Posts Tagged ‘rikers island’

“At midnight on Oct. 1, 2018, New York’s Raise the Age law went into effect, ending the state’s practice of automatically charging young people as adults at age 16. It also required New York City to move all 16- and 17-year-olds out of the infamously brutal Rikers Island jail complex and into the Horizon juvenile detention center in the Bronx.

Mayor Bill de Blasio heralded the move as a significant victory. “Beginning today,” he said, “no one under 18 will go to Rikers Island. Kids will be treated like kids instead of adults.”

Yet from the start, that mission was subverted. When fights broke out the very first week among detainees, injuring correction officers, their union was adamant that they could only restore order by using the same level of force they were authorized to use at Rikers. Surveillance video of brawling adolescents was released to the media, and correction officers told reporters they feared for their lives. On Oct. 10, the state granted a waiver allowing guards to use OC pepper spray on youth. (That plan has since been delayed while city and state officials negotiate its use, which is prohibited in juvenile facilities.)

Raise the Age was intended to shield children from the horrors of the adult criminal justice system. Yet, New York’s implementation of the plan seems to have merely transported the culture of violence from Rikers Island to Horizon.

There are reasons for that. The law mandated that young people be removed from Rikers, but authorized the same agency—the city’s Department of Correction—to help run the adolescent detention centers where they were moved, alongside program staff from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). And because ACS could not hire enough “youth development specialists” by the Oct. 1 deadline, correction officers—whose horrific abuse of teenagers brought a federal lawsuit and consent decree to Rikers—are still guarding them in juvenile detention.

These correction officers and their union have painted the teens as dangerous, violent, and predatory criminals who can only be controlled by force. But the city itself seems to have bought into the logic that the adolescents from Rikers would bring with them a culture of violence too intense for ACS alone to handle.

To prepare for their arrival, the city relocated youth charged as juvenile delinquents to its Crossroads facility in Brooklyn, fearing the adolescents from Rikers would victimize them. It renovated Horizon to make it even more secure: reinforced cells, a larger control room, an arsenal of riot control gear, and plexiglass barriers in the cafeteria to keep youth from having contact with kitchen staff. New York City achieved getting the youth off Rikers, but in the process it has “Rikerized” Horizon.

These changes reflect a lack of faith in New York’s young people and the city’s ability to serve them. Teens are remarkably adept at living up to exactly what we expect of them. If we create an environment that anticipates violence, they will behave as expected. But research shows that if we treat them with love and respect, then young people—even the most traumatized, difficult, and challenging among them—will respond in kind.

I know that from my own experience running a mentoring program for court-involved youth in the South Bronx. But I’ve also seen a different approach to the same challenge playing out in the nation’s capital.

On the same day that New York’s Raise the Age law went into effect, the District of Columbia hit a deadline for removing youth charged as adults from the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility. Prior to the transfer, they had been subject to the same conditions as the youth on Rikers. Correction officers were authorized to use brute force, OC pepper spray, mechanical restraints, and 23-hour lockdown as tools of control.

At the New Beginnings facility run by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), they were met by youth development specialists instead of corrections officers. These adolescents look no different than the youth coming from Rikers. They are also 16- and 17-year-olds and have been charged with serious and violent felony offenses. But since they arrived at New Beginnings, there have been no outbreaks of violence, no physical restraints, and no need for pepper spray. They sleep in their own housing unit, but are otherwise fully integrated with their peers during school, meals, and recreational time. I asked one of the staff members if the youth they call “Title 16” (after the statute that lets them be charged as adults) were different from their delinquency cases. “Nah,” he said, “they’re all just kids.””


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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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The New Penology – INNOVATIONS

“Our description may seem to imply the onset of a reactive age in which
penal managers strive to manage populations of marginal citizens with no
concomitant effort toward integration into mainstream society. This may
seem hard to square with the myriad new and innovative technologies introduced
over the past decade. Indeed the media, which for years have portrayed
the correctional system as a failure, have recently enthusiastically
reported on these innovations: boot camps, electronic surveillance, high
security “campuses” for drug users, house arrest, intensive parole and probation,
and drug treatment programs. 

Although some of the new proposals are presented in terms of the “old
penology” and emphasize individuals, normalization, and rehabilitation, it is
risky to come to any firm conviction about how these innovations will turn
out. If historians of punishment have provided any clear lessons, it is that
reforms evolve in ways quite different from the aims of their proponents. Thus, we wonder if these most recent
innovations won’t be recast in the terms outlined in this paper. Many of these
innovations are compatible with the imperatives of the new penology, that is,
managing a permanently dangerous population while maintaining the system
at a minimum cost. 

