Resistance behind bars : Walpole prisoner strike 50 years on

March 15 will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Walpole Prison takeover in Massachusetts by incarcerated workers. It ended May 18, 65 days later. What led to this stupendous, courageous event by captured workers?

Walpole, Massachusetts, prisoners on strike, 1973.

Bobby Dellelo, a leader of the takeover, spent 40 years in prison, much of that time in Walpole, including 10 years in solitary confinement. He categorized it as one of the most dangerous prisons in the U.S. In one 18-month period, 20 prisoners were murdered. At that time, the particularly brutal Raymond Porelle was the warden. Rampant guard-on-prisoner violence, endemic human rights violations, poor nutrition and filthy conditions escalated. It was common for guards to give prisoners cold meals, urinate in their tea and put soap powder in their food.

In December 1972, during Kwanzaa, the administration locked the prison down, denying the prisoners clean clothes, showers, outside time and visits. The lockdown lasted 2 ½ months in Blocks 9 and 10. Blocks 9 and 10 were classified as Departmental Segregation Units (DSU).

This is where men were sent for punishment and torture. Protest leaders were sent there in retaliation for their actions. Guards would flood the cells, put bugs in the food, set fire to clothes and bedding, put the heat on at full blast or turn it off all together, do rectal searches and use mace and tear gas.

General strike shows prisoner unity

A general work strike began on Feb. 21. John Boone, a Black man, was the Corrections Commissioner, who considered himself a prison abolitionist. Demands were for the resignation of Warden Porelle and for “citizen observers” to be allowed into the prison. Both demands were met, and the strike ended March 2. The hatred for Porelle ran so deep and wide that the incarcerated people stated that he had united them and made them strong. Citizen observers began to enter the prison on March 7.

The leadership of Walpole prisoners at this time was embedded in the National Prisoners Reform Association, which believed in prison abolition. The NPRA strove to organize prisoners into collective bargaining units and have more power when going up against the guards’ unions. They saw themselves as a labor union, recognizing that they were captured and exploited workers.

The leaders of NPRA-Walpole were a Black man, Ralph Hamm III, who had been sentenced to life for “intent” to rape a white woman, and Dellelo, a white man. They were supported by Black African Nations Toward Unity (BANTU), of which Hamm was a leader.

Hamm and Dellelo worked with “Big Bob” Heard of the Black Panther Party, head of the Walpole Inmate Advisory Council. The fight against racism was recognized as a priority by the leadership of the NPRA. They knew they would not survive if they were not united.

The prisoners in the DSU agreed to treat each other as equals. “In hindsight,” Dellelo mused, “it is amazing that this kind of unity could have emerged in these circumstances; you just had to be there to fully appreciate it.” (“When the Prisoners Ran Walpole,” 2008, by Jamie Bissonette, South End Press, page 28)

The NPRA recognized themselves as workers who deserved the minimum wage, a union and health and safety regulations. They filed and fought for official union certification from the National Labor Relations Board.

The struggle was covered in the press and media and provoked discussions among people on the outside as to whether incarcerated people were workers and whether they should receive a fair wage for their work. Those incarcerated at Walpole, in fact, performed jobs that were essential to the state, including printing forms for state documents and making building materials, license plates, street signs, sewer covers, furniture and eyeglasses. They cooked 1,800 meals a day.

Guards walk off job

The guards were livid about the prisoners’ demands and that Boone had agreed to them. They hated the arrival of outside civilian observers. Observers, some of whom had formerly been incarcerated, examined the guards’ job performance and reported violations.

When the first observers took their posts on March 9, some 50 guards refused to punch in and the entire 3:00 p.m. shift walked off the job. Calling for Boone’s immediate firing, the guards issued a strike ultimatum on March 14.

The NPRA then demanded the release of those locked up in Blocks 9 and 10.

On March 15, 11 prisoners were released from Block 10 and entered the general population. In response, some 200 guards walked out of Walpole, beginning an official guard strike. The corridors were free of guards for the first time. The guards’ “union” continued to demand that Boone leave. He responded by suspending 150 of them for five days without pay. Cadet trainees, who were young men of color, were given keys to the cell blocks and ordered to work alongside the incarcerated workers.

Prisoners take over 

On March 15, 1973, those incarcerated at Walpole took over and began running the prison.

