Posts Tagged ‘prison riot’

“Rebellion Hits 4th City Jail – 3 Injured; Hostages Total 24,” New York Sunday News. October 4, 1970.

Their Fate In Prisoner’s Hands.

A Wildfire of Anger from Jail to Jail

Our Reporter Takes a Long Walk in a Dark Place

Get a Behind-Bars Hearing.

[AL: I’m not going to transcribe all of these articles about the prisoner revolt in New York in 1970, but read more with these excerpts (Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.) from Toussaint Losier’s article “Against ‘law and order’ lockup: the 1970 NYC jail rebellions,” Race & Class, 2017, Vol. 59 (1).]  

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“Inside Kingston Penitentiary – Ten Years After Canada’s Most Infamous Prison Riot,” Saturday Night. September 1981. Pages 34 & 35.

Part onePart two.



TERRY Decker, Thirty-Six, Was Attacked and Taken Hostage During The 1971 riot. ‘First they moved us into an air duct. They kept us there for a couple of hours. Then they started locking us away, three to a cell. They made us take off our uniforms and put on inmate clothing. They figured there wouldn’t be any trouble if the people outside didn’t know who was an inmate and who wasn’t. They moved us every couple of hours from one range to another. I don’t know if they did it to confuse our guys, or the inmates who might have wanted to get at us.’

The hostages were treated with an unpredictable mixture of violence and consideration. ‘I was punched pretty good,’ says Decker. ‘They flattened a disc in my back and burst a blood vessel in my eyeball.’ At the same time, he and the other hostages were given double rations. ‘If the inmates got one sandwich, we got two. And tobacco – we had more than we could ever have smoked. I have no complaints there.’ Decker was released as a show of good faith during the negotiations. He’d been held for forty hours. ‘As I was coming out, one lifer said to me, ‘It pays not to be a dog, eh?’

Four months after the incident, he returned to work. He required extensive physiotherapy and cortisone shots in the spine, but since 1973 his health has been sound. Of the six guards held hostage, Decker is the only one who still works in security – he’s now at Collins Bay penitentiary. Two of the hostages have died; one quit; one took a medical pension; one works as a groundskeeper at Millhaven. Only a portion of the prison has been restored. Several ranges have never been reopened, and the top two tiers of the functioning ranges remain sealed off. Prior to posing for this photograph, Decker had not set foot in the part of the prison where he was held hostage since the riot ten years ago. ‘I was in fear for my life all the time.’

‘THERE’S No Call For This Trade Outside,’ Says The Instructor In the Mail bag repair shop, where these inmates were photographed during a coffee break, ‘but it helps the guys do their time and provides a few dollars for upkeep.’ Last year inmates in the shop repaired five thousand bags a week. The penitentiary earns a dollar for each mailbag it repairs, but eighty four cents goes to materials. Work programmes at Kingston – like hobby and recreational activities – are curtailed by outdated facilities. The only work of rehabilitative value is data processing. Inmates are coding the records of the National Museum of Science and Technology into computer banks. ‘We’re going to get a lot more terminals,’ says Andrew Graham, the warden. ‘It’s a popular programme, and it’s a skill that’s very much in demand on the street.’

Inmates used to be paid a pittance. Last May, however, the federal pay scale was revised to coincide with civilian minimum wage rates, less the eighty-five percent of income that Statisticcs Canada calculates a single man would spend on food, lodging, and clothes. Depending on the nature of his work, a prisoner in a federal institution came between $3.15 and $5.90 a day in maximum security, $3.70 and $6.45 in medium, and $4.80 and $7.55 in minimum. Twenty-five per cent of his pay is withheld as compulsory savings. An inmate serving a lengthy sentence now has the opportunity of returning to civilian life with a few thousand dollars, rather than a few hundred.

There are good reasons for the graduate pay scale. The first is the cost of incarceration. To keep an inmate in maximum security costs $35,800 a year, versus $22,600 for medium security and $18,400 for minimum. (In a community correctional centre – where inmates work at civilian jobs and return to custody each night – the cost is $11,500. The cost of parole is $1,600 a year.) The graduated pay scale also encourages inmates to behave well in order to qualify for an institution with a lower security rating – and a higher pay scale.

