Many of the Black Panthers and black nationalists who were imprisoned during this time considered themselves political prisoners. Under programs like COINTELPRO, the government sought to destroy the Black Panther Party and many members were arrested and jailed in the process. Angela Davis gives this definition of political imprisonment:
“There is a distinct and qualitative difference between one breaking a law for one’s own individual self-interest and violating it in the interests of a class or a people whose oppression is expressed directly or indirectly through that particular law. The former might be called a criminal (though in many cases he is a victim), but the latter, as a reformist or revolutionary, is interested in universal social change. Captured, he or she is a political prisoner.” -Angela Davis (Grady-Willis 1998)
“This is the beginning of having people with political sensibilities in prison. It was post-Civil Rights era. And some of them, they were not political prisoners in the sense that, they may not have committed overtly political crimes, many of them. But they were part of what was sweeping the country around Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey and back to Africa movements, and all these different things that were coming out of the Civil Rights Movement.” -Elizabeth
As individuals who were politically conscious in the Party became imprisoned, they worked to educate their fellow prisoners about the oppressive nature of the American system and the need for prisoners to demand their rights.
“You were going to prison for a political reason, and you were in prison because you were a political prisoner. So that changed you’re whole way you deal with the prison environment; that changed with the whole way you deal with people. You’re a political prisoner, you have a political consciousness, and you’re cell mate used to be a dope fiend or a dope salesman, but he’s your cellmate and it’s your responsibility to raise him up. So you begin to educate him, and pretty soon you got the whole cell block talking and thinking the same way. And you say tomorrow we don’t want so and so, and everybody sits down; the prison establishment can’t deal with that. And that’s the beginning of it. It’s just becomes more and more education in the prison, people become more and more conscious of their rights in the prison, and mostly everything that we’ve achieved in prison we’ve had to deal with in confrontation.” -Agieb
In Auburn prison, Jomo was was now the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Defense. Jomo and leaders of other nationalist organizations including the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican group, worked to organize a Black Solidarity Day celebration.
“Auburn was Rockefeller’s pet prison, where you could come out of prison with paperwork for, where you could be a dental technician and all that stuff, so it’s a pet prison we call it, to pacify us. . . .So we wanted Black Solidarity day, the Panthers and all us Young Lords and all of us, we organized that day because we had Thomas Jefferson day, George Washington, they have all these days. So we said we wanted a black celebration.” -Jomo
However, when the prison warden changed his mind and locked Jomo in his cell in order to prevent him from attending any celebration, the other prisoners rioted and broke him out. The inmates took the guards and had them sit in a circle; none of the guards were hurt. The prisoners agreed to stop the riot in return for amnesty for their actions; however, once the prisoners were again under the guards control the warden did not keep his promise.
“So when they put us in confinement, cause they gave us charges, they took all the leaders out of there. They took me and a leader from the Young Lord, Five Percenters, and all that stuff. They took us to Attica.” -Jomo
At Attica, the leaders of the Auburn riots remained in solitary confinement until the summer of 1971, when a lawsuit brought to court on their behalf pointed out the injustice in this prolonged solitary containment. Jomo describes what time in the HBZ unit (solitary confinement) was like:
“We was kept in six-by-eight-foot cells, and the only way to deal with the box was to dream a lot. Naturally you have dreams about different things in your life, growing up and so forth, and you more or less fantasize about what you’ve done or want to do. I guess that’s what keeps you sane. You had to read just in order to survive there. We weren’t allowed to speak when we went through the halls and the guards would bang on the walls with their “nigger sticks”– which is what they called their clubs. And I used to get in trouble. One time I pierced my nose and I was written up for destroying state property. We were ordered out of Housing Block Z by federal court in the summer of ’71, then in September, the Attica rebellion happened” (Davis 1995).
After being released to the general prison population, Jomo was appalled at the treatment of prisoners in Attica. The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica highlights these conditions. Key findings include: that “wages ranged from 25 cents to $1.00 per day,” that “the majority of the population could shower only once a week,” and that “the segmented metal trays from which the inmates ate were not thoroughly cleaned, and the food in them was, at times, half-cooked or cold” (Attica Commission 1972). They also noted that rules were poorly communicated, that the staff was inadequate for the task of rehabilitation, and that there were instances of racism by the guards.
Jomo and the other leaders of the Auburn rebellion were accused of planning the Attica riot. However, the riot can be traced back to a fight between an inmate and a guard that occurred after the guard mistakenly assumed the inmate was fighting with another prisoner and attempted to punish him. When the inmate was subsequently taken to the HBZ (solitary confinement), other prisoners expressed outrage at the situation and reported that the guards beat him. The official report found no evidence of this. Still, the Attica Commission Report says that “the atmosphere on September 8, 1971 was not unlike that in the cities before the holocaust of Harlem, Watts, Newarkm and Detroit.” In general, the Commission explains that peaceful demonstrations to improve prison conditions had been rebuffed and ignored and “only a spark was needed to set the prison off” (Attica Commission 1972).