One of the current innovations most in vogue with the press and politicians
are correctional “boot camps.” These are minimum security custodial facilities,
usually for youthful first offenders, designed on the model of a training
center for military personnel, complete with barracks, physical exercise, and
tough drill sergeants. Boot camps are portrayed as providing discipline and
pride to young offenders brought up in the unrestrained culture of poverty (as
though physical fitness could fill the gap left by the weakening of families,
schools, neighborhoods, and other social organizations in the inner city). 

The camps borrow explicitly from a military model of discipline, which has
influenced penality from at least the eighteenth century – 

the prison borrowed from the earlier innovations in the organization of spaces and bodies undertaken by the most advanced European military forces.   No doubt the
image of inmates smartly dressed in uniforms performing drills and calisthenics
appeals to long-standing ideals of order in post-Enlightenment culture.
But in its proposed application to corrections, the military model is even less
appropriate now than when it was rejected in the nineteenth century; indeed,
today’s boot camps are more a simulation of discipline than the real thing.  

In the nineteenth century the military model was superseded by another model of discipline, the factory. Inmates were controlled by making them
work at hard industrial labor. It was
assumed that forced labor would inculcate in offenders the discipline required
of factory laborers, so that they might earn their keep while in custody and
join the ranks of the usefully employed when released. One can argue that
this model did not work very well, but at least it was coherent. The model of
discipline through labor suited our capitalist democracy in a way the model
of a militarized citizenry did not. 

The recent decline of employment opportunities among the populations of
urban poor most at risk for conventional crime involvement has left the applicability
of industrial discipline in doubt. But the substitution of the boot
camp for vocational training is even less plausible. Even if the typical 90-day
regime of training envisioned by proponents of boot camps is effective in
reorienting its subjects, at best it can only produce soldiers without a company
to join. Indeed, the grim vision of the effect of boot camp is that it will
be effective for those who will subsequently put their lessons of discipline and
organization to use in street gangs and drug distribution networks. However,
despite the earnestness with which the boot camp metaphor is touted, we
suspect that the camps will be little more than holding pens for managing a
short-term, mid-range risk population.” 

– Malcolm M. Feeley & Jonathan Simon, “The New Penology: Notes on the Emerging Strategy of Corrections and Its Implications.” 30 Criminology 449 (1992), pp. 463-464.

Image is: “Inmates jog laps aound their barracks They are in a High Impact Incarceration Program at Rikers Island, mid-1990s.

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long after Ben Shahn and
Austin MacCormick began discussing The Rikers Island mural, Shahn
abandoned the original concept for the mural, which would have
emphasized more broadly historical developments in the history of
penology. Instead, the focus became quite contemporary. Shahn and
Block argued to LaGuardia, ‘The murals would have more force’ if
they examined only ‘prisons of our own time.’ As a consequence,
the ‘archaic’ side of the Rikers mural, the one featuring scenes
of retrograde punishment and inhumanity, was drawn not from scenes of
ancient ritual or obviously bygone moments, but from present-day
conditions. Shanh gave a sharply political edge to these observations,
consistent with his previous explorations at the intersections of
social injustice and the criminal justice system (in the Sacco and
Vanzetti series, and his series on imprisoned labor leader Tom
Mooney). His notes on the Rikers project show him deeply immersed in
contemporary criticism of criminal justice, including John Spivak’s
devastating 1932 account of the Georgia chain gangs, Georgia
; the 1932 Warner
Brothers film I Am A
Fugitive From A Chain Gang
and the movie of the same year, on which it was based, I
Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang.
also maintained a file of images related to the notorious Scottsboro
case, for which retrials were still ongoing.

final rendering of the mural reflects Shahn’s immersion in the
causes of social justice. In the center of the north end of the
mural, between the two long hallways, two prisoners appear in a
lineup. Standing somberly in front of an institutional setting,
bundled up in overcoats and visibly handcuffed together, they appear
to have been taken directly from similar images of Sacco and Vanzetti
that Shahn had prepared a few years earlier. Just outside the lineup
scene, homeless men sleep on newspapers with screaming crime-related
headlines partially visible, and a line of unemployed men confront a
‘No Help Wanted’ sign – all ironically juxtaposed against the
Centre Street courthouse and the words along is facade, ‘The True
Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good.’