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“Guards Use Tear Gas: Reformatory Riot Follows Open House,” The Globe and Mail. September 25, 1962. Pages 01 & 12.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Guelph, Sept. 24 – The first open house in history at the Ontario Reformatory here last weekend affected about 30 inmates today – they rioted.

Superintendent Charles Sanderson said some disturbance usually follows any unusual program, such as the open house that attracted more than 10,000 persons to the institution.

The prisoners were subdued within 15 minutes after guards pumped large quantities of tear gas into the dining room. There was considerable damage, but no injuries were reported.

Mr. Sanderson said the prisoners did not attempt to leave the dining room, but smashed crockery and windows. They were removed to a prison yard after the outbreak and more than 350 inmates eating in an adjoining room were also removed for safety.

There had been a couple of incidents in the dormitories during the weekend that led him to expect trouble, the superintendent said, ‘but I didn’t expect anything as serious as this.’

About 30 inmates overturned and broke about 25 windows Saturday night and there were a couple of fights between prisoners, Mr. Sanderson said. One guard received a broken nose attempting to break up one fight.

‘Their fun involves vandalism,’ the superintendent added.

About 15 men involved in the dormitory disturbances were today transferred to the maximum security at Millbrook.

The men in the large dining room were brought back into the building just before 5 p.m. They had been confined in a prison yard since noon.

About 250 men who were in the small dining room remained in another room.

Mr. Sanderson said the 250 inmates of the reformatory will spend the night in the prison yard and will not be given any food until morning.

‘It is unfortunate that we have to leave all the men out because we are not yet sure who all the troublemakers are,’ he said.

The staff at the reformatory was doubled in strength tonight with about 80 men on duty. Guards are watching from rooftops and other locations with tear-gas guns ready.

Mr. Sanderson said that it was the prompt use of the tear gas that prevented the trouble from becoming more serious.

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“Strap Mercer Riot Leaders, Says Official,” Toronto Star. July 19, 1948. Page 01.

Ringleaders in the Mercer reformatory riot were strapped, A. R. Virgin, director of reform institutions, said today. He was commenting on the statement of a woman in police court today that prisoners ‘were beaten black and blue’ and tear gas used.

Asked if this was correct, Mr. Virgin said he was not going to deny or confirm it, but that ‘we do not hesitate to use tear gas whenever we find it necessary.’

There has been no more trouble at Guelph, he added. He said the men are working hard and those kept in the exercise yard and dormitories are punishment for a demonstration agaisnt the food ‘seemed sorry they had caused trouble.’

Lights in the whole of Ontario reformatory were blazing at 11 o’clock last night, but there was no trouble, Mr. Virgin stated. He said lights usually were out at 10 p.m. Passengers on a train that passes near the reformatory said it was unusual to see the lights on at such a late hour.

‘I just got out of the Mercer last Friday,’ the woman, Lillian Johnson, 50, said in police court, when charged with being drunk, ‘and my nerves were shot after the riots.’

After a list of previous drunk convictions was read by the court clerk, Magistrate Elmore imposed sentence of 40 days.

‘You can’t send me back there,’ said the woman. ‘Why didn’t they print the truth about how we were beaten and given tear gas. I wasn’t in the riot, but I saw those girls beaten black and blue.’

A police matron and a court policeman struggled with accused several minutes before removing her to the cells.

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“Guards Use Tear Gas To End Burwash Riot Over Baked Beans Fare,” The Globe & Mail. July 3, 1948. Page 01.

After being suppressed for four days, news of another riot at Burwash Industrial Farm, leaked out yesterday and Reform Institutions Minister George Dunbar then revealed the uprising was due to complaints against the food. The trouble which occurred Monday night, was finally settled after three hours of violence when the guards hurled tear gas at the prisoners.

The riot was the second at the huge industrial prison in eight months. It followed by three days a similar outbreak at the Mercer Reformatory for females in Toronto which was brought under control by city and provincial police.

