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Crack in the Federal Scheme: The October Rebellion of 1995

By Bill Dunne

Between October 19 and October 26, 1995, the U. S. Bureau of Prisons (federal prison system) experienced a series of largely spontaneous but causally related uprisings in its then 84 prison, 100,000 prisoner gulag archipelago. Involving a range of demonstrations and direct action, this widespread rebellion ignited by injustices in the imposition and execution of prison sentences was unprecedented in the history of the BOP (Bureau of Prisons). Though its participants caused no deaths, took no hostages, and breached no secure perimeter, their exclamation of discontent resulted in the first nationwide lockdown of federal penitentiaries and correctional institutions and cost $39.7 million.

The BOP's After Action Report: October 1995 Disturbances seeks to ascribe the events to external factors beyond BOP control and absolve the prisonocracy of responsibility for the crisis. Officialdom specifically blames congressional refusal to reduce the gross disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses (and media reporting thereon) for causing the revolt. The report claims there was no advance indication that any such action was likely or imminent, and no subsequent indication that internal factors of prison policy, practice, or administration played a significant role. On the basis of this assessment, the report recommends only increasing the repressive capabilities of prison authorities.

The report describes the uprising as "a series of major and minor institution disturbances." Fifty incidents, from Allenwood, PA., to Lompoc, CA., and Marianna, FL., to Sheridan, OR, were briefly mentioned, but just 10 were deemed serious enough to be "the subject of full after-action reviews" and sufficiently related to be covered in any detail in the national level report. To be sure, many of the incidents were relatively trivial as reported, but only the BOP really knows how many incidents, and of what scope and provenance, actually occurred.

The rebellion began at about 6:15 P.M. CDT on October 19, 1995, at FCI (Federal correctional Institution) Talledega, AL. "Several hundred" prisoners assembled in the yard where many armed themselves with bats and other makeshift weapons and donned masks. From there they proceeded to essentially take over the inside of the prison, breaking windows and setting fires throughout. Braving chemical sprays, they refused all orders to stop. Some "indicated" they were motivated by a desire to change the crack laws. The report did not say what other motivations were articulated. A half-hour after the "disturbance" began, the warden authorized firearms inside the institution. Guards and local police then confronted the prisoners with pistols, shotguns, and M-16 rifles. Many "warning" shots, gas rounds, and threats forced prisoners back into the units where more of the same forced them into the cells. By 8:00 P.M. the guards had regained control.

The insurrections at FCI Allenwood and FCI Memphis followed similar trajectories. At about 7:00 A.M. on October 20,1995, a large group of prisoners assembled in FCI Allenwood's general compound. From there they moved to food service, housing units, and recreation areas, setting fires, breaking windows, and doing other damage. A 7:15 lockdown announcement was ignored by about 100 prisoners who continued their activates, battled guards, and encouraged other prisoners to join them. Guards with shotguns and DCT's (disturbance control teams) were then deployed. The housing units were secured and by 9:00 A.M. the yard was cleared as well.

The FCI Memphis revolt began at noon the same day. Approximately one hundred fifty to two hundred prisoners gathered on the yard, the only reason given in the report being to protest the congressional vote against rationalizing the crack laws. Another 200 in Unicor (Federal Prison Industries) refused to work, broke windows and equipment, and eventually joined the others on the yard. At about 1:00 P.M. demands were made, and rejected, for a senator, a congressperson, and media to come to the prison. By 2:45 PM, fires in at least two units were burning out of control, Unicor had been trashed, and a BOP camera crew had been dissuaded from videotaping prisoners' actions. The command center ordered all staff members to evacuate the prison.

Then DCT's and SORT's (special operations response teams) from several other BOP facilities, plus some 200 state and local police, as well as FBI SWAT (Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Weapons and Tactics) agents armed with pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, submachine guns, and M-16 rifles, as well as the usual complement of noxious chemicals, counterattacked. Prisoners were herded into the gym, chapel, and Unicor and bound with plastic restraints. By 8:00 A.M. on October 21, 1995 all the fires were out and all prisoners were either subdued in locked units or shackled down on BOP busses inside the prison.

In reaction to these events, guards at all federal prisons were placed on a higher state of alert. The BOP director ordered the nationwide lockdown at 3:57 P.M. EDT on October 20,1995. The abrasive manner in which guards imposed the lockdown, cursing prisoners and demanding they instantly lock in the cells at an unusual time without explanation, caused the FCI Greenville (IL) resistance. Verily, the manner in which the lockdown was imposed and conducted was a major contributing if not the causal factor in other incidents as well, a fact the report does not directly admit but implicitly acknowledges.

The variety in extent and character of the many subsequent skirmishes comprising the October rebellion reflected the varying degree of lockdown between institutions. The lockdown prevented any of them from becoming as extensive as those above. Nevertheless, actions ranged from serious resistance that reached multiple parts of the prisons (and included fighting, losses of control, and significant destruction), through group demonstrations (such as refusal to work, refusal to lock-up, throwing trash and projectiles, and lighting fires), to isolated and anonymous trash can fires and fixture damage. The report purports there was no retaliation against prisoners for the rebellion. Prisoners, however, tell a far different story. Hundreds did long SHU (special housing unit, aka, "the hole") time and hundreds more were transferred to more punitive prisons with little regard for what infiaction they may have committed, if any. Many were beaten and otherwise abused, while in full restraints and unresisting, in the transfer process. Others were left bound and given no opportunity to wash off the various caustic chemicals with which they'd been doused for long periods. Still others were pushed and hit while bound and forced to run "gauntlets" as they were driven to housing units and SHUs. Some of the get-back came later in the form of pretextual physical abuse, harsh searches, withholding of materiel like bedding and clothing, food contamination, and destruction of personal property. Medical attention was denied or inadequate in many instances or only enough to protect prison officials from obvious liability. And over 1,400 infraction reports were written.