mural echoed the manner in which reformers defined the harms of
punishment in terms of both body and mind. There were scenes focused
on the mistreatment of the body: images of southern chain gangs (in
front of what sharp-eyed observers would have recognized as the Morgan
County Circuit Courthouse in Alabama, site of the ongoing Scottsboro
trials), poor prison conditions, and even Delaware’s whipping post
(known as Red Hannah, a potent symbol of the forms of corporal
punishment still extant). Scenes of mental suffering appeared
throughout – images of hopelessness, overcrowding, and idleness. In
a preliminary sketch, ‘Prisoners in Bed,’ Shahn showed an endless
row of inmates packed together in dormitory bunks, restless,
disturbed, their individual differences washed out by the setting.
The program for his final sketches listed the scenes: ‘idleness and
the milling about of prisoners,’ ‘dreary, unproductive labor,’
and ‘overcrowded dormitories.’ All scenes seem to consciously
echo what MacCormick called ‘Peregoric Penology’: ‘As long as
these institutions were kept nice and quiet, with the prisoners
drifting in half or total idleness through the day and locked snugly
in their cells at 5.00 pm for 14 hours, their wardens perfectly
willing that the prisoners deteriorated like vegetables rotting in a
bin.’ The wall ended with a strong intimidation of a revolving-door
criminal justice system, with lines of released inmates queuing first
at an employment station, then into jail.

mural perfectly captured the
prevailing sense within reform circles in 1934 that tremendous abuses
and cruelties remained within the American prison system. Frank
Tannenbaum put it most forcefully: ‘Imprisonment is negative. It
takes all. It gives nothing. It takes from the prisoners every
interest, every ambition, every hop; it cuts away, with a coarse
disregard for personality, all that a man did or loved, all his work
and his contacts, and gives nothing in return.’ And few reformers
had seen more than Austin MacCormick. Since the early 1920s had
traveled throughout the United States making prison inspections under
the auspices of the National Society of Penal Information (NSPI), the
organization Osborne has founded in 1922, following a nationwide
speaking tour on which he raised funds for the new enterprise. The
purpose behind the NSPI was to conduct systematic surveys of prisons
and prison conditions, much like other privately funded surveys were
doing with other dimensions of the criminal justice system. These
surveys would, in turn, provide a basis for pressuring states to
reform prisons where reforms were needed, and to give an accounting
of best practices and standards to follow.

NSPI surveys (eventually organized and published as the Handbook
of American Prison
the first edition of which appeared in 1926) exposed horrific
conditions. Frank Tannenbaum made some of the NSPI-sponsored visits
to southern prisons, prison farms, and road camps. He incorporated
some of these experiences into Dark
Phases of the South
where he asked the reader to ‘believe the unbelievable’ regarding
the conditions of confinement. MacCormick reported from Mississippi
that conditions were ‘very primitive’ and that the dormitories
were ‘like the holds of slaveships…what goes on in there better
not come out in the light of day.’ In addition to ghastly
conditions of confinement, NSPI surveys helped demonstrate that
torture continued to be commonplace in southern prison systems,
including the use of the strap (‘fastened to a short handle so that
some of the clever boys can make it come down edgewise’), stocks,
sweatboxes, and similar instruments of abuse.

as the NSPI exposed the brutality of punishment in the South, the
surveyors cautioned readers against ‘the delusion that the rest of
the country is so much better.’ Throughout much of the United
States, the same conditions of confinement that had inspired
progressive-era indictments by Donald Lowrie, Kate Richard O’Hare,
and others remained stubbornly resistant to change by the early
1930s. The Wickersham Commission’s investigation of prison
conditions, published in 1931, revealed many appalling practices. To
his colleagues in 1933, MacCormick observed that many ‘rotten old
penitentiaries’ deserved to be ‘turned over.’

and fellow reformers tried to explain the consequences of brutality
and torture. Their writings harkended back to Donald Lowrie’s
progressive-era declaration: ‘You cannot make a saint out of a man
by confining him in a church, but you can make a devil out of him by
treating him like hell…fear has no legitimate place in the training
of men.’ The mechanisms of imprisonment generated cruelty, even
evil, all in the name of virtue and under sanction of the state. The
personal transformations it produced were damaging for both the
keeper and the kept, ‘the sufferer and the perpetrator both being
unfortunate souls caught in a vortex of passion and hate that drives
them to madness and brutality.’

