From Attica to Pelican Bay: A Brief History of Prison Rebellions

With news that California's prison hunger strike may have ended, we take a look back at seminal prison rebellions that have called for similar changes.

By Bryan Gerhart Jul 27, 2011

After three weeks and thousands of refused meals, the Pelican Bay hunger strike came to a end last week. The protest, which began on July 1 with inmates in the California prison’s isolation wing, quickly spread across the state, both inside and outside of correctional facility walls. The massive scope of the demonstration stands as a testament to the strength of its organizing, which started months before Pelican Bay prisoners began turning away state-issued meals.

Isaac Ontiveros, Communications Director for Critical Resistance, a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, explained that the prisoners chose to use the strike to make their voices heard because it was the last means available. "They had exhausted the legal process, going through the avenues, no matter how narrow, outlined by the prison administration. They had nothing else besides their bodies to use." 

Supporters of the protest consider it somewhat successful. More than the minor concessions made by the prison, Ontiveros says the biggest victory is the hope that it brings to such a monolithic, hopeless situation.

But California prisoners aren’t the first incarcerated population to use non-violent protest as a means for change. The United States’ prison industry is massive and damaged, and there’s an extensive history of peaceful demonstration by prisoners who put themselves at risk to effect change. "Pelican Bay situates in a long tradition of people, especially people who are struggling amidst incredibly oppressive conditions," said Ontiveros, "Who resort to using, and possibly sacrificing, their bodies as a means of trying to make change."

We’ve put together a brief history of organized prison rebellions since inmates fought back at Attica in 1971, the event that was arguably the turning point in U.S. prison reform.

Attica, New York (1971)
Began as a protest of the death of black radical activist prisoner George Jackson at the hands of a San Quentin prison guard. Quickly turned from a peaceful demonstration to a riot. Approx 1,000 of the prison’s 2,200 inmates rebelled, seizing control of the facility and taking 33 staff hostage. Authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands, which included creating a committee of politicians and journalists to oversee the negotiation talks about better living conditions. The end came when law enforcement officials opened fire, leaving 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead. A class-action suit filed later in the 1970s was finally settled in 2000, when a federal judge ordered New York state to pay $8 million to the surviving inmates.


Fox Lake, Wisconsin (1972)
Peaceful protest among prisoners demanding changes in medical services following the death of an asthmatic inmate. Around 150 demonstrators simply sat without moving in the prison’s outdoor recreation area. Their demands included a full replacement of medical staff, issuance of murder warrants against the prison’s hospital staff and the presence of a competent doctor at the prison hospital 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A legal adviser to the governor went to hear the inmates’ demands and said grievances would be considered by the state correctional and governor’s offices, but that no other concessions would be made.

Walla Walla, Washington (1981)
Eight hundred of the Washington state penitentiary’s 925 prisoners protest the lack of communication between inmates and administration. The week long demonstration involved the refusal of inmates to work in the prison’s industrial shops or go to school. The protest ended with the inauguration of John Spellman as governor, as inmate organizers had said they would end the strike as "a show of good faith to the new governor." They called unsuccessfully for the replacement of prison Superintendent James Spalding, who ironically, considering the central reasons for the protest, refused to meet with the strike leaders.

Norfolk, Massachusetts (1987)
Over 1,200 inmates protested in the prison yard for the beating of a fellow prisoner by guards and for the what they called the staff’s lack of respect and sensitivity. Video footage of the two day incident showed no violence on the part of the prisoners. In total, 79 inmates, who the prison identified as troublemakers, were transferred to other penitentiaries. Then-Governor Dukakis agreed to meet with prisoner advocate groups to hear inmates’ complaints. Later that year, a special legislative committee faulted state prison officials for ignoring the warning signs that led to the uprising. The panel said it was a "surprisingly orderly and peaceful protest" and said prison administrators mishandled the response to the demonstrations, retaliating against black inmates more severely than others.

Sterling, Colorado (2003)
Prison officials locked down the Sterling Correctional Facility after dozens of inmate cooks went on strike to protest wage cuts. Prisoners’ pay was dropped from $2 to 60 cents a day. Multiple shifts of cooks refused to leave their cells, halting meal preparation for a number of days. Strikers were placed in administrative segregation, lost earned release time, and were transferred to higher security prisons. Officials refused to negotiate with the inmates over pay and the prison remained on lockdown until the inmates went back to work. They received peanut butter sandwiches and other cold food for meals until the things returned to normal.

Georgia (2010-2011)
It’s a felony in the state of Georgia for an inmate to have a cell phone, but this didn’t stop the inmates from organizing a statewide prison protest via text message on phones believed to have been procured through guards.  Thousands of Georgia prisoners across the state refused to work, stopped all other activities and locked down in their cells in a peaceful protest for human rights. Set forth demands that included living work wages, educational opportunities, decent health care, nutritional meals, access to families, vocational and self-improvement opportunities, end to cruel and unusual punishments, decent living conditions and just parole decisions. The protesting inmates remained non-violent, despite the Warden’s orders that heat and hot water be turned off, and the DOC’s violent attempts to force the men back to work. Some men were ripped from their cells, resulting in a number of broken ribs, and one inmate was beaten beyond recognition. The demonstration crossed racial, religious, and gang-affiliation lines. "We have to come together and set aside all differences," one inmate said.

Pelican Bay, California (2011)
Prisoners in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, the isolation wing of the supermax prison, announced a hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of their confinement. Word of the strike quickly spread, thanks largely to a network of supporters outside prison walls, and soon correctional facilities across the state were reporting shows of solidarity by their inmates. At its peak, 6,600 prisoners in California were refusing their state-sponsored meals. The strike ended more than three weeks after it began, in exchange for the promise that SHU prisoners would be given all-weather caps, wall calendars, and educational opportunities. More substantially, inmate organizers say the CDCR has agreed to investigate changes to certain policies, including the gang validation and debriefing processes that were mentioned in strikers original demands.