Just how many prisoners took part in the more recent Burwash rebellion could not be definitely determined. Superintendent Ralph Ayres, who took over after the riots last October, refused to give any information. One guard said 510 inmates had to be subdued after they smashed tables, dormitory windows and attempted to batter down the steel corridor gates. Deputy MInister C. F. Neelands, who like Supt. Ayres, was uncommunicative, would only say that the number involved was considerably that mentioned by the guard.

The violence is said to have started over baked beans served for supper. The prisoners housed in dormitories reportedly complained about the fare, but ate it. Then 165 men from the cells filed into the mess hall and began banging on the tables with cups and plates. This action stirred the 345 men in the dormitories to a demonstration of their own.

After three hours of rioting destruction tear gas was thrown at the prisoners and order was restored. Eighteen men have been singled out as the ringleaders and will be disciplined presumably by being strapped, or being placed in solitary confinement.

On top of all this, two prisoners, Leonard Erwin Staley, 29, Toronto, and Admiral Killingsworth, 32, Hamilton, escaped Thursday night and the body of another escapee, Wilson Broch, was found in Long Lake at Bayswater, 16 miles south of Burwash. Broch had been missing since June 19. He was from Hamilton.

Dr. Gillies Desmarais, coroner, said Broch’s death was due to drowning. George Waynott, Hamilton, who escaped with Broch is still at large.

Tear gas was used last October when 10 prisoners, led by Raymond (Dolly) Quinton, Windsor, were in control of the 7,000 acre farm for three days. This ‘committee’ of 10 issued orders to prisoners and guards alike and commandeered trucks. The guards claimed they were powerless to resist the prisoners until they received authority to use the gas.

Such authority was vested in them by an act of the legislature at the last session when the guards of all reform institutions were given the powers of police officers in handling prisoners.

Prof. Stuart Jaffray, who investigated the October riots, said they were caused by a breakdown in the administration system. He also remarked that the food could be improved. In that outbreak, some $3,000 damage was done to furniture and other property.

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“Hunger Strike On At Burwash Sudbury Report,” Toronto Star. July 3, 1948. Page 01.

Special to The Star
Sudbury, July 3 – Prisoners at Burwash reformatory are staging a hunger strike against the quality of food being served, it was learned her today. Officials refused comment and Supt. Ralph Ayers said ‘everything is normal.’

The hunger strike followed the riot staged in No. 2 dormitory, which contains cells and in which are kept the more hardened and what is regarded as habitual, criminals. It was learned there have been several other hunger strikes, some among small groups of prisoners, since the big riot of last October, when prisoners were virtually in control of the whole farm.

The riot started when a plate of cold beans served last Monday night was hurled at Supt. Ayers. He had come to the dining-room on demand of the prisoners who protested serving of the beans cold. Other prisoners who ate at an earlier sitting had hot beans.

C. F. Neelands, deputy minister of reform institutions, said he ‘had no comment’ on the reported hunger strike. A prisoner released Thursday said no one in No. 2 dormitory had eaten since Monday night except maybe a ‘few scabs.’ They were being ‘tonge-lashed’ for it, he said.

Tear gas was used to get the prisoners into the cells last Monday, Hon. George Dunbar, minister of reform institutions stated. Windows were smashed and considerable other damage done.

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“Burwash Guards Use Tear Gas,” Toronto Star. July 2, 1948. Page 01.


Sudbury, Ont., July 2 (CP) – Tear gas was used by guards to quell a riot in Burwash industrial farm last Monday night, it was revealed today. Hundreds of panes of window glass were broken in the dormitory and several tables were smashed.

The riot was reported to have centered in Camp 2, largest camp which serves as headquarters for the arm. About 225 prisoners were involved, but there was no trouble at the jail farm’s other two camps.

It is understand that the spark for the outbreak was set off over a protest about the quality of food being served.

Had Trouble Last Fall
The same jail farm was the scene of a major riot last fall when prisoners objected to their meals and general living conditions. An investigation was made by a board appointed by the department of reform institutions.

