Prison Stories

Crack Riots

In the fall of 1995 they had the infamous crack riots in the Burea of Prisons. These riots took place in federal prisons all across the United States almost simultaneously. It represented a couple of dark days in the history of the BOP and got almost no press or media attention nationwide. I remember reading accounts in the papers about how the BOP had enacted a nationwide lockdown and they did but there was nothing about the riots or why they took place. Supposedly a couple of stories appeared about the millions of dollars worth of damage done at some of the prisons but that was about it. It was like a big cover up to the world at large. At least that was how it seemed to the prisoners in the federal system at that time.

I was in FCI Manchester in 1995 and I remember the lockdown vividly. There was no noteworthy rioting at Manchester but we were called back to the units for the purpose of an emergency count. The C/0’s counted and everything seemed normal but then we were told to return to our cells for a recount. But instead of recounting us they locked us down and kept us locked down for two weeks. I remember that at that time we didn’t used to get locked down for the counts. We would just stand by the doors to get counted. And this was at a medium to high security prison. But from that point on getting locked down for the counts became mandatory.

The two-week lockdown was hectic. For staff as well as prisoners. The prison, opened in 1992, just wasn’t built for emergency procedures. The doors to the cells were wooden and didn’t have food slots. The kitchen wasn’t equipped to provide hot meals for the whole compound in a lockdown situation. The BOP had never provided for the necessity of a prolonged lockdown and the whole system was in disarray with the nationwide lockdown.

They had the goon squad out in force. These were regular C/O’s and prison staff dressed up in teenage-mutant-ninja turtle suits. Full body armor, shields, helmets, and batons. It was funny because I knew some of the guys pretty good. I mean I worked for them in recreation and when they came to my cell door to give me my bag lunch looking all stern and trying to appear hard I remember smiling at them and telling them what’s up. When they tried to reply to my greeting they were quickly chastised by the lieutenant who was running the goon squad and told they were acting under emergency protocols and no interaction with inmates was allowed.

It was crazy though because their protocols were flawed. The goon squad had to troop from unit to unit for the two week lockdown because emergency procedure called for the battle ready goon squad to be present whenever and wherever a prisoner’s cell was unlocked. And with no food slots in the doors this duty had to be performed in every cell at every serving of a meal. Even though all the meals were bag lunches this still put the goon squad through a tremendous amount of work. Plus every prisoner was to be given three showers a week. So the goon squad had to supervise this also.

After the lockdown some prisoners got wind of the rioting at other BOP prisons and tried to raise Manchester in riot but this was not possible with everyone already locked down but form my cell I would hear prisoners bucking and going hard screaming at the top of then’ lungs as they made their own little stand and then the goon squad would come and beat them down and take them to the hole.

From the window of my cell, which faced the compound I watched as prisoners from other units were escorted to the hole also, for a variety of reason I would later hear. Not standing for count, insolence, disobeying a direct order- the institution was operating under a zero tolerance policy during the emergency lockdown. This was a system wide directive. In other words they were taking no chances and definitely weren’t taking any bullshit from the prisoners. They viewed this lockdown quite seriously, no questions, no answers, no explanations- just compliance. Compliance or a trip to the hole and the goon squad had orders to force the compliance when and if necessary.

I heard that the E-man, who was the head of the Muslim community on the compound, got locked up for complaining about not receiving a hot meal. Supposedly policy dictates that hot meals are mandatory or something. Others complained about the lack of showers, the inability to use the phones, and the lack of recreation. They were all locked up in the hole. We were basically on 24 hour lockdown. And in a 24 hour lockdown situation there were certain guidelines that had been established by the courts to govern 24 hour lockdown units. But at Manchester as well as in the BOP a large number of these governing rules were ignored. The administration was in such a shock at the nationwide rioting that they operated under emergency status thus violating numerous prisoner and civil rights. But in the BOP’s eyes they were justified by the emergency situation. Kind of like Marshal Law in the prisons, I guess.

And the public knew nothing about this. The BOP didn’t even report what the rioting was about. It was just called a disturbance. Yeah, a nationwide disturbance. System wide and simultaneously. It was only called the crack riots by the prisoners. They knew what they were rioting for, the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences.

Every year since the sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums were put into effect in 1989, a sentencing commission, which was formed to monitor and change the guidelines, tinker with them so to speak until they worked uniformly, put forth amendments to the guidelines every spring and if these amendments weren’t challenged or called into question by Congress by November of the same year then they would become law. Well, ever since the guidelines went into effect there was an effort to erase the disparity between the amounts of crack and cocaine that triggered the mandatory minimum sentences.