Portsmouth, MacCormick had encountered a prison overcrowded with
wartime inmates, forced to house more than half of its men in wooden
barracks, guarded largely by other inmates. Touring confinment
facilities at California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard with Captain
Clark Stearns (an ally of Osborne’s), MacCormick observed the men
being treated ‘like dogs’ in isolation cells called ‘coke-ovens.’
Locking up a man for twenty hours a day, MacCormick would later
write, ‘puts an intolerable strain on the physical and mental
health of every man so confined.’ The ‘vicious phases of Naval
discipline,’ disgusted MacCormick, who wrote to Osborne from
Guantanamo Bay, described a scene in which a boatswain’s mate had
been convicted of breaking and entering and was being led off the
shop: ‘We were all kept aft while he marched across the deck under
guard and went into the boat which
started him on this way to prison. It was all very dramatic and very
stupid and very ineffectual and unspeakably cruel.’

as MacCormick and others attacked the cruelty and waste of punitive
imprisonment, they firmly believed that these conditions derived not
from any universal
quality of the prison, but from case-by-case decision making. By
implication, the mitigation of cruelty was also a matter for
case-by-case intervention and control. There was no inherent defect
in prisons, not any inevitably positive quality. The 1929 NSPI survey
put it this way: ‘It is too sweeping a statement to say that
American penal institutions are steadily getting better…Waves of
public opinion, caused by general excitement over crime or by some
bit of local scandal of maladministration, cause temporary changes
for better or worse.’ It was therefore true, MacCormick argued,
that ‘an institution might be a fine place in 1930 and a bad place
in 1935; or it may be a bad place in 1932 and a good one in 1937.’

could not be changed by good intentions alone, but good intentions
backed with political influence could defeat punitive interests. The
critics of reform presented a formidable obstacle to changing
prisons, as they had for Thomas Mott Osborne. MacCormick reflected on
his mentor, ‘The prison field does not…attract his life, except
in rare instances. When it does, it often crucifies them.’ The navy
had been MacCormick’s most personal lesson in the politics of
punishment. Although he and Osborne enjoyed the patronage of Navy
Secretary Daniels and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, they suffered
from officers’ resentment of the ‘soft’ treatment being meted
out at Portsmouth. 

Near the end of their navy work, MacCormick warned
Osborne of the animosity he and Daniels would face: ‘I can’t
impress upon you too strongly how great and widespread the hostility
to you is among officers. It is partly because of the way in which
they despise the Secretary. There is no other way of describing their
attitude toward him. He is accorded the same respect that
Emma Goldman and Berkman get when their names come into a
consideration – no more.’ Captain Joseph K. Tausing, former navy
director of personnel, unleashed a series of violent attacks on
Osborne and MacCormick in the Army
and Navy Journal,
a lengthy and public battle pitting Daniels and Roosevelt against the
navy brass and the Republican press. Under pressure, Osborne and
MacCormick resigned in early 1920; the next year President Warren G.
Harding’s newly appointed navy secretary systematically purged the
remaining elements of Osborne’s reforms.

spent much of 1924 helping Osborne and Colorado governor William
Sweet remove Warden Thomas J. ‘Golden Rules’ Tynan, in what
MacCormick later recalled as ‘one of the most
exciting and dangerous experiences I ever had in my life.’ Replying
to Osborne’s invitation to survey Colorado, MacCormick replied:
‘You bet I will go. Thrilled to pieces.’ ‘Hopelessly rusty on
prison work,’ MacCormick saw Colorado as ‘a great chance to get
back in the traces.’ The initial survey found Tynan’s prison to
be in bad shape, a mix of equal parts torture and corruption.

battle engaged, Osborne warned Governor Sweet that those who fought
‘crooked politics’ confronted two essential problems: ‘the
utter unscrupulousness of his opponents, and second, the ignorance
and indifference of right-minded people.’ When the State Board of
Corrections failed to act on the survey, Sweet brought charges before
the Civil Service Commission (for which MacCormick returned to
testify.) At one point, Governor Sweet (strongly anti-Klan in a state
where Ku Klux Klan activity was near a peak in 1924) arranged a
secret meeting between himself, Osborne, MacCormick, and the prison
chaplain (who also happened to be the local Klan leader). They
persuaded the chaplain to permit Klan members (virtually the entire
guard force) to testify at the hearing against Tynan.

