Challenge to Authority: Riots

Events in our prisons often mirror events in American society at large. In the late 1950s, efforts to right social wrongs began with peaceful demonstrations and "sit-ins." Over the next decade, passive resistance tactics in the civil rights and antiwar movements provoked confrontations and anger, sometimes erupting into violence. . . .

Young prison inmates partook of the spirit of the era. They questioned, challenged, and then defied prison authorities. . . . Many brought gang affiliations with them. After several individual fights, hostility between Blacks and Puerto Ricans flared up in May, 1959; the fight, involving about 150 inmates in the yard, took officers 40 minutes to break up. The next year, . . . it was necessary to clear the mess hall with a fire hose when about 25 inmates began overturning tables and chair in the mess hall and exhorted the rest of the population to join them. Still milling and shouting, the inmates retreated to the yard. Officers managed to disperse the throng in about 15 minutes and marshal them into the housing areas. One officer was attacked and seriously injured by an inmate, and another was struck by a flying object in the mess hall.

In 1961, a "riot fence" was installed between the two exercise yards. . . .

In 1966,. . .When "a general disturbance appeared imminent," Superintendent McKendrick had 30 [inmate] leaders keeplocked (confined to their cells). Leaders were again keeplocked in 1968 -- this time by new superintendent Maurice M. Blow for "pressuring, threatening, and preaching Five Percent doctrine" . . . Officials reported that Eastern's disciplinary segregation quarters -- adequate for almost 70 years -- were now insufficient . . .

The Department of Correction had not yet provided Imams or otherwise recognized the unfamiliar Muslim religion. Every adherent is a minister, inmates said, and began holding prayer meetings in the prison yard. To the staff, the yard services were indistinguishable from aggressive and intimidating shows of force. When the yard services were prohibited, Muslim inmates claimed interference with their freedom to practice their religion.

Meanwhile, the outside world was taking a greater interest in events within the prisons. Critics faulted . . . a system where rural, white prison guards exercised power over minority, metropolitan prisoners. . . .

Eastern's Superintendent Blow said he had tried to attract minority employees, but without success. Rural New York contained few minorities. . . and unions insisted that transfers of employees be based on seniority . . .

In this atmosphere of distrust, 21-year old inmate Lewis Hankins collapsed on Sunday, August 23, 1970 while playing basketball in the yard. He was taken to the facility hospital but, the prison physician reported, he was dead on arrival. An autopsy at Kingston City Hospital later revealed that Hankins had a congenital heart condition and had died of a sub-aortic stenosis.

But . . . rumors spread that Hankins was still alive when he arrived at the hospital but was not given timely treatment. The next morning, more than 600 angry inmates took over the prison yard. While they were ripping wooden bleachers apart for weapons, Superintendent Blow was on the telephone arranging for reinforcements from Woodbourne and Matteawan. In the afternoon, the main entrance to the yard opened and a large force of officers faced the inmates, who braced for a fight. Then a track gate at the rear of the yard opened, and the inmates saw another contingent of officers, helmeted and armed with pickaxe handles from the industrial shops. Trapped, the mutineers quietly submitted and were led to their cells without injury or further damage.

Superintendent Blow had efficiently put down the insurrection, but controversy would bedevil Eastern for nearly another decade. Matters came to a head on the morning of August 8, 1977. After two nights of unrest for undetermined reasons, a group of inmates protested the way scrambled eggs . . . and commenced to take control of the kitchen facilities, taking with them several hostages. The riot spread, and an estimated 150 prisoners gained control of a cellblock. 14 employees were held as hostages. . .

The Department had learned a few things at Attica. State Police ringed the grounds . . . but police involvement was otherwise minimal. The Department's new Corrections Emergency Response Teams (CERT) were used to take control of areas of the prison where there were no hostages by using limited physical force and tear gas. At about 1 p.m., the inmates released four hostages unharmed and Superintendent Jack Czarnetsky, assisted by trained negotiators, began discussions with the inmates. Commissioner of Corrections Benjamin Ward arrived at about 4 p.m. At 8:30, the last hostages were released when authorities agreed to investigate the inmates' complaints and demands (better food, passage of a "good time for lifers" bill, and the removal of two sergeants . . . and to broadcast them on NYC radio stations. Otherwise, no concessions were made.

The Eastern riot was the most serious incident in the NYS prison system since the Attica riot six years earlier. At least 17 officers and inmates were treated for injuries. (Most of the inmates were treated for drug overdoses -- the facility hospital had been taken over during the siege.) However, the prison was retaken without violence, and the handling of the riot was to be the blueprint for future hostage situations throughout the state.

In April, 1979, uniformed officers of the Department of Correctional Services overrode the recommendation of their union and voted to strike against the state over compensation and working conditions. The strike began on April 18 and continued until May 4, 16 days later, when the union agreed to a new three-year contract.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Walter Fogg, Eastern was able to maintain essential services with minimal outside assistance. Nearly half the employees continued to work. Employees who chose to strike or to honor picket lines did not engage in acts of violence and sabotage such as occurred at some other facilities. The inmates, by all accounts, were well behaved.

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