The NPRA set up a structure of 20 committees, which were accountable to the whole prisoner population. The committees managed the hospital, the kitchen, mail distribution, educational programs, industrial production and internal problem solving. A printing apprenticeship program was set up to build skills and ensure a higher wage when getting out. The NPRA arranged for visits with families to take place outside in the yard, with playground equipment they had fought for. Prisoners also set up an Adult Prisoners Education Program.

A board of elected prisoners became a dispute-resolution committee to address any larger problems. The beating, maiming and murder by guards ceased. From March 15 to May 18, the NPRA functioned as the elected representative of the prisoners at Walpole and was responsible for running nearly the entire institution.

Civilian observers side with prisoners

In its never-ending quest to divide the workers in order to exist, the capitalist class constantly demonized and demeaned the incarcerated workers to workers on the outside, through their kept press and media. Therefore, civilian observers were very important to the life of the prison takeover, particularly in countering the disgusting lies of the guards about what was going on inside.

The observers’ role was to observe activity, report abusive incidents and witness how the NPRA ran the prison. The observers released daily reports to the press. Most observers quickly realized that it was the guards who were the problem, and they became advocates for the incarcerated population.

They came in at 7 a.m., 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. shifts every day. They were free to go to any area of the prison and talk and eat with those incarcerated. Female observers were not allowed inside the prison but acted as shift coordinators. There were many reports of guards slicing the tires of cadets and observers.

One observer stated: “When we visited Walpole, the prisoners had ended their work strike. The guards were still out. And we found a complex society at work . . . it has its workers, its employers, its organizations, its cooks, craftsmen, educators, even its artists.” (“Prisoners take control of Walpole Prison,” libcom.org)

Right outside the prison doors in Boston, Black school children riding buses to school were being assaulted daily with rocks and bottles by large, angry racist mobs. The racist forces who were opposed to desegregation had taken over City Hall. This historical context was very important in guiding the Walpole prisoners’ beliefs and actions.

State retaliates

On May 18, the NPRA became aware that the state forces would be coming to retake the prison. They had prisoners prop open cell doors, so they could not be closed by guards using remote control. Observers still in the prison recorded that it was “quiet as a morgue.”

The acting warden had called in the state police upon receiving false reports of mass destruction. Black outside allies — Rev. Edward Rodman and State Representative Bill Owens — joined observers. Guards and state police entered with guns and brought a violent end to the prisoners’ takeover of Walpole.

The prison was locked down. Dellelo was “stripped, beaten, run naked across broken glass and thrown in the hole.” (“Instead of Prisons,” Chapter 9, Prison Policy Initiative)

Hamm was beaten and spent a long stretch in solitary — but not until after he had backed state police wearing riot gear out of his cell, with a machete, and organized a rally in the main corridor. Owens and Rodman had stayed on Hamm’s cellblock during the state police assault.

On May 19, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered the guards to return to prison. Boone was subsequently fired. Hamm stated that the NPRA was “terrorized and brutalized out of existence” for its efforts to unionize.

Prisoner strikes in 1970s historic

People incarcerated at Walpole were influenced by the 1970 strike at Folsom Prison, which had lasted for 19 days and gave birth to the prisoner union movement; the heroic Attica rebellion of 1971; and the assassination of beloved leader George Jackson in 1971 by San Quentin prison guards.

The nationwide prisoner strikes of the 1970s remain a testament to what is possible, when people “behind the wall” unite across the divisions imposed on them by the prison-industrial complex. The grainy documentary “3,000 Years to Life,” filmed inside Walpole during the takeover, is proof of such an accomplishment.

Many of the organizers remained incarcerated for decades and continued to resist. Many have since died, including Peter Ladetto and the late, great John McGrath. Dellelo is still around, and Hamm (falsely accused) was finally released just two years ago.

“I was one who dared. . . . Life would be far more difficult for Massachusetts prisoners now, had we not taken on the ‘powers that be’ directly, and struggled for prison reform. The sacrifices we may have made were worth the lives that we ultimately saved — including our own.” (Ralph Hamm, in “When the Prisoners Ran Walpole,” by Jamie Bissonette, 2008)

Susan Mortimer, longtime anti-prison activist, contributed to this article.

Phebe Eckfeldt

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Phebe Eckfeldt

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