It was reported that last Monday’s riot broke ot when a guard slapped a piece of butter forcefully on a slice of pie and it splashed over the arm of a prisoner. After remonstrating the guard, the prisoner threw his pie on the floor and was removed from the dining hall.

Guards were reinforced and the prisoners were ordered to return to their cell block. When police surrounded the dormitories carrying rifles and tear gas occupants kicked out windows and pounded steel grills with heavy 12-foot tables.

The demonstration lasted almost three hours and tear gas was thrown in ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D’ dormitories.

Farm officials said today normal routine has been resumed but a field day, scheduled for Thursday, has been cancelled. Eight men were placed in solitary confinement. Superintendent Ralph Ayers said there has been tension at the farm for the past two weeks.

‘I can’t understand what is back of it all,’ he said. ‘We feel we may have been treating the inmates better this part winter, and have given them every consideration in their complaints up to now. There was no reason for this outbreak.’

Escapees Identified
Special to The Star
Burwash, July 2 – Two prisoners escaped from Burwash Industrial farm here last night after Monday’s riot.

They are: Leonard Erwin Staley, 28, of George St., sentenced to two years in Toronto, July 30, 1947, and Admiral Killingworth, 32, of Hamilton, sentenced to two years on Aug. 16, 1947.

The two escaped men, the minister of reform institutions reported at his office in Toronto today, ‘just walked off during a sports program on the grounds. Yesterday was a holiday and there were sports events held in the afternoon.’

He said ‘they won’t get very far. The black flies will probably drive them back.’

Recall Mercer Trouble
The Burwash riot was a repetition of the uprising at Mercer Reformatory for women in Toronto 10 days ago.

About 100 city policeman, were rushed to the building on King St. to try to restore order. Two of the officers were injured so badly they required hospital treatment. Det.-Sergt. Welsford had his wrist fractured with a baseball bat and will be off duty for five weeks, police said.

The women ringleaders were eventually locked in cells and given only weak tea and bread when they refused to stop their yelling and screaming. Their shoes were taken from them.

Dunbar Tells of Riot
The riot started Monday night during supper hour, Hon. George Dunbar, minister of reform institutions reported today.

‘A hothead in the dining room threw his supper on the floor,’ the minister said. ‘The guards immediately hustled him out, His friends started a rumbling in the dining room but took no action.

‘The next day, Tuesday, it rained all day and some of the men locked themselves in their dormitories and didn’t come down to eat breakfast. Guards threw tear gas into the block and everything quieted down,’ he said.

Mr. Dunbar said the disturbance occurred at Camp No. 2, where there are 156 cells. ‘The riot didn’t spread to any other camp,’ he added. ‘There was lots of noise, but no action was taken by the prisoners. It’s all over now.’

This is the first time tear gas has been used by Burwash guards since they were given the powers of police officers, officials said. A bill introduced by the attorney-general and passed at the last session of the legislature, gave them this power as well as that of being armed and making arrests.

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“20 Heave Bricks At Guards – Mercer On Bread, Weak Tea,” Toronto Star. June 28, 1948. Page 01.

A score of women prisoners at Mercer reformatory are ‘still holding out’ in their riot against the prison administration, officials said today. Although on rations of weak tea and bread as punishment for continued defiance, they have refused to stop shouting and during the week-end, some dislodged pieces of bricks from the wall and flung them at guards in the corridors.

Using nail files and spoons, broken and sharpened on stone, they picked at the mortar. Some whole bricks were heaved at the guards, but mostly the missiles were pieces of brick.

A dozen guards were brought from Guelph and Mimico reformatories. They are to replace Toronto police. Chief Chisholm has detailed three constables each eight hours to be on duty.

Will ‘Have Their Way’
T. M. Gourlay, inspector of prisons, is making a report on the disturbance to Hon. George Dunbar, minister of reform institutions. Meanwhile, no action is being taken.

Nine provincial police are still on duty. Toronto police are patrolling outside the building and the patrol sergeant in charge makes one trip through the jail with the matron.

Reduced rations had an effect on most of the women, who have returned to their regular work in the reformatory, officers said. The 20 out of the 100 who originally went on a sit-down strike and then rioted last Friday morning, seem determined to ‘have their way,’ they said.

