Remembering the Polk Youth Center Rebellion of 1993

mississippi riotThe following was originally published in 2011 in one of a series of North Carolina anarchist prison news bulletins; it is the first personal account by a prisoner about the riot that occurred on New Year’s Eve 1993/1994 at the Polk Youth Center in Raleigh. That facility had the worst conditions of any prison in the State; prisoner-on-prisoner violence was extreme and the prison regularly held more than double its intended capacity. In an article published in May 1993, the News and Observer declared that “the Polk Youth Institution has been a sorry link in the state prison system for decades.” Politicians had promised to close the facility as early as 1974, with no action taken. Just months after the riot, however, NC legislators finally decided to close the facility, which was officially replaced in 1997 by the Polk Correctional Institution in Butner. The author of this piece is still incarcerated, and remains a committed agitator.  

I was at Polk Youth Center during the riot on New Year’s Eve 1993. Me and a few guys were standing around smoking cigars and talking while anticipating the New Year. It had to be around 10pm, and lights out was usually at 11pm. But since it was New Year’s everybody was anticipating that we would be permitted to stay up until the new year arrived, and for the most part everybody was in good spirits and a generous mood. Back then we still had our own sneakers and jewelry, and we were allowed to get Christmas packages from the street. So everybody had homemade food, cigarettes, and cigars, and it was a pretty festive atmosphere.

I was on A-Block when the riot jumped off. The sergeant came on our block and he told everybody to get on their assigned bunk. Polk was dormitory-styled with 3-high bunks and there were over 100 prisoners in A-Block alone. We got on our bunks and focused our attention on the sergeant. He walked through the block with an air of authority and he said that lights-out would be early that night and that nobody was to get off their bunks. We were kind of surprised because we hadn’t done anything wrong, so somebody said, “Why can’t we stay up to 11:00?” And he gave a response that was something like, “Because I said so.” You could hear people sucking their teeth and muttering under their breath because nobody was feeling it.

At just about that time, somebody yelled out, “Boot Call!” And while the sergeant was walking one way somebody threw a boot at him from behind. When he turned around to try and locate who had thrown the boot, somebody else threw a boot from another direction. Before you knew it boots were flying everywhere and the sergeant took off running out the block, and locked the gate.

For a minute everybody just sat there on our bunks waiting to see what would happen next. But in the next moment we heard and saw commotion over in B-Block. It was pitch black over there, because they had busted out all the lights, and the next thing you know the picnic table came crashing against the bars on B-Block, and then the TV. We knew they were rioting, and when we saw there was no immediate response by the guards other than to lock the gate, somebody yelled “Bust out the lights!” Boots began flying again until all the lights were knocked out, and then the rioting began.

We didn’t even have a cause, other than the fact that we were in prison and we just all had pent-up anger and aggression. We began to tear A-block to pieces! We busted out all the windows, tore down the heating system, broke some of the toilets, turned over the bunks, set fires to mattresses and sheets and looted peoples’ lockers. Of course there was violence. Some people got hurt really bad, but it was all prisoner-on-prisoner. And the guards wouldn’t come in to help. I saw a guy bleeding profusely with his face cut up and another beaten til he was unconscious. They grabbed onto the bars and begged the guards on the other side for help, for medical attention, but they wouldn’t open the gate for anything. They had orders.

We rioted until about 4am, and it spread throughout the whole prison. We took over the PA system and we were making announcements over the intercom to all the blocks telling them to burn the place down, tear it up, and “fuck the police.” I heard that maybe a guard got beat down on another block and prisoners had captured the keys and were running around in police raincoats. I even heard that they tore a hole in a wall that separated two blocks, and busted up the plumbing in other buildings. In A-block we fought each other, looted each others’ lockers, and tore the block to pieces.

Around 5am, the PERT [Prison Emergency Response Team] team arrived. We saw them lining up in formations outside our windows. They were like a paramilitary group, dressed in all black or navy blue and heavily armed and equipped. They looked like the same type of outfit that is assembled to break up demonstrations and protests in outside society. They were organized, prepared, and briefed.

What I didn’t know then is that PERT is a paramilitary group. They train in preparation for quelling riots and insurrections, handling work stoppages, hostage situations, and so forth. Anyone who is a member of PERT is always on call. When the alert goes out, it goes out to all PERT members throughout the state. They receive their instructions and convene in units to pre-established locations to be full briefed on the emergency situation. Then when they arrive at the prison they arrive with the force of numbers and equipment.

If there was anything I learned from that riot at Polk, it was that these people are well-organized and can easily crush a rebellion if it isn’t very well-planned and coordinated.

When they came through the gate on A-block, their presence alone instilled terror and restored order. I remember seeing 50 guards in full body armor lined up at the gate of A-block. The lead man had a tear gas gun. I didn’t know what it was at the time, I thought it was a bazooka! They had gas masks on and the whole nine. I thought they were going to kill us.

But they barked orders that nobody disobeyed, and made us all line up against the wall face first, and sit on our knees. They told us not to talk, not to move, not to turn our head to the side. And as a handful of them kept us like this, the rest of the guards from that unit went through the block and threw away everything. If you had personal property laying out, shoes, whatever, they threw it away. They stripped all the remaining mattresses bare and when everything was cleaned up, they called our names onat a time according to the bunk we were assigned and sent us to our bunk. It was freezing cold because we had busted out all the windows and tore up the heating system, and there were no sheets on the beds. Some people were in their boxers.

At about 9am order was fully restored, but PERT was still there. They prepared pack-outs for breakfast and pulled up buses to begin shipping people out. There were over 700 prisoners at Polk and the cap was supposed to be 335.

The media was out there, and they didn’t want us talking to the media. So some people gagged us with tape over our mouths as we were escorted from the prison. It’s crazy how my memory would be jarred almost ten years later by seeing similar images from Guantanamo Bay.