Before Attica….There was the Tombs…
In the summer and fall of 1970 New York City was rocked by a series of rebellions that called attention to the severe overcrowding and inhumane treatment experienced by many thousands of prisoners awaiting trial throughout the city’s vast jail system.
Echoes from the Tombs: The New York City Jail Rebellions of 1970 brings the gripping history of this tumultuous period to life–the jail uprisings in the Tombs and the other NYC jails, the tense negotiations between Mayor John Lindsay and the prisoners in the various jails, the retakings of these facilities, and the dramatic fall out from these rebellions in the courts and as well as the New York State’s broader criminal justice system.
…..In the early morning hours of August 10, 1970, lawyers across New York City’s boroughs were hopping subway trains bound for a maze of criminal courtrooms that seemed to swallow up several blocks of lower Manhattan. Every day they offered legal counsel to an endless stream of defendants whom they had never met and about whose cases they knew next to nothing. Those who depended upon these overworked attorneys, scores of poor city dwellers who stood accused of various crimes, had already been brought over from the city jail early in the morning to be secured in a warren of cells within the court complex until their name was called. There they would wait for hours, if not all day, to see their court-appointed attorney mere minutes before they walked in front of a judge.
On this particular day, though, the men placed in these dank holding cells were not sitting there dully waiting to be summoned. Instead they were all franticly trying to crowd closer to the bars so that they might learn more about what was happening in the jail that they had left but moments earlier. According to what they could gather from the many out-of-breath guards who ran past them, a group of prisoners had taken over an entire tier of the Manhattan House of Detention, New York’s main city jail, and were making demands. This was the same New York City jail that Senator John Dunne had visited, and whose terrible conditions his committee had remarked upon, for his 1969 report.
The Manhattan House of Detention had been built in 1941 and was, therefore, relatively modern. Nevertheless it had the same nasty reputation that had been earned by previous versions of this jail. Indeed, it was known by the same chilling nickname that the first of those city jails had been given: “the Tombs.” Although officially called the Halls of Justice, prisoners had dubbed Manhattan’s original city jail “the Tombs” both because of its architectural style and because it was well known as a place where the accused languished and even died. So horrified was British author Charles Dickens by what he witnessed during his 1842 tour of the Tombs that he dedicated several pages of his American Notes to the experience. Dickens simply could not believe that “men and women, against whom no crime has been proved, lie here all night in perfect darkness” and, worse, that they were forced to endure this facility’s “disgusting dungeons. ”The Tombs, this writer insisted “would bring disgrace upon the most despotic empire in the world.”
The Manhattan House of Detention that officials later erected at 100 Centre Street, the jail that prisoners took over on August 10th, no longer bore any physical resemblance to the original penal facility that made Dickens shudder. Nevertheless, to the hundreds of citizens who found themselves confined there in 1970, this was still a place where people rotted as the wheels of justice turned at a glacial pace. Most of those locked up in this facility had been there for months, and some had even been there for years, waiting for a trial date or a transfer to another penal institution. Despite the consistent agitation of reformers such as John Dunne, and even after the federal Bail Reform Act of 1966 which was supposed to prevent the poor defendants from spending undue time behind bars awaiting trial, this city jail was well over capacity because too few of Manhattan’s accused could afford to pay the fines that judges set for them.
These were the very men who exploded the morning of August 10, 1970. The Tombs had been designed to hold only 932 men and yet, on the weekend of August 7-9, 1970, it was jammed 212 percent over capacity. There were four men crammed into each of the facility’s tiny cells and not a few Tombs’ detainees had nowhere to sleep but the concrete floor lacking even a blanket. Living in the Tombs not only meant enduring overcrowded quarters and cold nights, but also dealing with infestations of body lice and colonies of roaches and rats that skittered and nested in the facility’s dirty cells. One reason why the living quarters were so unsanitary was that there were few bathing facilities and prisoners were themselves filthy. One prisoner who “hadn’t showered in a week” pointed out that, even when guards finally allowed him to clean up, they subsequently told him to don his same filthy clothes. It mattered little that he had been sleeping on the floor in these very same clothes every night since he had come to the Tombs. “They stunk” he said. “No matter how clean I was, I still stunk.”
Not only did the Tombs detainees live with conditions wholly unfit for humans, but, effectively, they also were barred from exercising rights that they were guaranteed as citizens under the U.S. Constitution. The fact that Tombs prisoners rarely had a speedy trial was not merely a quality of life matter; it was also raised serious issues about due process.
