282 prisoners per month. To accommodate these new detainees, the Department of Correction had been forced to transfer over 2,000 detainees to Rikers Island, a prison annex at that time reserved for convicted and sentenced felons. A year later, a report by the Vera Institute of Justice cited the rise in arrests as well as length of pretrial detention as the cause of a 27 per cent increase in the average daily detention population in 1968. In addressing the court delays that lengthened the time spent in jail, the report cited a steadily rising length of average stay in jail from 18.5 days in 1965 to approximately 30 days in 1968, but acknowledged that these were conservative figures skewed by the large of number of cases where individuals were able to post bail shortly after admission: ‘While data was not available on the duration of custody of all defendants detained for the entire pretrial period, it is known that on August 1, 1968, the average detained defendant in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court had already spent over 140 days in jail.’ Inefficiencies in court procedures were dragging out the duration of trial. These long stays in jail not only contributed to overcrowding, but also made it more likely that those being held, overwhelmingly poor and non white, would be sentenced to jail.

In its findings, the report also suggested that judges were denying pretrial parole and imposing higher bails on the pretext of holding defendants believed to be dangerous to the community. Though money bail is meant to ensure that defendants appear at trial, judges were imposing higher bails to keep those deemed dangerous off the street, a form of preventive detention, ‘which is neither

authorized by the Code of Criminal Procedure, or based on reliable indicia of dangerousness, nor evenhanded in its impact on the poor and non poor’.

With the increasing arrests, primarily of low-level offenders, and increasing court delays, the problem of overcrowding only continued to grow. In 1970, Henry Ruth Jr, the President of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, decried the fact that the number of cases disposed of by the courts had not increased, while the number of arrests had increased by 20 per cent. That year, New York City, which claimed only 4 per cent of the nation’s population, was projected to spend $650 million on the New York Police Department, comprising 16 per cent of the nation’s municipal police budget. In contrast, only $70 million was budgeted for the Department of Correction and less than 4 per cent of correction officers in the country worked in New York. In the months prior to the Tombs rebellion, mayoral aide Barry Gottehrer observed that

The Correction Department was squeezed from both ends. No new prisons
were being built, while the police, thanks to greater efficiency within the
department and better police methods, were making more arrests. At the other end, the courts were slowing down. The case backlog left many prisoners waiting in the Tombs for a year or more before they were assigned a trial date.

The late 1960s were marked not only by rising crime rates and arrest, but also the intensified police harassment and repression of radical organisations, particularly the BPP, following the wave of urban rebellions that marked Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination. Though a variety of groups were undermined by the Federal Bureau of Intelligence’s Counter Intelligence programme (COINTELPRO), the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover personally targeted the BPP as ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country’. At the close of 1969, an ‘estimated 30 Panthers were facing capital punishment, 40 faced life in prison, 55 faced terms of up to thirty years, and another 155 were in jail or being sought’. In NYC a series of pre-dawn arrests resulted in the capture of twenty-one members of local BPP chapters on 2 April 1969. Constituting much of the Party’s East Coast leadership, the ‘New York 21’ were charged with conspiracy to blow up department stores, police stations, and the Bronx Botanical Garden – accusations largely based on informer testimony. The courts held each on $100,000 bail, an explicitly political form of preventative detention.

While the ‘New York 21’ and other better-known radicals were kept away from the rest of the jail population, countless members of radical groups were herded into the general population as police repression increased. Reflecting on this phenomenon from inside California’s notorious San Quentin prison, George Jackson wrote that ‘because Amerika’s thought-control program allows for no political prisoners, the men and women who criticized the system, in the language of those who call for re-distribution of wealth and power, are crowded into these concentration centers in the name of the established law’. Though incarcerated, many of these women and men continued to organise, directly engaging other inmates about the conditions they confronted. In particular, Jackson noted, ‘Black Panther Party members are sent to prison with one clear intention; to silence them. The process has affected every black man in prison, since the political soldier must teach; and further, just because being seen with one will be cause enough to share in his impending ordeal.’ The combination of an increasingly radical political consciousness among prisoners together with their contact with more seasoned militant activists created the mix that would give rise to the numerous prison rebellions of this period.

