In the Biting Stage

[The following is the introduction from a paper, “In the biting stage”:
The 1955 Nebraska State Penitentiary Riots and Violent Prison Activism, submitted for a research seminar last year. This fall I am working on preparing the paper for submission to a journal.]

Following the evening meal of August 16, 1955, prisoners at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska, refused to return to their cells. Instead, they called for the warden, Joseph Bovey, and the state penal director, B. B. Albert, to join them in the mess hall. Fearing the collection of inmates would turn violent, the warden removed all of the guards from the dining area’s brewing trouble, leaving the inmates in charge of the penitentiary. A half an hour later, smoke billowed from the penitentiary as inmates set fire to their workplaces. The furniture shop, maintenance shop, cannery and machine shop, and even the inmates’ store, blazed unimpeded. As smoke filled the evening sky, prison officials left the residents of Lincoln in the dark. Not until 10:00pm, five hours after the inmates began their uprising and an hour after armed guards escorted the fire department into the prison yard, had anyone informed the press of the situation within the penitentiary. Though the prison administration had initially retreated, they refused to grant the rebels victory. With the national guard and police providing reinforcements, warden Bovey called for surrender shortly before 6:00am. Bovey informed the insurgents if they did not return to their cells immediately, the officers had orders to shoot to kill and would take back the prison by force.1

The late summer riot ended without gunfire and only five injuries, all to inmates. Newspaper reports estimated damages as high as 100,000 dollars making the riot the most costly in the Nebraska Penitentiary’s history. However, a multitude of questions remained. After leaving the events inside the prison for hours during the riot, officials claimed the riot’s cause was unknown. The Lincoln Star reported “No reason was given for the destructive rebellion” and the governor’s administrative assistant A.C. Eichberg proclaimed “There has been no dissatisfaction and the food has been good.” Even as the official stance was befuddlement, the “grapevine” suggested the riot was common knowledge beforehand. The recent history of the Nebraska 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 between 1951 and 1955.2

Though the first half of the decade saw consistent violence, 1955 was clearly a peak. The year began with the administration of the prison system firmly implanted within the political discussion as the Board of Control hired an outside penologist, Sanford Bates, to review the conditions of the state institutions. This outside expert conducted his investigation shortly after the conclusion of an investigation of the prisons by a citizens’ committee appointed by Governor Robert Crosby. Just as another political investigation was set to begin, looking into a riot during 1954, the penitentiary inmates sought to better insert their political voice through public violent action. The prisoners began by threatening to riot in a public letter only days before the Board of Control’s hearings. For the next year, inmates refused to let the issue of reform leave the political discussion, exerting their political voice through violent, publicity-grabbing actions aimed at pushing reforms that would improve the inmates’ social world.3

The Nebraska State Penitentiary was not alone in dealing with inmate uprisings during the 1950s. In 1955 alone, inmates undertook major protest actions in all corners of the country. Prisoners in Texas, Rhode Island, Nevada, and New York staged sit-down strikes. Riots rocked prisons in North Carolina, Wyoming and Michigan and convicts in Massachusetts, Washington, and Texas took hostages. The inmates behind these actions also had reforms in mind, from complaints about food to issues with the parole system.4 These prisoners sought, through both violent and nonviolent means, what they saw as their rights while incarcerated. However, later political prisoner movements, the majority of which focused on racial issues, have somewhat obscured the actions of these inmates in the 1950s. Just as scholars have in the past, and cultural narratives still do, overlook political activism in the broader American society of the 1950s, the scholars who examine prisoners’ rights movements have under-appreciated inmate efforts for humane treatment during the early 1950s. The Nebraska Penitentiary riots show that inmates attempted to assert their political voice into a debate over the future direction of the prison system and force reform through their own activism and succeeded most often with violent action. The turmoil within the Nebraska Penitentiary, culminating in 1955, reveals an emerging political consciousness among inmates who sought to insert what they saw as fair treatment into the prisons’ power structure and turned to violence, specifically attempting to escape, taking hostages, and rioting, when their grievances fell on the deaf ears of prison officials and politicians.

The most glaring way the 1950s have been under-appreciated is in the focus of the little scholarship on prisoners’ rights movement that exists. The majority of current literature has mostly focused on activism from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, particularly the 1971 riot in Attica, New York, and the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary.5 The focus on these decades is justified, as the 1970s and 1980s had prisons reporting vastly more riots, 242 and 524 respectively, than the six decades previous, 173. Certainly, understanding the racial inequalities that have developed in the significantly expanded prison system are vital to understanding modern prison politics. However, the statistics also show a radical change occurred during the 1950s. Though less than the 1970s or 1980s, prisons reported 87 riots in the 1950s, up from only 4 riots the decade before and 24 between the first three decades of the century.6 Such a proportional shift is important to understand in its own right. The huge rise in riots of the 1950s suggests the immediate postwar years were an important time for the development and emergence of inmates’ political consciousness.