Those convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine triggered the same 5 year mandatory minimum sentence that those convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine. This disparity was blatant and racial biased as basically crack and cocaine are the same thing. One is a smokable form and the other a powder or snortable form. The main difference is crack is prevalent in the inner cities among blacks and powder cocaine is more prevalent in the suburbs among whites. So this disparity spoke of overt and direct racism as blacks constituted the large majority of crack cocaine cases while whites from the suburbs were more likely to be convicted of powder cocaine possession.

So in the system this sentiment of unfairness had been growing for a couple of years and with more and more young black street hustlers getting locked up under the sentencing guidelines the BOP was set to explode. I’m surprised that in their administrative wisdom they didn’t see it coming, but power can blind even the most astute of administrators and no one likes to look at the injustices of their own actions.

This powder keg was burning on a slow fuse in the system. All the prisoners just knew the disparity would be addressed and rectified. This was America right? Land of the free and home of the brave. Justice for all or at least that is what they teach in school. Well, the time came and the sentencing commission with pressures from outside organizations like FAMM, the ACLU, and CURE drafted the amendments to bring the disparity into balance by upping the crack levels to be equal with the cocaine levels.

In the prisons everyone was excited. Dudes talked about going home early, of seeing their families and loved ones, their kids and girlfriends, of being released and being free. In the world and everything. But then came the whammy. Congress challenged the amendments and they didn’t become law, so bedlam ensued. I’ve heard some very destructive stories from prisoners over the years who were in different facilities at the time of the riots.

They said FCI Mckean got tore up. And before the riots that institution was known as Dream Mckean, the sweetest institution on the east coast. I’ve spoken to prisoners that were there and they all said the jump off there was off the hook. A real live riot. Supposedly several millions of dollars worth of damage was done. FCI Memphis was another institution that I heard the prisoners went off at. Destroying and damaging buildings, setting fires, smashing windows- just outright and blatant destruction. They said FCI Bastrop got destroyed too and several others like Lewisburg had major disturbances. This dude told that at Lewisburg it jumped off in I-Block. The cops came up handcuffing dudes hands and feet and dragging them down three flights of stairs. Beating the shit out of dudes who were bucking. Supposedly the cops there were vicious and took it out on the prisoners. As for my experiences in FCI Manchester, now that was a different scene.

Like I said, there wasn’t really a riot at FCI Manchester. I don’t remember any jump off being planned at all. No talk of action or what we should do. Just a lot of grumbling about this and that but that was normal in any prison. Dudes are always complaining about something. Like the time they got, the food, the c/o’s or whatever. In prison as in life people complain just to hear themselves talk. Dudes were going hard, or whatever you want to call it, but it was after the fact. When we were already locked down and rumors were filtering in. So it was all in vain actually. And after two weeks of being locked down and the goon squad being taxed to the max they unlocked us on a limited basis.

The compound didn’t open but the units did. Everybody was locked in their own individual unit but at least you could use the phone, take a regular shower, move around, and watch TV. Plus it eased the strain on the goon squad. i think at the time they only had two squads outfitted and they were probably worn out after working two weeks of round the clock policing,

Any freedom after being locked in a cell for two weeks is good but there was always some knuckleheads who wanted to go hard. Nothing happened on my block but I heard in some of the others dues tried to smash windows, TV’s, and light trash cans on fire. These units quickly got locked down again. As soon as they unlocked us they opened the compound on a limited basis. They called prisoners to chow one unit at a time. And when that went alright the same happened with the yard.

It was almost business as usual. But everything was on a restricted basis. In the hole they said cells were four and five deep. That means four or five guys in one two-ma n cell. Supposedly in the hole the prisoners were going off. Flooding the ranges, burning toilet paper and mattresses, throwing shit and piss on the cops. It was a madhouse. The dudes in the hole and the ones who had been taken there during the lockdown were going hard.

A couple of my friends were in the madhouse and these are the stories they related to me. One of my Chicano friends was already in the hole doing d/s time and when they started bringing prisoners to the hole who had bucked on the lockdown, shit started going crazy, he said. The hole got so crowded that they had to take two buses of prisoners approximately, out of the institution. To us on the compound these dudes just disappeared but we heard the whole story later. Like six months later in some cases.

The BOP practiced some diesel therapy on the prisoners who bucked in
the hole at FCI Manchester. But for real you can’t blame the prisoners who caused disturbances because four and five men in one two-man cell locked down 24 hours a day is vicious. So what would you do? Go hard, buck, fight the man- what other choice do you have? Anyway my Chicano friend got caught up in the spirit and was one of the first to be taken out of the hole as he was shouting and encouraging other prisoners to flood the tiers and raise hell.