Despite the halting efforts of Mayor Lindsay and New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller to shift hundreds of prisoners from the Tombs to nearby state prisons, overcrowding continued and the conditions at the Tombs continued to deteriorate. On 9 March 1970, off-duty correction officers with the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) picketed and on-duty officers conducted a work slowdown to remind the Mayor of his promise to add 130 guards and to reduce the rising inmate population of 14,000 in a jail system with a capacity for only 7,993. One month later, Congressional representative Ed Koch conducted an uncensored survey of Tombs inmates, which found that more than 40 per cent had seen guards assault an inmate and roughly half said three men were assigned to their cell. Fewer than one in ten had a mattress and blanket during their first days at the jail, and half claimed they had to wait at least a week after entering for a blanket. Ninety per cent of men described their blankets as filthy and an equally large percentage complained about the problem of rats, roaches and body lice in their cell as well as a lack of soap. Then in May, the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers organised a three-day walkout to dramatise the crisis conditions in courts. Each of these warnings went largely unheeded.

During his confinement in the Tombs in the early summer of 1970, Sam Melville, an activist who would later plead guilty to a series of politically motivated bombings, was overwhelmed by the poor conditions and poor prospects for change. In a letter dated 28 May, he described the beating of a Black Panther by several guards, supposedly for attempting to organise prisoners: ‘things are very tense here. The hacks act with impunity … I don’t know what recourse we prisoners have of dealing with them. The inmates are too frightened and untrusting of each other to form alliances. The hacks demand and get instant obedience & they expect a good attitude as well.’ On being transferred to Sing Sing prison in early July, Melville explained that ‘the last several weeks at the Tombs were not pleasant and I lost too much weight. It’s much better and some sunshine. But best of all: quiet! The noise at the Tombs was its most oppressing aspect.’

Yet something must have changed among Tombs inmates in the months prior to the August rebellion. In spite of the jail’s conditions, or perhaps because of them, some of the men found a way to come together. When asked to comment on his most recent stint in jail, former Tombs inmate Julio Senidez said he sensed a new spirit in the jail in the last two months: ‘The other times I was in, prisoners were sort of conditioned to brutality … There was the feeling that if you said something or complained you were a punk. It’s different now. People
are not giving in.’ 

According to Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, ‘part of the difference … came from identification with the Black Panther party and the Young Lords’. For at roughly the same time that Melville was in administrative segregation, several inmates in the general population had begun to organise a response to the jail’s conditions. According to Victor Martinez, a member of the Young Lords Party, inmates began to organise as early as May 1970. In an interview with the Liberation News Service, he described how ‘we began as a committee of two people, which grew to four and then kept multiplying until we were able to organise the complete ninth floor.’ For Martinez, organising was not simply a question of forming a group and delegating tasks, but also of educating inmates about their circumstances. For months, Martinez and other inmates met clandestinely for political education: 

We had a series of classes, morning or afternoons. We would gather in the shower or we would take the last cell on the floor and sit on the floor. Or we would sit at a table and spread out a deck of cards. If a guard came by he would assume that we were playing cards, while we were really discussing political science.

From his account, it is unclear what changed the Tombs in the summer of 1970 that now made the jail more conducive to inmate organising. Perhaps there was no change and inmates outside of administrative segregation received less scrutiny. Perhaps Martinez and others had learned from previous organising efforts, becoming more adept at concealing their efforts. What is clear is that as conditions worsened in the jail, the Tombs, in a sense, produced its own grave-diggers.

The very crises of rising arrests, court backlog and jail overcrowding exacerbated infamously brutal circumstances ultimately making it easier for prisoners to come together. As Martinez explained, ‘All of us were locked up and were being deprived of basic human rights. As soon as we were able to explain this to the men, they couldn’t go along with the guards.’ As the Tombs neared double capacity and average time detained lengthened, it had a relatively stable population, rather than a rapidly fluctuating group of temporarily held detainees. Inmates not only had common grievances around which to build unity, but also the conditions conducive to building a critical mass.

On 29 July 1970, a group of inmates sent a petition to Lindsay and McGrath detailing the problems they faced from overcrowding, unhealthy conditions and limited contact with the outside world. Not only did the government not offer an official reply, but ‘almost two weeks went by and no attempt was made by the “power structure” to redress the prisoner’s [sic] grievances’. With no positive response from the Department of Correction, inmates were forced to take matters into their own hands.”  

