A nightmare for prisoners

The riot at the Charles Street Jail
By PRISONER "X"  |  November 26, 2008

This article originally appeared in the November 21, 1972 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Prisoner X was in Charles Street Jail during the riot. He was released several days later. Because of the pattern of reprisals he witnessed, he remains an anonymous chronicler of the events on November 13.

I was in the dining room on my side of the cell-block about eleven-fifteen Monday morning when I heard a crash, an enormous racket from the other side of the block. Prisoners had thrown over their dining tables. People were finding worms in the pea soup. I went up to the serving area and found prisoners talking heatedly with some of the guards; someone who seemed to be speaking in an official capacity said the worms were actually fried onions. A lot of prisoners said they were insulted by that story. The worms were definitely not onions.

Sheriff Eisenstadt arrived on the scene after the commotion had begun. A group of perhaps 75 or 80 prisoners were standing in the serving area, waiting for a response from somebody about the food. Eisenstadt picked up a small cup, dipped it into a bucket of soup, held it for perhaps two seconds and threw it back into the bucket. He couldn’t have determined anything from that dip. I heard later that at his press conference, Eisenstadt said he saw a “microscopic” black bug. But that isn’t what the “bugs” were like at all; they were white, with lines across the top, tape worms, or maggots.

At first, Eisenstadt said, or rather promised, that he would meet with a committee of six chosen by the inmates from the prison population — anyone we wanted. The standing committee of inmates came back downstairs to the serving area and told us we should make a decision about that offer. The inmates at first reacted negatively. We wanted to have Eisenstadt right there with all of us. About ten minutes later a group of six was finally composed, and they went upstairs. The sheriff was nowhere in sight. I saw the group of six on the other side of the fence on the main floor of the jail waiting for Eisenstadt. He came out of the guard office about ten minutes later with the word that now he would meet with a group of only two. When he told us that he was not going to meet with a group of six, the inmates felt cheated — we felt that he had gone back on his promise. At that point the rebellion was provoked by Eisenstadt’s failure to make good his own promise.

What followed during the next two hours was a frantic and courageous expression of rage, by prisoners who’ve been beaten down for too long, and left with no other means to communicate deep-felt anger and frustration. Typical of institutions throughout America that are dominated by a small clique of rich, white males, the administration at the Charles St. Jail was brutally insensitive to the inmate population, lacking respect for even the most minimal standards of human decency. We rebelled with the only resources available at the time, the bare physical rudiments in the jail itself. Tables were overturned, windows were broken, light fixtures smashed; radiators and plumbing apparatus were pulled apart, and benches ripped up. Primitive “weapons,” in expectation of riot-equipped police, were fashioned out of the debris.

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