On New Year’s Day in 1986, a group of 20 prisoners bearing shanks stormed the dining hall at the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, where inmates had just been seated for dinner, and took hostage the correctional officers on duty. After ordering the stunned diners to “leave the fucking food alone,” the instigators ranged through the prison’s South Hall, freeing whole cellblocks and eventually capturing 16 staff members. They stripped the hostages to their underwear, dressed them up as inmates, blindfolded them, and placed them in separate rooms around the facility, to give themselves enough time to kill at least some of them in the event of a rescue attempt. What motivated the rioters were living conditions and sanitary standards inside the prison, which were inhumane. “You quit treating us like dogs,” one rioter screamed, “and this wouldn’t happen … We don’t want this any more than you do!” During the harrowing 52-hour standoff that ensued, things grew grisly: the rioters not only threatened violence against their hostages but also murdered three inmates thought to be either informants or the authors of especially repugnant crimes. One hostage, forced to watch the killing of a prisoner—Jeff Atkinson, a suspected informant who had been convicted of murdering a pregnant woman—reported that an inmate cut out Atkinson’s heart and said to a friend, “It’s amazing how this little thing will keep a fellow alive.”
Responding to the crisis, the governor of West Virginia cut short a vacation in Florida and hastened to the prison. He and his staff eventually negotiated an end to the standoff; 13 participants, including two leaders of the riot, were transferred to the maximum-security wing, and the rest were returned to their cells. Most of the hostages went back to work after their release, but the riot had taken its toll. “My nerves are shot,” one officer said before returning to work. “I can’t even write without shaking. I quit smoking 15 years ago and started again five minutes after I was released.”
In its length and brutality, the West Virginia riot was no anomaly. In 1980, a two-day riot in New Mexico had killed 33 people, and in 1971, the infamous four-day riot in Attica, New York, had killed 43. But here’s what’s significant about the West Virginia riot: it was among the last of its kind in this country. Sustained prison uprisings simply do not happen here anymore. In 1973, we had 93 riots for every 1 million prisoners; in 2003, we had fewer than three. Prison violence as a whole, in fact, is down dramatically. In 1973, we had 63 homicides per 100,000 prisoners; in 2000, we had fewer than five. Inmate assaults on staff dropped similarly over roughly the same period.
These are eye-opening statistics—especially given that the incarceration rate in this country has quintupled since 1970, and a remarkable 3 percent of American adults are now under the supervision of the correctional system.
Read more. [Image: West Virginia Division of Corrections]