1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


Chapter 10 FRW Memories
   “The Riots”
John McCurdy “05



            In 1970 the Alderson Prison experienced the first Riot in its nearly fifty year history.

            The permissive atmosphere of the 60’s and 70’s had led Alderson, and indeed, many prisons throughout the country to experiment with new and unproven theory’s about incarceration, inmate freedoms and rehabilitation. Alderson was no different. A permissive program, whether in the home, or anywhere else, is always the easiest way, until the time when it becomes obvious that one has to become a little more controlling. That’s when the difficulties begin, with resistance ranging from mere foot-dragging to complete rebellion!

            You recall, I’m sure, the Attica Riot in New York State in which several officer hostages and a number of inmates lost their lives. It has been dissected by amateurs and professionals ad nauseam and no answers have as yet been found. The Alderson Prison was also in a permissive mode. A group of inmates asked the Warden for permission to hold an outdoor memorial service for the inmates killed at Attica! Instead of a Memorial Service, under the religious guidance of the institution's Chaplains, and in memory of both the staff and the inmates killed in that senseless and tragic episode at Attica, the Warden permitted the demonstration, (for that it what it quickly turned into), to be held!

            When rain began to fall that cool evening, the leaders of the vigil asked the Warden if they could move the memorial service into the recently vacated building that had, until recently, housed the Garment Factory. The Warden and the Executive Staff again said, “Yes”! With no restraints from the Executive Staff, (who really had no experience with anything such as this), the situation quickly deteriorated from a problem into a crisis! The Inmates, in small groups soon began leaving the Garment Factory, and going to their quarters, returning with blankets, mattresses and food-stuffs to sustain themselves, for what they obviously intended to be a long time!  

            The few members of the staff with some experience in such situations were not listened to when they advocated immediate, even if necessary, forcible action, to remove the inmates and escort them back to their cottages, knowing, quite well, that with the cold rain falling the inmates would not remain outside!  Their advice was not taken. Over the next few days, while several abortive attempts were made to resolve the situation, in the absence of effective leadership from the Executive Staff, nothing was accomplished.

            After much too long, the Bureau of Prisons Central Office was informed that the situation at Alderson was out-of-hand and that this institution was unable to resolve it!

          That night, the Riot Control Squads from several nearby Federal Prisons began to arrive, including Ashland, KY., Petersburg, VA., and the Youth Center in Morgantown. My younger brother was a member of the Petersburg Squad.

          The Executive Staff at Alderson did not know how to handle situations like the one they faced.  They simply did not realize that quick, decisive action was needed until it was much too late.  The
Ashland and Petersburg Control Teams reportedly were asked by the Warden not to wear their protective gear of helmets, face-masks, vests and above all not to carry their Riot Batons for fear of scaring the inmates! They were asked to go into the building and bring the inmates out without any of their protective equipment! One of the squad members asked the Warden, in my presence, if common sense had taken leave!  Shortly afterward the Warden was relieved of duty by Mason Holley and Floyd Arnold of the Bureau of Prisons Central Office; returning only after the situation was resolved!

            Two officers had already been assigned to each Cottage to supervise the inmates who had not joined the Riot. On the third day, only after the arrival of two bus loads of Control Teams from the Lewisburg Penitentiary, were the actions that led to the end of the riot began.  The Alderson officers in the Cottages were joined by a Control Team member from Lewisburg. The next morning the Prison Buses drove up to the front of the cottage's and as the inmates involved in the riot were identified by Alderson Staff, they were loaded into the buses!  

 Other inmates not yet in the custody of the Control Teams, such as those remaining in the Old Garment Factory began to break windows and inflict as much damage as they could on the interior of the cottages, they also began going into other cottages than their own and hiding. After calling for all inmates to vacate the buildings, CS gas was introduced into the buildings and the remainder of the inmates came out.

On a personal note, Melvin Huffman, who was assigned to photograph the operation, took a picture of me at the back of the bus shaking my finger under the nose of an inmate who wanted to get on the bus in sympathy with another inmate.  At the front of the bus was my brother in full riot gear putting an inmate onto the bus. Standing a bit further on was my wife, Pearl,  putting on a gas mask, preparatory to entering a gassed cottage to search for inmates who might have been overcome by the CS gas and unable to exit. I was never able to get a copy of that photo!  My Mother would have been proud of us!

The inmates who had participated in the disturbance and who were on the busses, were taken to the Cabell County Jail in Huntington, until a wing of the Cell-House at the prison in Ashland could be made ready for them. They trashed the Huntington Jail, and then Ashland, in turn, got rid of them as soon as possible! 

            In the weeks following the Riots, Administrative Hearings were held, and any inmates who were alleged to have participated in the riot were afforded hearings to determine if they were to be transferred! I was the Staff Representative for several inmates, all of who swore on their Mothers Grave that they had not been involved! I remember a very likable girl from Baltimore named Dorothy, who was on my caseload, and who was accused of assaulting a staff member.  When we entered the Hearing Room, I asked her if she knew everyone in the room. Sitting next to the chair I had indicated she should set in, was Eddie Lightner from the Bureau. When Dorothy saw him, she said, “Hell, John, let’s get out of here!” It was Eddie she had kicked in the crotch, apparently quite hard from the pained look still on his face. Dorothy was transferred to California, but returned to Alderson in a few years. I never failed to tell her I had run into Eddie, even though I had not!

            My wife Pearl was on duty 24 hours in a row several times, I worked 44 hours without getting home, catching catnaps when and where possible. Others worked longer and harder. In my opinion most of the Alderson Staff acted admirably in the situation.

The Alderson Prison learned valuable lessons. The Bureau mandated that the Riot Control Teams receive more training and more adequate equipment, and that the procedures and the Tables of Organization be more clearly defined.  A Training Officer who had experience in men’s institutions was brought in to develop an adequate program for Disturbance Control.

 In 1973-4, Alderson again needed help with a Disturbance but this time they were able and prepared to do their share in controlling it!  

It is my opinion, for what it is worth, that the riot of 1970 was the start of a new era in the Women’s Prison in Alderson. The new breed of offender’s now being sent to Alderson were, in most cases, very familiar with the Criminal Justice System as it was applied to women. They had been in trouble most of their lives and always had received alternatives to incarceration, such as probation. In addition, when once inmates were largely  women from rural areas, they now were products of the inner city ghettos of the large cities, familiar with each other from the “streets", and with all of the products of the criminal culture.  The inmates, in the main, now were quite often lacking in any sense of personal responsibility, interested only in immediate gratification. The more personal, often gentler relationship possible at one time now would seldom be acceptable or possible.

            Most of the inmates, when they finally were sent to Alderson, were hardened to life; antisocial, and uninhibited. Now what was required was firmness, fairness and demand for their respect at all times, both to the inmates when possible, but more importantly, respect to the rules and respect to the staff at all times.  Several more years were required for the old staff to retire or adapt and for new staff to be trained. I left and transferred to Petersburg, Va., for three years in the mid-70’s, the change was apparent on my return, but was not yet complete. A new philosophy was in place, opportunity for change was still available to inmates, but the inmate had to avail themselves of that opportunity. They could, if desired “just do time”, but in any case basic rules would still be in force.           

            In plain words the old FRW many of you may have known is no more, in my opinion it’s a much better example of a correctional institution, but that really, "may be a pity".