This prisoners’ plight appeared to be that spark. The next day, prisoners in this man’s unit attacked the guard who had assured them that their fellow inmate would not be harmed. The fight initiated the rebellion which quickly spread to other units of the prison. One of the guards attacked that day, William Quinn, later died in Rochester Hospital from injuries sustained during the riots. Once the uprising was in motion, Jomo and his contemporaries stepped in to ensure that the prison remained organized.
“People took hostages, they took over the prison, they held the prison for five days. But because they already were recognized as the leaders of these different groups, they immediately organized and were leading the place. So Jomo, because he was the head of the Panthers, they took on a certain kind of security. The Nation of Islam guys were responsible for guarding the hostages. And Jomo was in charge of monitoring access through this door to D -block, which was the only way that the outside people could come in and out, and to try to keep the guys from going up into the cell block.” -Elizabeth
The prisoners released a list of demands and began negotiations with Attica Prison Commissioner Russell Oswald and an Observer Committee which included journalists, politicians and ministers. The group was able to agree on a number of the demands which included “apply the New York State minimum wage,” and “give us a doctor that will examine and treat all inmates who request treatment” (Badillo 1972). However, Commissioner Oswald would not agree to extend the prisoners amnesty– a concession that individuals who took part in Auburn knew was essential, or they would face harsh reprisals.
During this process, Jomo declined to put himself forward as a prisoner representative for negotiations; instead, he preferred to focus on keeping everybody safe.
“I wouldn’t speak, I wouldn’t go up front and talk, that’s something we did not do. Even though my job was, see I let the correction officer I let him out of prison when the stuff start because I worked in the barbershop. Because my whole thing was to keep everyone safe and all that, keep them from killing each other and all that crazy stuff. So I wouldn’t go up front and speak, it was bad enough that they considered me one of the leaders and all that stuff, so I wasn’t going to stand out. Everybody knew at the time I was the highest ranking panther in there, they knew I was speaking for the whole joint. I ran a group of guys that was, you know, kept order and made sure the officers had food and clothes, like blankets and all that stuff because it lasted for four days it’s crazy weather and Attica.” -Jomo
On September 13, Commissioner Oswald gave the prisoners and the committee a one hour ultimatum to reach a decision (Badillo 1972). When an agreement was not reached, the State Police violently retook Attica prison. Gas was dropped into the prison yard and shots quickly followed; in the end 10 hostages and 29 prisoners lay dead or dying (Attica Commission 1971).
“They had these guards who was dressed in white up on the catwalk so the state troopers could always see them from the hill, state troops was up on a hill like that, so they had up them so they could always see this eleven and wouldn’t mistake them. But this is where they shot some dudes, this trooper right through the necks and shoot the prisoner behind him in the head. They killed these eleven guys on the catwalk first. . . . They liked to say it was unusual, a coincidence, but the thing of it is they actually killed the even that spoke and said they should have came and dealt with the conditions of the prison. Attica was all about the conditions of the prison, period. From food to housing, you know everything.” -Jomo
Jomo was shot by the State Police during the prison storming, but was fortunately wearing a raincoat that caused the shooters to misjudge his body position and miss potentially fatal shots. He was shot several times by a prison guard after the prison was already recovered, and was left for dead in his cell. Jomo did not receive medical care until National Guardsmen found him the next day. He was relocated to a hospital outside the prison for a period of time; despite knowing about the eminent attack, the prison hospital did not have any extra stores of blood.
“And so when on the thirteenth, when the State Police came in shooting, Jomo was really lucky he was wearing a raincoat, cause by then it was raining. So they shot this whole thing off, and then after he was shot and they brought him in, they shot him again and left him for dead. But he knew the guy who had shot him, because it was a correction officer from Auburn, who called him by name. And we had all these witnesses including the people from the National Guard who came in later; I mean most of his gun shots are right down in his back.” -Elizabeth
“You know they tried to kill us after the riots was over; they marked us with soap and came back and shot a lot of us after that. Because the plan we learned later was that they intended to kill everyone in those yards to set an example, because as we found out in the transcripts, they was worried about this happening again.” -Jomo
Jomo was not the only individual to suffer maltreatment. A National Guardsman, James Watson, testified that “forty injured men, were brought out of the prison on stretchers and put on the ground near the chain-link fence. Many of them were twitching. I could see a lot of blood” (Badillo 1972). These men he noted, did not receive any immediate medical attention.
“If you look at the people that died at Attica, every single prisoner actually died of exsanguination, which is bleeding to death. After they shot them, they just didn’t treat them in any kind of time. His first treatment, he was shot maybe nine or ten in the morning on the thirteenth, and his first being seen by anyone medical was the fourteenth. I mean I don’t think they said that they wanted to kill people, but if you pump people full of bullets and then don’t give them any medical care, one can only assume.” -Elizabeth
In the coming days, prisoners suffered violent reprisals at the hands of the Attica guards. Inmates were forced to crawl naked through the mud and many were beaten. The media at first reported that hostages were castrated and had their throats slit, Oswald and New York Governor Rockefeller perpetuated these lies in interviews. Autopsies completed the following day, revealed that “bullets, not knives, had killed the ten dead hostages” (Useem 1989).
The night of September 13, 1971, Senator Edmund Muskie said at the National Governors’ Conference in San Juan, “Something is terribly wrong, when men would rather die than live another day in America” (Badillo 1972).