During the US civil rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s, oppressive prison conditions began gaining more attention from human rights advocacy groups and media. Forced sterilization (predominantly of young, poor women), unsafe working conditions, rape, unexplained deaths of prisoners of color, and medical neglect inspired a new movement of human rights campaigns. Advocacy groups began holding demonstrations, mediating with prison administrations, and providing general support for prisoners’ rights.
In North Carolina, this national atmosphere of revolutionary activity manifested in a number of groups and a broader counter-culture, especially in the triangle area, that played key roles in supporting a civil rights movement at a Raleigh women’s correctional facility. Organizations like the Black Panthers, Action for Forgotten Women, and Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists got wind of medical neglect and dangerous working conditions suffered by the prisoners at the North Carolina Correctional Correctional Center for Women (NCCCW) and allied themselves with prisoners to help them demand better treatment.
“The women were not just required to do NCCCW’s laundry but that of the entire State prison system. This included over 35 other facilities as well as two State tuberculosis sanitariums. A local newspaper article printed years earlier extolled the work programs of NCCCW, pointing with pride to the fact that the laundry was run by a foreman with ‘a lifetime in the laundering business,’ who was ‘always looking for new ways to make the prison budget balance.’ Balancing the budget apparently included forcing women to work in a 120-degree environment while handling tuberculosis-infected clothing with no safety equipment. The forced, unpaid, and dangerous work at the laundry compounded the larger institutionalized medical neglect at the prison. Reports from prisoners of this abuse were well documented, though typically ignored. Racial discrimination as well.”
On June 15th, 1975, 150 women prisoners refused to return to their dormitories when guards announced 8pm lockup. They gathered on the grass of the prison yard and staged a peaceful sit-in protest instead. While the prisoners arranged blankets and benches in the yard, their supporters prepared to stay overnight on the outside.
The state didn’t let the women sleep for long. At 5 am the next day, guards dressed and armed with riot gear arrived from Raleigh’s Central Prison. The women were ordered to go to the gymnasium. Afraid for their safety, they refused. Immediately, guards advanced on the circle of prisoners. While some women were frightened into going to the gym, others held their ground…
“According to one witness, ‘The latter struggled and screamed. Others tried to help and were beaten. Once inside the gym, sounds of breaking glass, screams, and pounding noises could be heard.’ A prisoner later wrote, ‘The first blow was struck by the guard to a prisoner while on the front lawn. Others were carried by guards into the auditorium and thrown on top of one another.’ Not long after the women were dragged into the gym, a prisoner ran out screaming to the supporters, ‘They’re beating women in there!’ She ran back in, and the sounds of broken glass and screams continued to emanate from the building. Fortunately, the first prisoners to enter the gym had found mop handles, brooms, and concrete blocks.”
The prisoners fought back, matching the guards’ batons with their own janitorial weaponry and breaking concrete into chunks to throw at them. While the women continued their protest on the prison lawn for another 5 hours, members from advocacy organizations accompanied four prisoners to the meeting with the director. He verbally agreed to close the prison laundry within 90 days and offered to have an independent team investigate medical conditions, but refused to agree to any of the demands in writing.
TUESDAY and WEDNESDAY, JUNE 17-18th
Prisoners refused to return to their normal routines or work in the laundry, effectively shutting down the facility. According to media reports the number of active strikers was up to 200. All armed guards pulled from inside the fence the day before remained outside the facility.
Having given up their improvised weapons and hard-earned occupation of the outdoor lawn, the strike against prison labor was the last remaining way for the women to pressure the administration to hold to its promises. Outside the facility, the number of organizers and community members supporting the prisoners grew.
THURSDAY JUNE 19TH
Protests around the facility remained constant throughout the week. On Thursday afternoon a crowd of 100 was chanting in support of the ongoing strike, while around 200 prisoners on the other side of the fence chanted along with them. The director had still refused to put any promises in writing, buying the time he needed come up with a plan for retaliation. Organizers grew angry.