Plans to remove the ringleaders to Don jail have been abandoned, officials stated.

The form of punishment to be meted out has not been decided. The superintendent, like the governor of all jails, has power to order the girls strapped, it was stated.

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“Mercer Has Strap, Dungeon – Girls Seek Death – Ex-Inmate,” Toronto Star. June 26, 1948. Page 02.

“It’s unbelievable what’s going on in Mercer reformatory,” Mrs. Daisy Hoffman of Ontario St. said today. She said she was released at 2 p.m. Friday after serving two months on a liquor charge. ‘It’s a torture chamber,’ she said. ‘The proof girls suffer terribly.’

Mrs. Hoffman gave the girls’ side of the story emphasizing their cruel treatment. ‘On June 16,’ she said, ‘a 19-year-old girl, named Agnes, who has a seven-month-old baby there with her, got 18 straps across her back and shoulders. They told her they would take away her baby. The same day another girl who was 17 years old was given 12 straps for a slight disturbance. Both girls were put in the dungeons on Monday. These are dark rooms in the basement with no windows or light, with cement floors. The girls sleep on iron bars – there are no beds. They only get one blanket. The water they use is rusty.

Says Two Try to Suicide
‘After being strapped, Helen – the 17-year-old girl – was brought to her room and the next day was sent to work. All her recreation was taken away and she is allowed no visitors. Agnes was in the dungeon until Friday and went to work that morning at the reformatory factory. While working at a power sewing machine she tried to commit suicide by plunging needles into her wrists.’

Mrs. Hoffman went on to say that another girl of 16, from Ottawa, had a fight on Friday – a week ago Friday – and was put in the dungeons last Sunday. ‘She was told that she would get a strapping the next day. On Sunday she cut her arm with a cup – trying to commit suicide. She was given no hospital attention at al. On Monday, as scheduled, she got 14 straps.

Thrown Downstairs
Mrs. Hoffman told what she saw during the riot yesterday and how it came about. ‘Wednesday evening,’ she said, ‘the girls went in a ‘squealer,’ slit her face and beat her. One of the matrons grabbed one of them and started chocking her. There was 10 matrons against this one girl. Another girl cried out the window ‘Help! A girl is chocking.’ A matron grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. The matron threw seven pails of cold water on her to revive her and took her to the dungeon. That night the girls planned a riot because they had all been threatened with the strap. 

‘Yesterday, the girls wouldn’t go to work they had a sitdown strike in the dining hall. When a matron came, the girls threw the dishes around and somebody pulled the fire alarm.’

Pulling Girls By Hair
Mrs. Hoffman said she had been confined to her room for six weeks. She was not allowed out at all. ‘I thought the place was on fire when I heard the alarm,’ she said. ‘I started to cry for help and a matron told me that it was not a fire but that she would let me out. I saw the detectives pulling the girls by the hair. Most of the girls were bleeding but only one detective had blood on his face. I saw a detective knock a girl down in the floor which was covered with broken dishes, and a matron told him: ‘You can’t hit her like that’. He released her then but knocked another one down. I told a matron that she was wonderful.’

No Fresh Air in Seven Weeks
Mrs. Hoffman said she had memorized messages from the girls to their parents. She could not carry out written messages because ‘I would be searched and then the girls would be strapped.’

Concerning her own treatment, Mrs. Hoffman said: ‘I had been locked for six weeks in my room. I was kicked around and threatened, but I am too old for strapping, so I did not care. I had no fresh air for seven weeks. All the exercise I had was walking to the bathroom. I lost 25 pounds in two months. The food was bad ‘and the meat smelled nearly, all the time.’

Mrs. Hoffman told of two other girls who received severe treatment. One was handcuffed with her hands behind her back for three days, according to Mrs. Hoffman. ‘The cuffs were so tight that her arms were all swollen,’ she said. ‘A nurse called the doctor and she took the handcuffs off. Later a matron beat Margaret.’