– Toussaint Losier, “Against ‘law and order’ lockup: the 1970 NYC jail rebellions.” Race & Class, Institute of Race Relations, 2017, Vol. 59 (1). pp. 8-12

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“Poor-Box Robber Is Caught In N.Y.,” Toronto Globe. November 27, 1918. Page 03.

Toronto Youth Confesses When Arrested That He Had Made Atttempt

(Special Despatch to The Globe.)
New York, Nov. 26. – Samuel Gross, nineteen years old, of Toronto, who carried a Canadian registration card, but not permit to rob the poor boxes of New York city, was frustrated this afternoon through the clever and courageous work of Miss Adele Eggers of 1,847 Harrison Avenue.

Miss Eggers, with her mother, was out for her first airing following a serious illness and had stopped at a bakery on Washington Heights to make a purchase. She was standing at the counter, waiting for her mother to make a selection, when, she told a detective later, she espied in the mirror behind the counter Gross trying to loosen the contribution box for the blind from the wall near the door.

Miss Eggers, weak though she was, pounced upon Gross, who had succeeded in unfastening the box and was starting for the door with it concealed beneath his overcoat which he carried on his arm.

His First Attempt.
Despite her game efforts, Miss Eggers was unable to hold on to Gross, who wrenched himself free and in doing so hurried the girl and the contribution box to the tiled floor of the store. A chase of five blocks up St. Nicholas avenue ensued, and this meanest of thieves was overtaken through the sprinting ability of Traffic Patrolman Henry Stake, who outdistanced the quickly gathering crowded by several hundred yards.

Questioned by detectives, Gross denied he was a slacker from Canadian military service and declares this was his first attempt to pilfer poor boxes. He said he had been working in restaurants and ‘bumming it’ during the four months he has been here from Toronto, sleeping when he had ‘the price’ at the Mills Hotel at 36th street and 7th avenue.

There was between $5 and $6 in the shattered box when the contents were counted later.

Mrs. Eggers is apprehensive lest her daughter’s experience cause a relapse in the girl’s condition.

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Pier on the Hudson, Coxsackie, New York. c. 1905. Source.

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“Nothing
was more consistent in the criminal records of Coxsackie inmates than
convictions for petit larceny and burglary, which together account
more than one-third of the case file sample (if youthful offenders
whose original charges were petit larceny and burglary are included,
the total becomes closer to one-half of the case sample). Petit
larceny was a serious misdemeanour that could result in a reformatory
sentence, and burglary was a felony crime; both offenses were heavily
over-represented by adolescent boys. In 1950, for example, 16-to
18-year-olds accounted for 17.2 percent of all major crime arrests,
but 35.7 percent of all burglary arrests. 

Perhaps
the most critical factor in most of the petit larceny and burglary
arrests was theft as a form of work and survival among young men. One
16-year-old explained his offense: ‘I was hanging around the block
and they said did I want to go out and get some money. I said all
right. We went to a house and got some lead pipe. We did it about a
week before I was caught. The others got away.’ To ‘get some
money’ was the eternal quest of the Coxsackie’s inmate’s life
before prison. Whether caught stealing from cottages on Ballston
Lake, apartments in Auburn, or mailboxes in Binghamton, young men
arrived from across the state from burglary and larceny convictions. 

Petit
larceny and burglary arrests are best understood as the legal tip of
a much larger iceberg of police and community interactions with
adolescent boys living between school and work. In a survey of
Coxsackie inmates, most reported that their time prior to the
reformatory was spent ‘just hanging around’ with friends and
‘goofing off.’ Hanging around, young men became well known to the
police; as a consequence, a burglary or petit larceny charge was
often just the culmination of a long series of encounters. Jerry O.
Was sentenced to Coxsackie after being caught breaking into a
building and stealing a typewriter, but he was already well known on
the streets of Rochester as a ‘petty thief and tough, a corner
loafer and the leader of a gang of tough street urchins.’
While in school, Jerry had appeared in school court three times, for
truancy, insubordination, and fighting. After leaving school at 16,
Jerry worked irregularly as a messenger boy but mostly spent his time
roaming the streets with his friends. Picked up and released numerous
times by the Rochester Police Department, the causes of Jerry’s
contacts with the police give a sense of how he spent his time: for
walking on the railroad tracks; for stealing; for hanging around
girls’ houses; for swimming in a forbidden river; and for morals
violations. Only one of these police contacts resulted in a formal
adjudication of delinquency, before the theft of the typewriter led
Jerry to Coxsackie. For most reformatory prisoners, the police were
simply a part of everyday experience; their Coxsackie sentence just a
culmination of a process of control and discipline deeply embedded in
their lives.”

