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  Spring 2015 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Spring 2015 issue.
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In the Biting Stage layout

“In the biting stage”: The 1955 Nebraska State Penitentiary Riots and Violent Prison Activism Brian Sarnacki

On August 16, 1955, prisoners at the Nebraska State Penitentiary did not return to their cells following dinner. Instead, they demanded the presence of the warden and state penal director. Fearing the inmates would turn violent, Warden Joseph Bovey removed all of the guards, leaving the prisoners in charge. Half an hour later, smoke billowed from the penitentiary as the convicts set fire to their workplaces. The cannery, furniture shop, machine shop, maintenance shop, and even the inmates’ store, blazed unimpeded. As smoke filled the evening sky, prison officials left the residents of Lincoln in the dark. No one informed the press until 10 p.m.—five hours after the inmates began their uprising, and an hour after armed guards escorted the fire department into the prison yard. Though the prison administration initially retreated, they refused to grant victory to the rebels. With the National Guard and police providing reinforcements, Warden Bovey called for surrender shortly before 6 a.m. Bovey informed the insurgents that if they did not return to their cells immediately, the officers would take back the prison by force with orders to shoot to kill.

The late summer riot ended without gunfire and only five injuries, all to inmates. Newspaper reports estimated damages as high as $100,000, more costly than any other incident in the penitentiary’s history. Despite the drama, officials claimed the riot’s cause was unknown. The governor’s administrative assistant, A. C. Eichberg, proclaimed, “There has been no dissatisfaction and the food has been good.” However, even as the official stance was befuddlement, the “grapevine” suggested the riot was common knowledge beforehand. The recent history of the penitentiary gave even stronger evidence that officials were not in the dark. Riots, escape attempts, and even the murder of a guard troubled the penitentiary during the early 1950s.

Though violence was consistent, 1955 was a turning point. Various groups jockeyed for position as politicians considered the future of the prison system. The Board of Control, which oversaw the prisons, hired an outside penologist to review the conditions of the state institutions. Earlier, the governor had appointed a citizens’ committee to investigate a 1954 riot.

The inmates also sought to influence the reform process. Lacking political might, they expressed themselves through violent action. In 1955, they kept penal reform in the political discussion with a series of publicity-grabbing stunts aimed at initiating changes to improve their living conditions.

The Nebraska State Penitentiary was not alone in dealing with inmate uprisings. In 1955 inmates undertook major protest actions in all corners of the country, asserting themselves through both nonviolent and violent means. Prisoners in Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas staged sit-down strikes. Riots rocked prisons in Michigan, North Carolina, and Wyoming, and convicts in Massachusetts, Texas, and Washington took hostages. As in Nebraska, the inmates behind these actions had reforms in mind, with complaints ranging from food to the parole system. Because their demands only addressed the internal conditions of prisons, however, most academics link the uprisings to a society-wide desire for greater material comforts. While studies of later prisoners’ rights movements treat protests about racial discrimination and other issues as more significant political action, the early 1950s protests reveal an equally important activism centered on the fundamental issues of punishment and rehabilitation. The 1955 Nebraska Penitentiary riots demonstrate an emerging political consciousness among inmates during debates about the prison system’s future. Nebraska prisoners had specific reforms they wanted to institute, but with peaceful avenues largely ineffective, violence became the means through which they pushed for reform.


By 1955, inmates of the Nebraska State Penitentiary had already forced political officials to seriously examine the prison system. To do so, politicians had turned to academic experts and bureaucrats. In late 1954, Governor Robert Crosby had established a citizens’ committee to investigate the prisons, chaired by University of Nebraska sociologist Dr. James Reinhardt. The governing body of Nebraska prisons, the Board of Control, hired the former head of the federal prison system, Sanford Bates, to assess Nebraska prisons. Shortly after the experts released their findings, the Board of Control held its own inquiry in January 1955.

Bates recommended professionalizing the prison system by hiring mental health professionals such as social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists, creating a department for statistical research, and adding a trained state director to oversee the state system. He also suggested the prisons needed better guards, advocating for increased pay to attract better candidates and more training, such as in jujitsu. Though Bates gave positive reviews of “housekeeping” issues, like cleanliness, lack of crowding, and living and working conditions, he rebuked prison administration’s lack of theoretical focus, writing, “the rank and file of officers have a dim idea as to what the whole purpose of a corrective institution is.” He blasted the prison’s punishment practices, especially the most severe punishment, the hole, calling it “a punishment section totally unworthy of the state of Nebraska.” Bates’s reforms represented a shift in attitudes towards prisoners. He called for a more modern approach in which the prison would prioritize rehabilitation, making the prison more than a simple “custodial institution from which men emerge possibly chastened but very likely no better than when they came in.”

Describing the Nebraska Penitentiary in the early 1950s as “a bleak and miserable place to live,” former inmate Raymond “Ramon” Tapia echoed Bates’s critiques of the prison. He recalled that the guards were “mostly uneducated” and many stayed in dorms at the penitentiary because they could not afford other housing. Living in conditions similar to the inmates they oversaw, guards developed a “Gestapo mentality” and swiftly punished any prisoners who challenged their authority. Deputy Warden John Greenholtz was a frequent target of protest as inmates objected to his “kangaroo court” methods of putting prisoners into segregation (removal from the general prison population) for an indefinite period of time, sometimes for petty, personal reasons, if he gave any explanation at all.

As in Bates’s report, Tapia remembered the punishment practices as severely outdated. The penitentiary’s “third grade” served to isolate problematic prisoners. Housed in the west cell block, which lacked amenities like faucets that ran hot water, third grade was a way for prison authorities to remove inmates from the penitentiary’s general population. Guards let third grade inmates out of their cells only for meals and for a once-a-week opportunity to shower and shave. Prison officials could send more problematic prisoners to the jail, a small building in the prison yard. Inmates facing long-term punishment in the maximum security section would be housed in the top two floors, while the prison’s most brutal punishment, the hole, occupied the jail’s bottom floor. The hole was six back-to-back, concrete, square cells with eight-foot walls. Lacking a light bulb, the hole’s furnishings were sparse: a tap for drinking water above a nineteenth-century-style toilet, a plastic cup, and a slab of concrete on which to sleep. Twice a day, guards delivered toilet paper and food, three slices of bread per meal for two days and regular meals on the third. Guards gave inmates showers on Fridays, where they would shave the heads of prisoners sentenced to ten days or more in the hole. Prison authorities used the third grade, jail, and hole to punish prisoners for infractions as well as a method of pressuring them into admitting wrongdoing. Tapia recalled being sentenced to the hole indefinitely, or rather until someone confessed, after a guard found marijuana in the yard where he and several other inmates had been congregating.

The entire essay appears in the Spring 2015 issue.

A Gentleman's game layout


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