When the prisoners were in charge

September 11, 2008

Mer Stevens reviews a book about the hidden history of a prisoners' uprising at Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts.

WHEN THE Prisoners Ran Walpole is the story of an uprising that put inmates in charge of a prison facility and shook the Massachusetts criminal justice system to its core.

Author and activist Jamie Bissonette takes us through the political and organizational development of three major players in a struggle for prison reform and abolition in Massachusetts: prisoners, activists on the outside, and a reform-minded commissioner of corrections.

In 1971, in the wake of the Attica uprisings and with the example of the civil rights and Black Power movements fresh, prisoner groups had organized in several Massachusetts facilities to fight back against the brutal conditions they were forced to endure.

As a citizen's commission wrote in its report on the prison system, "The demands for change that have infused society are also present in the prison, a justified call for change must be met." At the Walpole State Prison, inmates formed the National Prisoners Reform Association, or NPRA.

It was common practice in Walpole and other state prisons to keep prisoners heavily sedated, typically with the highly addictive drug Talwin. Guards handed out pills freely when prisoners were new and, once an inmate was addicted, used access to drugs as a method of behavior control and as leverage for information.

Prisoners' access to necessary medical treatment was woefully inadequate. There were no written rules--guards acted with impunity, and decided policy and punishment arbitrarily. Beatings were a regular part of prison life.

But the demands of the NPRA were far larger in scope than quality-of-life reforms. The leadership of the NPRA understood that they had to do more than capitalize on a moment when reforms were possible. They sought to prove that prisoners were state employees, and, as such, were entitled to form a union and to collective bargaining.

If they were recognized as state employees, prisoners would be entitled to earn the minimum wage. A typical day's pay for work in a prison job was as little as a third of an hour's pay at the state minimum wage.

The NPRA sought to use the labor power of inmates who worked in the many prison industries as a bargaining chip to negotiate for systemic change within the prison and as insurance in the long term against any backlash. NPRA's stated mission was to "exercise self-determination within the prison and to demonstrate that the prison itself was unnecessary."

Prisoners and their allies outside had some early victories that helped pave the way for the struggle to come. Education programs were created, and high-ranking members of the Black Panther Party were hired to teach Black history classes to inmates. These classes were key components of the political education of leaders within Walpole. The ideas of Black liberation informed the politics inside.

Previously, many prisoners had never been exposed to the history of slavery and Reconstruction. An early task of prison leaders was the creation of an underground library that was passed nightly between cells to avoid detection.

In 1971, the trend toward disproportionately criminalizing people of color was well underway, but at Walpole Prison, the vast majority of the population was still white and organized into explicitly racist gangs. The developing leadership within the prison had to find ways to forge interracial solidarity. Remembers former inmate Robert Dellelo:

We got everyone in the auditorium. The racial tension in the prison was thick...I said, "There is only one color and that is blue," the guards wore khaki..."You are either blue or brown. There is no in-between ground. We are all in this together."...The guards could not work us like before. If we refused to fight each other, they lost a lot of their power. There was a peace across the prison that never was there before. We ended the body count.

THIS KIND of interracial solidarity was no small feat. Guards used all of the means at their disposal to break the prisoners, including beatings, manipulation of privileges, segregation and isolation cells. On several occasions, they attempted to start riots. When organizers forced officials to allow an election, 96 percent of the population voted for the NPRA to represent them.

Prison reform was not without its enemies. The Boston Herald ran a front-page story with the headline "Boone the Coon" after prison guards protested the reform-minded Commissioner of Corrections John Boone.

The guards maintained a dedicated campaign to break the prisoners' organization. They let off 418 canisters of tear gas inside the prison in a single night, enough that residents of the town of Walpole were affected. The guards' union staged slowdowns and walkouts against the reforms that led up to a strike against the betterment of living conditions. In a public condemnation of the strike, one citizen's commission wrote:

Their strike was not for better wages, hours or other traditional union goals; their strike was against the better and more effective treatment of other human beings. What could condemn a system more than evidence that it caused human beings to have a vested interest in the mistreatment of others?

The strike left prisoners and citizen observers in charge of Walpole. Under their leadership, there was almost no violence. Instead, inmates trained one another in conflict resolution, understanding that any incident would be used as ammunition against their struggle. Remembers Dellelo, "When the guards walked out, they expected the prison to explode. We held it together."

When the Prisoners Ran Walpole is an important book for socialists and for the movement against prisons today. What happened at Walpole State Prison is proof that inmates have the ability to lead struggle and win gains inside the belly of the beast. It also clearly demonstrates the value of political ideas, of multiracial struggle and of the victories possible during mass movements. It took riot cops, shootings and torture to break the back of the NPRA.

This book shows that it will take the abolition of prisons to end the abuses inside. In the decades since the NPRA was negotiating for power, we've seen unprecedented prison expansion. Some 1 percent of the adult population of the U.S. sits behind bars. The struggle for self-determination within Walpole State Prison provides inspiration and valuable lessons for today's activists--inside and outside--who fight for freedom.

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