‘Another girl,’ said Mrs. Hoffman, ‘was put in her room for several days, when she was told she would have to stay twenty days longer than her sentence called for. The girl had started crying and she was ordered into her room for solitary confinement. The girl was due to leave the reformatory on July 27.’

Mrs. Hoffman told of the experiences in the reformatory. ‘They told me they were going to keep me indefinitely if I did not apologize and work for the Matron who had kicked me.’ Mrs. Hoffman had an argument with this matron and was ordered to apologize. ‘I did not apologize,’ she said. ‘I told them they could not break the law and that I would only work when I was treated like a human being. Whenever we complained the matrons said it was government order.’

Would Be Cautious
‘I do not know Mrs. Hoffman’s record, but I would be very cautious about accepting her charges as facts,’ said A. R. Virgin, director of reform institutions, today. ‘There has never been criticism against the superintendent of Mercer reformatory concerning cruelty to prisoners,’ he continued.

‘The fact that for years there has never been trouble indicates that the institution has been run efficiently,’ he said. ‘Certainly, anything that appear to be severe treatment is inquired into immediately.’ 

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“‘Siege for Days’ Seen in Mercer After Riot, Girls Scream Defiance,” Toronto Star. June 26, 1948. Page 01.

‘A state of siege that may last several days’ has developed inside Mercer Reformatory between police and guards and almost 100 women inmates who have been locked in their cells since a major riot Friday, Inspector Herb Harrison said today. More than 24 hours after the uprising, city and provincial police are still on duty as the belligerent women continue to yell and scream defiance at authorities, he said.

Friday more than 100 policemen were rushed to the old King St. W. institution when teh riot broke out during breakfast. At least two policemen were hospitalized, but have since returned to their homes. Det. Sergt. Sam Welsford had a wrist broken when he was clubbed with a baseball bat.

Toss Food Back
After struggling against clubs, fire hoses and innumerable missiles thrown at them, police and women attendants succeeded in locking the most serious offenders in the cell blocks.

When they continued to shout and break windows, their shoes were taken from them. Late last night and continuing through until late this morning, the prisoners kept up their shouting and swearing.

‘Food has had to be carried to them and everyone has been fed, although some just tossed it back out again,’ one official said.

To relieve city and provincial police now stationed within the building to check further disturbances, 15 male guards from the Ontario reformatory at Guelph are being brought to Toronto.

A. R. Virgin, provincial director of reform institutions, could not be reached this morning. His secretary said ‘he was too busy to talk.’

‘Tire Them Out’
Late this morning almost a score of city police and provincial officers were stationed in the building.

‘It looks as if it will be a matter of tiring them out,’ one official said. ‘They have shown no inclination to want to obey the regulations.’

Parcels addressed to inmates and brought to the buildings by the post-office department were being refused, it was learned.

A uniformed policeman patrolling the west wing near the kitchen was met with jeers and shouts of ‘There goes the law,’ every time he passed the windows.

Close to midnight last night, Chief John Chisholm and Inspector of Detectives Archie McCathie visited the reformatory, and left word that city police would stand guard until provincial authorities could muster enough men to take over.

While it is believed some punishments will be meted out to those taking part in the disturbance, provincial officials would not comment. They said a complete investigation must be held.

Under the reformatory act, the authorities have some powers to administer punishment but major penalties can only be applied by bringing accused before courts.

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“100 In Mercer Riot, Club Police,” Toronto Star. June 25, 1948. Page 01 & 02.

Scratch, Kick, Scream – Girls Hurt 3 Officers With Hose, Chair Legs

One hundred screaming women, wielding scores of chair legs, battled with police for half an hour today before a riot was put down at Mercer reformatory. Three policemen were hurt and several thousand dollars in damages was done before the riot that started with a sit-down strike [was over]. 

Scratching and kicking, the women were carried into their cells by police. Even after they were locked up they continued to scream.

An attempted mass escape was foiled by arrival of police, it was attested. A number of women were breaking down a back door to get out when first reinforcements arrived, Sergt. of Detectives William McAllister said.

About 100 police were required to quell the disturbance, which was said to be one of the worst in the history of the old institution.