In August of 1970 there were a full 8,000 men sitting in New York’s various city jails who had not yet gone to trial and who, therefore, had not been found guilty of any crime. This penal facility had no clear procedures for making sure that a detainee who waited months for trial had access to his family members, nor did it have any easy mechanism for was them to send or receive mail either personal or legal. Access to a telephone for the Tomb’s detainees was completely out of the question. As the New York State Commission on Crime and Correction later opined, “a man who is presumed innocent should not be cut off from people who can help him raise bail, to secure witnesses, to obtain and attorney, or failing that, to lend him moral support during the time he is awaiting trial.” One Tombs prisoner, Junius Avery, spent a full 37 months in the Tombs before he, ultimately, learned that his case was being dismissed. He had spent this time in jail only because he had no way of meeting bail that had been set at $5,000.
Long stays in the Tombs and other New York City jails might have allowed poor defendants needed time to meet with the lawyer who would be representing them whenever they did go to court, but they in fact rarely met with the same attorney from the Public Defender’s office twice and, thus, they found it hard to get any consistent legal advice. It was not at all unusual for a man awaiting trial at the Tombs to go to court several different times—each time with a different attorney and often before a different judge—only to be sent back to jail because some paperwork was missing, because witnesses were unavailable, or because of other issues that had resulted from the poor management of his case. Each time a jail prisoner’s trial was postponed, he knew that whenever his next court date arrived he would once again find himself “in a different court room…with a different judge, a different prosecutor, [and] a different legal aid lawyer” and the growing number of gaps in his case record would likely ensure even more delays.
City officials were aware that real problems existed at the Tombs not only because of frequent prisoner complaints, but because the guards who worked there called regular attention to them as well. According to Arthur Singerman, a warden temporarily running this facility in early August 1970, not only did prisoners hate the severe overcrowding at the Tombs, but so did the guards because it made their jobs much harder and more dangerous. In fact, jail guards had been so upset about how many men were being crammed into their facilities earlier that year that in March the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association had called for a system-wide work slowdown in order “to bring the attention of the public to the serious overcrowding” at all of the New York City detention facilities.
The city’s habit of understaffing its severely overcrowded jails made guards more fearful which, in turn, made them more aggressive toward prisoners. When U.S. Congressman Ed Koch took a tour of the Tombs in 1970 he was stunned that four out of every ten prisoners he spoke with claimed to have witnessed guards assaulting their charges. This worried Koch. “If we permit the prisoners to be brutalized,” he fretted, eventually “the prisoners are going to brutalize us.”
When the 235 men on the 9th floor of the Tombs burst out of their cells at 6:30am on August 10th, took five guards hostage, and unfurled a sheet with the words “give us your support” scrawled across it out a smashed window, it appeared that these prisoners had indeed finally turned on their captors.
This particular protest had actually been prompted by an incident that took place the day before on August 9th. That Sunday, Tombs prisoners had witnessed three guards forcibly subdue their fellow prisoner, David Felder, after he and guard Ronald Minoza got into an altercation over a bowl of milk. Felder was apparently injured badly enough in this fracas that guards then had to take him to another part of the Tombs to receive medical care. Concerned that even more harm would come to Felder once he was alone with those guards subsequently prompted the black prisoners who remained on the 9th floor to grab two white prisoners hostage. They told prison officials that these men would not be released until Felder was returned to them unharmed. Seeing how determined the 9th floor protesters were, prison officials brought Felder back to his cell. True to their word, the prisoners then released their captives.
This small collective action, however, emboldened the men on the 9th floor to launch a broader, more substantive protest; an action that even the white prisoners who had been taken hostage felt committed to. As one of them, William Hickey, explained later; it was “prisoners, black and white, trying to get things changed.” In fact, as Puerto Rican prisoner Victor Martinez noted, every one of these men had been talking a about politics, and about the need to mobilize for better protections in the criminal justice system, since at least May, 1970 and now they could do just that. As soon as Felder arrived back on the 9th floor, all of the men there began writing up a formal list of grievances to give to jail administrators. Martinez’s previous protest experience as a member of the activist organization the Young Lords Party made him the perfect candidate to help this group organize its thoughts. He gave them all some hope that, by standing together, they might just get some meaningful reforms in the Tombs.
This wasn’t the first time that prisoners had tried to bring official attention to the poor conditions in this jail. A few weeks earlier, on July 29, 1970, they had sent city officials a detailed petition that not only outlined the severity of the problems in this facility, but also pleaded with prison officials to do something to fix them soon. This effort to go through proper channels and politely to “ask” for change had gotten no response from the Department of Corrections or City Hall and, thus, the men concluded, they would have to do something much bolder to get officials to take their grievances seriously. This was the thinking that led the 9th floor prisoners to decide on August 10, 1970 to amp up their protest by taking five guards hostage, locking them in a couple of cells for their own protection, and then demanding that the Mayor meet with them about resolving ten major grievances. “We are holding a captain and four correction officers” they wrote on a piece of paper that they then threw out a window. “No harm will come to them if we are not attacked,” they continued. “We want to see the Mayor and the Press.”