weakness of the reform position in the state meant that neither
Osborne nor MacCormick was willing to take an administrative position
and ‘serve under a bunch of low-down trimmers like that prison
commission.’ MacCormick wrote to Osborne: ‘I am not a combined
Napoleon and Caesar. I would be badly handicapped, as you would, in a
state where we could not use a lot of people whom we know and trust.
Out there we would have to go it blind. Still, MacCormick observed to
Osborne, ‘We certainly kicked over the milk pail. If Tynan has time
enough he will prove every charge we made against him.’ In the end,
Tynan outlasted Sweet, but not for long – he was ousted in 1927
(though not until attracting national attention by barricading
himself behind machine guns to prevent legal papers being served).

like MacCormick took an expansive view of prison politics,
understanding that it included national, state, and local politics as
well as prison administration and staff. Reform politics could not
afford to stop at the prison gate. While MacCormick was at the Bureau
of Prisons, the bureau established the United Stated Training School
for Prison Officers, based at the Federal Detention Headquarters in
New York City; according to its director, ‘The School is not only
informative in the essentials of prison management, but is also a
test period to weed out inferior characters whose service in an
institution would be hazardous to the orgnanization.’ The school
eliminated one of every six would be officers who arrived during its
first two years.

were also forced to confront their opponents’ powerful rhetoric in
public  debates over punishment – what MacCormick one referred to
as the ‘machine-gun school of criminology.’ One of the foremost
proponents of that school, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, assailed the
advocates of parole and rehabilitation as the ‘cream puff’ school
of criminology, whose views ‘daily turn loose upon us the robber,
the burglar, the arsonist, the killer, and the sex degenerate.’
MacCormick was in attendance for a speech in which Hoover assailed
‘sob sister warden, country club prisons, and convict coddlers’;
MacCormick later lamented to
a meeting of the American Prison Association that he ‘had to sit
within six feet of the speaker and didn’t have a gun on me.’

earlier, Donal Lowrie had observed that, as soon as he began making
his public criticisms of the prison, he had been accused of
‘sentimental twaddle,’ ‘maudlin hysteria,’ and ‘lackadaisical
neurasthenia’ – all suggesting a lack of true manhood. Prison
reformers were often attacked on the basis of their supposed
homosexuality or sexual practices. This had certainly been true of
Osborne, at whose 1916 Assistant District Attorney William Fallon
proclaimed: ‘We have numberless affidavits, testimony that we have
not introduced, that shows this man to be the worst kind of
degenerate.’ MacCormick knew that these charges had ‘hurt his
[Osborne’s] work immeasurably’ and ‘could never have been given
color if it were not for his decent and effective way of handling
perverts as he encountered them in prison. He did not side-step the
issue and paid for his honesty and courage with his reputation.’

fate of the Rikers mural gave Austin MacCormick and Ben Shahn one
more powerful example of prison politics. By early 1935, Shahn had
completed his sketches and presented them to MacCormick and
LaGuardia. By all accounts, the two men were well pleased with what
they saw; both stooped by Shahn’s Bethune Street studio to offer
their personal congratulations on a job well done. As publicly funded
art, however, the mural sketches still required the approval of the
Municipal Art Commission, and here they ran into serious trouble. The
commission, which had the previous year rejected a series of public
murals from Shahn on the subject of Prohibition, now attacked the
Rikers reform mural. They rejected the design, with its review of
harsh punishments, as too disconcerting to prisoner sensibilities.
Among art historians, the commission’s decision has been cast as an
act of aesthetic conservatism against challenging modern public art
(‘lugubrious and unpleasant to look upon’), which it certainly
was, but the rejection of Shahn’s mural was also explicitly about
the politics of prison reform. The commission branded the proposed
mural as ‘anti-social propaganda.’ Jonas Lie, painter and member
of the commission, argued that would ‘incite prison inmates to
further an anti-social attitude’ and to ‘increase their
opposition to law and order.’

art world bitterly protested the actions of the Municipal Arts
Commission. Audrey McMahon defended the mural sketches as ‘works of
high artistic merit.’ New York Times art writer Edward Alen
Jewell praised the mural’s depiction of a ‘New Deal in prison
life.’ Stuart Davis, in Art Front magazine, famously
attacked commission member Jonas Life: ‘We suggest that while the
Commission was thinking along the lines of ‘psychological
unfitness,’ it might have done well to look at its own painter
member. For, wherever particularly stupid and reactionary acts are
committed in regard to art matters, one seldom has to look far to
find the person of [Lie]…Jonas Lie has proved himself unfit to hold
a seat on the Municipal Arts Commission, or to hold any public
office, for that matter, outside that of a Fascist Censor.’