Drawing on sociologist Edward Shils, James Jacobs suggests prisons are representative of the broader society in his work Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society. Jacobs argues convicts mirrored the rights-based movements of other marginal social groups in post-World War II America. However, Jacobs suggests inmates only sought to tap into the consumerist “rise of material expectations” during the 1950s with a “later intensification of rights consciousness.”7 Likewise, much of the existing literature on prison riots echos these sentiments placing emphasis on later activism inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and antiwar protests, while downplaying the political nature of the efforts in the 1950s that focused inwardly on issues of prison management. Political Scientist Ronald Berkman refers to the 1950s as the “early period” of the prisoners’ rights movement, arguing that the inmates used unplanned riots to notify the administration of their displeasure with the prison’s conditions. However, he de-emphasizes their importance calling them “housekeeping demands.”8 In The Prison Reform Movement: A Forlon Hope, Larry E. Sullivan places more emphasis on the riots of the 1950s, arguing “convicts rebelled because of what they considered abuses in the power structure of the prison system,” but he also notes the reform efforts did not address “the prison system itself.”9 However, inmates challenging the prison authorities on the treatment and material conditions of prisoners was explicitly challenging the prison system. Though these works acknowledge the “early” efforts, the scholarship presents the early activism as only prefatory events, without giving the events serious consideration in their own right, devaluing the importance of these seminal times. The efforts to produce more humane conditions, whether concerned with material comfort or abuses by guards, signify not the lack of, but the emergence of prisoners’ political consciousness. By pushing back against authority on issues related to their treatment, these prisoners’ actions were the first efforts to reform the prison system from the inside out.

The distribution of scholarship on prison violence and activism across academic fields is by no means even. Historians have largely left the study of prison riots to other academics, with sociologists conducting most of the research. Surely part of the reason historians have avoided the subject is that, as a subject for historical analysis, prisons present many problems. For many activities within prisons there simply are no accounts. Even the accounts that find their way outside the prison walls are filled with concerns of the reliability of criminals and issues of power, whether the sources are official reports that may be protecting guards, inmate memoirs distorted by time, or the testimony at political hearings that are subject to myriad influences and agendas. Though harder to obtain, I strive to include and seriously consider inmate voices no matter how faint, wherever I can find them. These issues of truth, power, and influence permeate my research, but, in general, I leave the reader to judge the reliability of the sources for him or herself.

Sociologists, who study contemporary conditions of prisons, have developed many useful theories that seek to explain the cause of prison riots. My interpretation of the causes of the violence in the Nebraska State Penitentiary falls between two theories in particular: “Collective Behavior and Social Control,” which suggests prison riots stem from demands and frustration of a lack of a proper venue to air complaints and “Grievance Theory” or “Anomie,” which suggests riots are preplanned violence to reach a specific goal or goals not obtainable through legitimate means.10 Nebraska prisoners had specific reforms they wanted to institute, but with peaceful avenues largely ineffective, violence became the means through which inmates pushed for reform. The inmates used violence as consciously political actions in an effort to affect their treatment within the prison walls during the peak of discussion over the prison system. By examining three most turbulent months of 1955, January, March, and August, the inmates’ activism as an effort to assert their political voice becomes apparent…..


1. “Prison Fire Loss Heavy,” Lincoln Star, 17 August 1955, 1; Falloon, Virgil, “’Get Tough’ Plan Rises From Ashes,” Lincoln Star, 18 August 1955, 1; “Here’s the Rebellion-Play by Play,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 1; Thomas, Clarke, “Ultimateum Quells Violence at Pen,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 1.

2. “Prison Fire Loss Heavy,” Lincoln Star, 17 August 1955, 1; “’Grapevine’ Rumbles Predicted Penitentiary Trouble,” Lincoln Star, 17 August 1955, 2; Lincoln Star 17 August 1955, 9; “Rumors had Prison Riot, Fire Pegged,” Lincoln Star, 18 August 1955, 1; “Fire Costliest in Penitentiary History,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2; “Pen Violence Nothing New,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2; “Chaplain Not Allowed to Enter Prison,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2.

3. “Pen Violence Nothing New,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2; Lincoln Star 17 August 1955, 9; See also Lincoln Star and Lincoln Evening Journal for dates January 9-20 and March 28-31, 1955.

4. “Summary of Prison Riots So Far in 1955,” New York Times, 29 August 1955, 10.

5. Some works addressing these riots in whole or in part include: Tom Wicker, A time to die : the Attica prison revolt, 1st ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994); Roger Morris, The devil’s butcher shop : the New Mexico prison uprising (New York: F. Watts, 1983); Mark Colvin, “The 1980 New Mexico Prison Riot,” Social Problems 29, no. 5 (June 1982): 449-463; Bert Useem, States of siege : U.S. prison riots, 1971-1986 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Mark Colvin, The penitentiary in crisis : from accommodation to riot in New Mexico (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); Ronald Berkman, Opening the gates : the rise of the prisoners’ movement (Lexington Mass.: Lexington Books, 1979).

6. Montgomery, A History of Correctional Violence, 74.

7. Jacobs, Stateville, 5-7.

8. Berkman, Opening the Gates, 34-40.

9. Larry Sullivan, The Prison Reform Movement: Forlorn Hope (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990) 54, 76.

10. Montgomery, A History of Correctional Violence, 85-102.

One response to “In the Biting Stage”

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