One officer was hit with a baseball bat and another struck on the head as dished were hurled about the dining-room which was left a shambles.

The girls seized fire hoses and soaked the police who rushed into the building in answer to the riot call. Chief Constable Chisolm sent every available officer to the institution. Long after the actual riot ceased the girls were screaming at the top of their voices.

Prisoners charged two inmates were pushed down the steps by matrons. Expectant mothers in the institution were harshly dealt with, one girl prisoner told a reporter through a window as police ringed the building.

At 1:20pm, the girls were still shouting and screaming in their cells.

Rush 30 Cruisers
Police said there isn’t a whole dish in the place. They were hurled out the windows when the riot started in the dining room. The prisoners are said to have demanded the release of a girl, a favorite among them, from solitary confinement.

When their demands were refused by the superintendent, they refused to go to the factory. A sit-down strike started, police said, and when matrons attempted to break it up, the fighting began.

One of the first offenders to arrive, Det.-Sergt. Sam Welsford was the target of swinging chairs. He was warding off the blows with his arms when one of the girls who had a baseball bat struck him on the arm.

Taken to Hospital
Det.-Sergt. Arthur H. Keay was struck on the side of the head by a cup. He required medical treatment at the prison hospital. Sergt. Welsford was taken to hospital for x-ray and it was found he had a broken wrist.

Police sent 30 cruisers with instructions to pick up every available officer on the way to put down the trouble.The girls broke several windows in the east wing of the building and sang and shouted in profane language.

Fifteen provincial police were sent to assist Toronto police and the prisoners were finally herded into their cells. They continued to scream and shout long afterward. Work was called off for the day.

Miss Jean Milne, the superintendent, was bitten when removing a girl from the dining room at supper time last night. The girl was put in solitary. During the night the prisoners decided to riot if their demands that girl be removed from solitary confinement were not met.

Traffic Officer J. Masters was struck in the eye by a cup hurled from the cells by one woman but did not require hospital treatment.

The prisoners armed themselves with legs of chairs. Not a chair was left with a leg on, police said, as the women roamed through the dining-room and corridors, smashing windows. The halls were running with water from fire hoses.

Keay. Welsford and Det. Sergt. Angus Taylor were bruised as they warded off blows from chair legs.

Welsford and Keay were at the bottom of a heap of women who were kicking them. Keay was first to go down and Welsford tumbled on top of him and then all the women piled on top.

‘It was just like being at the bottom in a rugby tackle,’ said Keay at Toronto General Hospital, where six stitches were put in his head.

The reformatory was surrounded to prevent any possible escape, police said. There hasn’t been any trouble at Mercer reformatory for more than 10 years, police said.

A member of the superintendent’s staff said: ‘The trouble is pretty well over and the situation is under control.’

Asked if the girls had staged a sitdown strike, she said: ‘Something like that.’

The staff doctor said no girls were hurt, but said all further details would have to come from Queen’s Park.

At the reformatory, a woman who answered the telephone said the superintendent ‘is very busy right now. I can’t tell you anything.’

Prisoners at Mercer, who come from all over Ontario, mostly do laundry work and dressmaking.

May Face Charges
A. R. Virgin, director of reform institutions and Chief Inspector Robert Anderson who was in charge of the police detail conferred in the office of the superintendent after the trouble had been put down. It was said likely some of the ringleaders would face charges.


Photo captions from left to right: 
1) RIOTING WOMEN INMATES at Mercer Reformatory squirt stream from fire hose through barred windows at squads of police outside. Some officers were injured as 100 police put down riot. One was hit with a baseball bat, one by a flying dish. 

2) 30 POLICE CRUISERS rushed to reformatory and officers were soaked by fire hoses, hit with chair legs in hands of screaming women as they rushed into building. One hundred women, scratching and kicking, had to be carried back to cells after the fight

3) SEVERAL THOUSAND dollars damage was done, including broken windows, in riot that started with sit-down strike. Girls tried to break down door to freedom, charged prisoners had received harsh treatment.

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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.

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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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.


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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.


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.

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

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.

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.

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
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”.’

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.

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.

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

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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