and LaGuardia tried to help Shahn fight back against the Municipal
Art Commission. Following the commission’s preliminary rejection of
the plans, in February, MacCormick went to so far as to persuade his
friend and colleague, the psychologist Harry Shulman, to conduct a
remarkable study of inmate reactions to the proposed mural. Forty
inmates were selected and shown some of Shahn’s drawings. They were
then given a questionnaire that began: ‘Here is a set of pictures
showing the good and bad sides of prison life. The small ones are
sketches and the large ones will give you an idea of how it will look
on the wall. This is planned for a mural in one of the halls of a
brand-new and modern prison building. The artist would like to know
what you think of these pictures.’ Inmates were also asked how they
felt about having a mural on the walls of a prison, what they thought
other prisoners might think of such a mural, and whether visitors to
the prison would have any interest in them. The four questions for
the forty inmates produced a total of 160 question responses. Shulman
reported to MacCormick that out of a possible 160 answers, 97 were
favorable, 10 unfavorable, 22 indifferent, and 31 left blank. The
positive responses were encouraging: ‘They will certainly brighten
the place up a bit and also give the inmates something to concentrate
on besides the walls.’

and MacCormick offered the survey results to the Municipal Art
Commission as evidence that the murals would not be overly disturbing
to the inmates, but the commission remained unmoved. In its formal
decision in May, the murals were definitely and finally rejected. At
this point, LaGuardia and MacCormick gave in to the commission,
formally abandoning the project. Theirs was a shocking decision for
Shahn and his supporters, and there is no clear explanation for this
reversal of course. MacCormick gave a statement to the press in which
he lamely attempted to explain his new reasoning: ‘Although a
number of prisoners submitted written opinions that were favorable to
the sketches, we found afterwards that many of them expressed
approval because they thought they were expected to do so.’

at the politics of public art in New York, Ben Shahn left both the
city and the prison project behind. It was never carried out. Shahn
and Block briefly attempted to resurrect the mural by bringing it to
one of the state prisons, but this seems not to have progressed very
far. The panels that composed the mural study were sold by weight as

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp. 28-35

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Ben Shahn, studies for Riker’s Island Penitentiary murals, 1934-1935. Photographed by Walker Evans. 

All gelatin silver prints, donated in 2000 by

Bernarda Bryson Shahn to the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

A selection of photographic records of now lost large scale studies by Ben Shahn for murals intended to be installed at the new ‘model prison’ of Riker’s Island in 1935.  Although typical of Shahn’s work documenting the Great Depression, his murals were deemed too political for Riker’s and never installed. From top to bottom they show:

1) Down and out in the big city – the conditions leading to crime. #P2000.57 

2) A typical scene from a Southern US labor camp, meant to show the barbarity still practiced in American prisons – the implication being that Riker’s was a ‘new deal’ for inmates. #P2000.48

3) Prisoners in stalls, possibly at a work site. Again, another example of something that shouldn’t be happening anymore at a penitentiary. #P2000.47

4) A black prisoner being giving corporal punishment – that is, being tortured – at a public whipping in Delaware.  These displays of state power against (frequently black) bodies were actually revived in some Northern US jurisdictions in the 1930s, and like the above mural, imply that Riker’s discipline has moved on from this barbarism. #P2000.46

5) Prisoners being returned by guards to their cells from yard time.  A typical part of the prison routine, this mural appears to have been based on photographs Shahn took at the old New York Penitentiary on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island. #P2000.55


6-7) Prisoners, from left to right, at school, learning automotive repair, taking tests, out in the yard, and in the back, playing baseball. #P2000.49 & #P2000.50

8) Prisoners receiving their visitors at the penitentiary.  #P2000.56

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Ben Shahn, studies for Riker’s Island murals. Oil and ink wash, 1934-1935.  

A selection of oil and ink studies by Ben Shahn for murals intended to be installed at the new ‘model prison’ of Riker’s Island in 1935.  Although typical of Shahn’s work documenting the Great Depression, his murals were deemed too political for Riker’s and never installed. From top left, clockwise, they show:

1) Man Drawing Blood
2) Three Men
3) Floroscopy
4) Woman and Girl

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