“The AFW activists talked with a Black Panther from Winston-Salem named Larry Little, who soon got on the bullhorn to address the crowd. With his voice echoing down the residential Bragg St. and onto the prison grounds, Little screamed, ‘Basically, the negotiations have broken down….We’ve got to start going downtown and rioting. We’ve got to give Raleigh some hell.’ Prisoners and protesters cheered in response.”
As people gathered and hit the streets to protest, participants claimed that prisoners were subsequently beaten and teargassed for their participation. However, prison officials denied this claim, saying the women were screaming and fighting amongst themselves. The media latched onto the latter accusation and portrayed the scene as so. The next morning, large numbers of guards had shown up to the prison and began loading prisoners onto buses.
“…Ultimately 34 ‘ringleaders’ were transferred to a men’s medium security facility in Morganton, nearly three hours west of Raleigh, while some 60 more were put on punitive lock-up. Another 90 lost certain privileges or were denied parole for their role in the rebellion. On the inside, the guards at NCCCW used the time after the rebellion to exact revenge. While reform activists organized legal action against prison staff, the 34 women in Morganton and 60 on lockup at NCCCW fought against their own private hell of isolation and intimidation. The state’s strategy for reasserting control at the facility combined retaliatory threats and solitary confinement with mostly minor changes like the appointment of a new chaplain and a new full-time recreational director, as well as bringing in some new medical equipment and furniture. The largest change was undoubtedly the shutting down of the prison laundry facility…”
By the same time the following year, most of the women in solitary were returned to the general prison population. They maintained contact with their supporters, and published a book called Break de Chains of Legalized U$ Slavery which documented their struggle and motivations. Despite not gaining all of the rights they had demanded, their solidarity with each other remained.
“One way to view women’s incarceration in this period is as an augmentation of ‘older’ forms of authority that had lost their credibility if not their actual standing. At the same time, the prison rebellion at NCCCW and its resulting sisterhood was the consummation of revolt against all the diverse forms of authority that came to bear on the lives of poor women in that period, from the state but also the church, the hospital, the economy, the family, and the diffuse but no less structural forces of white supremacy.”
In 1976, Marjorie Marsh, one of the contributors to Break De Chains of Legalized U.$. Slavery wrote:
“How much longer must the residents (prisoners) of Women’s Correctional Center be held slaves of the state without any hope of release to freedom? We live in a capitalistic world wherein only the strong survive. For those of us who refuse to be stripped of our individuality, and who are bizarre and articulate enough to express ourselves overtly, we are labeled subversives, militants and troublemakers. In reality, however, we are the people who care about ourselves and our sisters and brothers. This then is what is needed in prisons all over the world: keepers who are qualified and who genuinely care about the welfare of the kept.”
There have been cases of individuals or small groups revolting for their rights at NCCCW since the 1975 insurrection, but with little significant result. While researching this particular case from the 70’s, I found that, unsurprisingly, abuse and neglect are still prevalent at this facility today.
Many women who are imprisoned here either with existing injury and/or health issues or developing such behind bars are not given proper medical care and are forced to live in unsanitary environments. They are ignored, misdiagnosed, over-medicated, and under-medicated for their conditions which has resulted in dozens of cases of permanent injury, disease, and even death.
The same struggles still exist today as they did within the walls of NCCCW over 40 years ago. The keepers remain genuinely uncaring and the kept keep fighting for their basic human rights.
1. Prison Books Collective, https://prisonbooks.info/2012/02/23/a-womans-cry-for-help-healthcare-abuse-at-ncciw/
2. Shirley, Neal and Saralee Stafford, Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. “We Asked for Life: On the 1975 Revolt at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women”
3. North Carolina Women’s Prison Book Project, Break de Chains of Legalized U.$. Slavery. http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC510_scans/Prisons_Women/510.PrisonWomen.BreakdeChains.pdf