The bus they put him on went to FCI Beckley. A brand, new prison that was as yet unopened. He did six months in the hole there before they brought him back to FCI Manchester. He told me they took him out on a midnight transfer to Beckley. Supposedly the cops were beating the shit out of the handcuffed prisoners as they escorted them to the bus. My Chicano friend said some of the dudes figured they were done for. All out in the sticks and shit with redneck cops. The city dudes were wondering if they were on some Ku Klux Klan type of time and shit. But the cops didn’t kill anyone, they just left them at Beckley, an empty prison, with a skeleton staff, until they healed up from the beating they took on the journey over. So my Chicano friend and 40 others stayed up in the hole locked down until everything cooled off. Acting as dummies for the Beckley staffs’ training routines. But it was all good because shit chilled and most of them didn’t even receive incident reports or nothing.

My other buddy got taken to the hole after the two week lockdown period ended. He was setting fires in the unit by throwing matchbooks into trashcans. He was also trying to get, his block to riot or jump off as he called it. He told me horror stories of flooding the ranges, throwing shit and piss at the cops, and not sleeping for days on end and being crowded all up in the small cell with four other dudes. They were hardly fed he said and. were kept in a state worse then animals were kept.

He told me they took him out on a bus with other prisoners early in the morning and they all ended up at USP Terre Haute in the hole. He said the cops there were brutal and inhuman. Pulling him down the stairs fully shackled, kicking him, punching him, and striking him with their batons and shields. He said he spent 6 months in a dirty, wet cell with roaches, rats, and mice who ate better then he did. He related how he was lucky to get one meal a day and was taunted by the cops who seemed to get off on a sadistic sort of trip at his predicament. If any prisoners took the bait and started screaming or cussing the cops or throwing piss and shit at them they would drag the perpetrator out of the cell and beat the shit out of them for real. Dude told me that a couple of times he thought he was in hell and that he feared for his life but not from any prisoner but from the cops who were out of control and stressed out due to the nationwide lockdown, increased work hours, and rioting. But eventually as all the prisoners healed up they were shipped back to FCI Manchester. No incident reports or nothing.

So that is the story of the ’95 crack riots. At least from my point of view. I’m sure that other prisoners could tell more horror stories but what I related here is what I experienced and heard about. Eventually Manchester went back to business as usual after about a month or so of the lockdown and semi lockdown status. So the lockdown didn’t affect me that greatly. But when the compound resumed normal operation I remember a lot of dudes seemed to have disappeared. And six months later I heard their stories. And most of them came back looking worse off for their ordeals.

Soon after the crack riots the BOP went into action. They would not be caught unprepared again. Metal bars went, up on all the windows, metal detectors were placed at different points on the compound, the bunks were bolted to the walls along with the lockers, and the wooden doors were replaced by mental ones with food slots. All thee mediums in the system encountered these changes.

Before the crack riots, only the USPs were lockdown ready. But now all the mediums were equipped like this too. And in 1996 the BOP adopted policies which strictly curtailed inmate personal property, inmate programs, and privileges. Systematically the BOP stripped the prisoners of any little perks or so-called luxuries they had. I’ve always viewed this as the revenge factor for the crack riots. So steadily doing time in the feds has gotten worse. Visits, phone privileges, TV privileges,, property privileges and programs like college and inmate organizations have been cut. At the same time penalties for institutional infractions have stiffened dramatically. It seems to me that all the prisoners in the system are still being punished for the actions of a few and the lack of foresight from the administrators. And today almost ten years later things are getting even worse.


  • Alex says:

    I was at FCI Marianna which did go off for the crack law riots. They burned a few buildings. The Feds were totally prepared. They had sort teams on hand from other prisons and knew it was coming. I still think they embraced it like a 9/11 conspiracy to make changes they wanted to make. I was subsequently in a low that rioted in 2000 where we had two killed and numerous injured. That also received only a one line mention in USA Today.

  • Mike says:

    The joint in Loretto was off the hook, they had people from Detroit, New York, and from Philadelphia all teamed up going crazy in there! They was off the hook!

  • psycho says:

    I was at FMC Lexington when that shit happened inmates all inmates were talking about burning down unicor all races were together for like 4 days then it was the unicor workers who broke weak and went back to work. too many sick people at that prison to do anything hundreds of people in wheelchairs you know it was a mostly medical facility. A few years later I went to Memphis and my homie they’re told me about what went down they burned down at least one unit maybe 2 down. anyway when it went down a female caseworker or unit manager was caught in the unit and they were gonna rape her or whatever and willy and few heads stopped that bullshit. I think it was 9 prisons that really fucked shot up Memphis and Atlanta and i forget where else it was on CNN that night for like 3 minutes then they never showed that shit the next day cause at Lexington they didnt lock the doors to your cell your just locked in the unit and the units were chill the one i was in any way.

  • psycho says:

    but also it was part of the 96 crime bill they took away cable which the inmates pay for and they took away the weight s and porn mags some prisons that still had free weights were allowed to keep them but they werent going to buy anymore. the new prisons if you were lucky had machine weights but most the new ones just had pull up bars.

  • psycho says:

    by the way i met you in beckley talked a couple times i was in for sid also good to see you made it out.

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