The mayor, a small group of reporters, and the city’s Commissioner of Corrections, George McGrath, were stunned. To be sure they knew that all was not perfect in the city jail system, but they were completely taken aback that they now faced a hostage crisis. Hoping to secure the guards’ release, city officials made the unprecedented decision to come to the Tombs to talk with the 9th floor prisoners. Once there Commissioner McGrath eventually spoke directly to the prisoners and “promised he would not initiate any criminal actions” if they just let the guards go. These men were not about to release their hostages until the Mayor himself addressed their grievances. So Lindsay decided to listen. One by one the Tombs prisoners began chronicling the many hardships they endured as residents in the city’s main jail. These ranged from “excessive bail” to being “kept in detention cells all day without going to court” to having long “delayed trial dates.” As serious, they noted, was the “brutality by the guards….abuse of female visitors [and the]…infestation by rats, roaches, rats and mice” that came with being locked in the Tombs.
The protesting prisoners were grateful for this audience with the city’s highest official, but they also wanted to make sure that their list of grievances were “made public” so that all New Yorkers would know why they took the drastic action they did that day. One of the reporters in attendance while they met with McGrath and the mayor agreed that he would publish the text of their grievances in the paper the very next day. This was a great relief. Even though they had taken hostages to get the mayor’s attention, they wanted to make it clear to every citizen on the outside that they were not irrational or evil people. As they explained, the demands for change they presented, “were not, in spite of the rambunctious way they were presented, the grievances of a fanatic or radical individual; but the grievances of the entire ninth floor, and the institution….Thank you.”
Ultimately the negotiations between the prisoners and city officials had gone quite well; eventually leading not only to a greater public awareness of the prisoners’ plight but also to the release of the hostages by mid-afternoon. To everyone’s surprise, however, the next day brought even more rioting. As Tombs guard Walter Starke explained, “the men didn’t want to return to their cells after lunch. We tried to tell them that they proved their point yesterday, but some of the men would not listen.” In fact, the previous day’s protest had only seemed to energize the detainees on every other floor of the jail and to encourage them to voice their own frustrations with being kept at the Tombs. At 3:00pm on August 11th, the entire 7th floor of the Tombs erupted and, within hours, their rebellion had spread to floors 4, 5 and 8. By early evening over 800 detainees had control of the Tombs and they had taken a new batch of four guards hostages on the 8th floor.
Unlike the previous day’s protest, which all agreed was quite orderly, the Tombs was now in the grips of utter chaos. Not only were prisoners continuing to smash windows and hurl everything from dead rats, to broken toilet parts, to roaches, out onto the sidewalk, but inside of the facility they were throwing furniture, setting small fires, and tearing up the little bedding there was. Still, there was little question that this was, in fact, a rebellion not simply an irrational riot. Men were not just flinging things out onto the street, they were also trying to talk with New Yorkers through the broken windows and were pleading with every passerby to take their cause to heart. They also hung several bed sheets out of those same windows with their grievances written on them for all in the city to see. “All we want is to be treated like human beens [sic]” read one particularly moving banner.
When he first heard news of this second Tombs takeover Mayor Lindsay was in the middle of giving a press conference in the Blue Room of City Hall, and was scheduled to leave for the American Bar Association meeting in St. Louis. His immediate reaction was loudly to criticize both the court system and the governor for sowing the seeds of this grim situation. He well knew that a key reason why his city jails were so overcrowded was because many of the men in them should have been transferred to state facilities long ago.
Notwithstanding the mayor’s feeling that the Tombs’ crisis had been created by bureaucrats and not by prisoners, however, the mayor wasted no time in calling riot trained policemen to surround the Manhattan House of Detention immediately. His plan was to wait until 5:00pm and if the prisoners had not released the hostages by that hour, he would ask the police to retake the facility by force. By 5:00pm it was clear that the prisoners were not going to comply with his request so, at 7:00pm, the Mayor ordered a group of corrections officers into the facility who, with the aid of tear gas, did manage to regain control of at least the 7th floor relatively smoothly. Still, there were many other floors to get back under control and given the throngs of police who were now milling around the jail, as well as the medical personnel from both Beekman and Bellevue hospitals who had been called to the Tombs, it looked to all as if a bloody showdown was imminent….