–  Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp.84-86.

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“The place
of crime and delinquency in the lives of the adolescent boys who
served time in Coxsackie and similar reformatories has never been
given a full accounting. If the educational reformers were reasonably
clear eyed when it came to educational and work histories, they
generally missed the significance of criminal histories. That this
should be overlooked is not entirely surprising, after all, the chief
selling point for the state’s focus on the adolescent male offender
was the promise of early intervention – that confinement at the
first signs of serious criminality would interrupt the start of a
potentially serious criminal career. Through youthful offender laws
New York simultaneously suppressed and denied serious criminality
among teenage boys.

Subsequent
critical histories of the reformatory tend to share this notion of
the naive youthful offender, arguing that progressive reforms tended
to have a ‘new widening’ effect, as the state expanded its reach
over otherwise stable patterns of youthful behavior. New York’s
intensified focus on the adolescent offender did
widen the net of
surveillance and control, but
there is no reason to assume that underlying patterns of adolescent
behavior were static. The ability of young men to cause troubles has
a historical specificity that, combined with criminal justice system
behavior, produced the patterns of adolescent criminal careers.

The
case files reveal that most of Coxsackie’s prisoners had been
arrested prior to the arrest that sent them to the reformatory. In
the case file sample, more than four of every five prisoners arrived
with prior arrests – far more than the general population of
adolescent criminal defendants. The average number of prior arrests
per inmate was quite stable over time, as was the relative
distribution of the number of arrests. There may have been a slight
rise in the proportion of never-arrested inmates in the post-war
years, although this difference may well be accounted for by a
decline in ‘unknown’ cases that could generally have been cases
of no record of arrest.

Coxsackie’s
prisoners had far more previous institutional experience than the
designers of the reformatory could have imagined. The case sample of
Coxsackie inmates shows 118 (31.8%) having some prior institutional
commitment, a number that does not count jail time that might have
accompanied previous arrests. Unlike prior arrest patterns, the
experience of institutional commitment clearly declines over time in
the sample The percentage of Coxsackie prisoners with no prior
commitments rises with each five-year group, capturing part of what
may have been an even longer historical decline – fully one-half
of new commitments to the House of Refuge in 1925 had already spent
time in another institution

The
decline has two plausible explanations. One possibility is that the
opening of the Elmira Reception Center in 1945 diverted prisoners
with institutional experience from Coxsackie. A second possibility,
made more likely  by the House of Refuge data, is that young men
after World War II were simply less likely than previous generations
to be committed to an institution before they turned 16 years old.
Certainly this is most plausible in the case of private institutional
confinement, as the numbers of children in foster care began to
surpass the numbers in institutional care. To the extent that these
developments may have also depressed public institutional
commitments, it may help explain the decline…

The
case file sample does suggest, however, that Coxsackie inmates with
institutional experience frequently found themseves in a kind of
revolving door of placements within the complex of public and private
institutions that governed New York’s adolescent boys. Willie .,
growing up in New Rochelle with his immigrant parents, first
encountered the legal system just after his thirteenth birthday, when
a juvenile court judge sentenced him to probation because of
persistent delinquency. Two months later, Willie made another
juvenile court appearance, again because of his refusal to attend
school regularly. Six months passed before the next court appearance:
this time, the judge sentenced Willie to the Children’s Village, a
private juvenile institution where he lasted only four months before
being returned to the courts as ‘ungovernable.’  Unwilling to
return the young man to his parents, the court adjudicated him a
neglected child and sent him to St. Benedict’s home for Colored
Children in Rye, New York. He lasted two months before the
administrators of St. Benedict’s returned him to the court, where
he was adjudicated delinquent again and sent his first ‘state’
institution, the New York Training School at Warwick. At Warwick,
Willie made three escape attempts before being released. Following
this, he was adjudicated delinquent yet again (at age 15) and sent to
Industry, where he was paroled in February 1940. His freedom lasted
just six weeks before an arrest for assault sent him to Coxsackie.”

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp.81-84.

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