The report's allegation that congressional refusal to reduce crack cocaine sentences to parity with other cocaine sentences was the sine qua non of the whole chain of actions is disingenuous at best. It acknowledges that "immediate precipitating incidents were closely intertwined with a number of more complex underlying causes," but hammers out frequent repetitions of that one cause with astonishingly small attention to others, until it becomes the only common factor. It does acknowledge prisoner perceptions of unfairness but does not explore them, an egregious omission from a document from which effective preventive measures are to derive. Though the sentencing disparity was ample cause for discontent and unrest among its victims, the "underlying factors" were more the cause of the rebellion; the crack reduction vote was merely a precipitator. No single such factor can bear the burden of causality alone.

Among those factors constituting the critical mass for the conflagration was the following: the prison population is increasingly made up with young, black, urban victims of harsh, non-parolable sentences with little opportunity for good time. This population contrasts drastically with the aging, overwhelmingly white, largely rural, conservative prison apparatus. A sharper culture clash couldn't have been deliberately engineered. Further, in 1995, prisoners generally were reaping the results of reactionary politicians opportunistically playing the "tough on crime" card. College programs were eliminated with the abolition of Pell Grants for prisoners. Vocational training opportunities continued their long decline, especially in higher security prisons. Anti-prisoner legislation was passed which made prison conditions in federal prisons harsher. That emboldened prisoncrats to treat prisoner protection rules and law as only advisory at best and make grievance resolution generally even more of a joke.

Guard brutality was also an issue. The propensity of guards to manhandle prisoners being segregated was the precipitating factor at USP (U. S. Penitentiary) Lewisburg (PA)where it had also caused a mutiny in May 1995. Penurious health services increased suffering and insecurity and, thus, tension. Access to weightlifting and other recreational equipment was being reduced and eliminated at many prisons, as was access to cable TV. Overcrowding was another issue: all ten of the places whose revolts were detailed in the report were one-third to two-thirds over capacity, a situation characteristic of the system. Other conditions of confinement were noticeably deteriorating as well.

All such problems are internal management issues, yet the report mentions none of them and claims there were no management issues inculpated in the October events. Though the BOP attributes the worsening conditions to outside politics, in actuality it took opportunistic advantage of the politics to redistribute resources from prisoner to staff purposes. Evidence thereof is its refusal to implement the less restrictive alternatives it has in these and other operational areas.

Regarding the congressional crack vote specifically, the contention that the BOP had no idea prisoners might respond as they did is either a straight-out lie or an admission of rank incompetence. Since crack cocaine offenses receive sentences which are 100 times longer than the corresponding powder cocaine offense, legions of prisoners feel their legal recourse is no better than grasping at straws. The progress of the legislative proposal to reduce crack sentences was thus followed and discussed intensely, virtually from its introduction. The rationale for the disparity had been exposed as flawed, the disparity itself as counterproductive, and its application as so biased as to be widely regarded as racist. In apparent recognition thereof, even the U. S. Sentencing Commission recommended the reduction. Under these circumstances, many prisoners convinced themselves that congress would--had to--reduce crack penalties. Discussion of the situation was common for months prior to October 1995.

The report admits BOP intelligence-gathering about media reports and prisoner phone calls in the wake of Talledega and to taking action thereon. Also mentioned was routine phone monitoring prior to the action. Indeed, BOP staff routinely monitor all prisoner communication and activity, and talk extensively with prisoners for the purpose of developing information on prisoner attitudes and mood and whatever else may affect prison stability. The many infractions and investigations attributable to such scrutiny attest to the surveillance. That officialdom nationwide nevertheless missed so potentially explosive an issue as one in which a large number of volatile prisoners' hopes of early release were raised to virtual belief is simply not credible.

The report's recommendations explain the BOP's claims of ignorance of the potential for trouble and its unforseeability. In the 192 page report, there is only a single, vague recommendation to "[e]xplore alternative programming for [prisoners] to reduce idleness, in light of the fact that traditional free-time activities are being reduced," and even that bespeaks a commitment to continued reduction of "traditional activities." By making "external factors" the only reason for prisoner unrest, the BOP absolves itself of its own responsibility for creating potentially explosive tensions through its management priorities and practices, and justifies its policies of more draconian prison regimens. It legitimizes abdication of its correctional authority role in favor of that of an agency of repression.

The $39.7 million price of the rebellion breaks down as follows: overtime, $26.0 million; non-Unicor damage, $7.8 million; medical, transportation (of prisoners and staff), supplies, and other administrative expenses, $5.1 million; and lost production and orders and damage to Unicor factories, $831,000. While nowhere near approaching the cost to prisoners, these statistics do indicate the relative importance to the BOP of its various areas of operation. [Editor's Note: In prisoner prosecutions stemming from the October uprisings, the government has claimed substantially higher amounts of property damage.]

The After Action Report: October 1995 Disturbances in all its disinformation splendor maybe obtained from PLN. It is instructive both for a glimpse of BOP internal process and not-for-general-dissemination commentary, and for the manner in which it simultaneously reinforces the BOP organizational identification and dictates the party line to its minions and hence-people.

Source: After Action Report: October 1995 Disturbances, 10 April 1996, Federal Bureau of Prisons.

[PLN obtained the report under FOIA. Anyone desiring a copy or the report should send $20 to PLN and specify what it is for.]

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