Jail Sit-Down Strike: Prison Rights Are Human Rights

Students demonstrate in front of Seyms Street jail soon after the Attica rebellion.

Instead of returning to their cells for the night, 145 inmates at Hartford’s Seyms Street jail have organized a nonviolent sit down strike. They’re fed up with the poor treatment and living conditions in the 1873-built facility sometimes called the “hell hole.”
At 10:00 pm on August 9, 1967, the inmates, all from the maximum security ward, take their stand. Authorities call out the Hartford police, who surround the jail; state police are put on alert. The head of the jail rushes in from his home.
Among the 20 demands they deliver to the jail authorities are overcrowding, poor food, lack of medical care, and abuse by guards. Eventually they negotiate with a committee of correction officials, a state senator and a newspaper reporter on these and other complaints, including lack of access to bail bondsmen and legal documents, restricted visitor privileges, jail job segregation, and no opportunity to exercise (500 men live in a building meant to house 350 maximum). They are allowed one shower a week with no way to buy toilet paper, towels, soap or toothbrushes. There is no running water in the cells. Sometime they get no water from the guards. Lice, roaches, and rats move about undisturbed.

Punishment cells at Seyms Street.
Punishment cells at Seyms Street.

Solitary confinement can be made indefinite at the whim of a correction officer, the inmates say. They are stripped naked when they enter what is called the hole, and have to urinate and defecate on the floor because there are no toilets, not even a bucket.
Four years after the Seyms Street strike, the Attica prison uprising in September, 1971 becomes the most well-known jail rebellion in U.S. history. Refusal by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to meet directly with inmates over their grievances– many similar to those of the Seyms Street strikers– leads to an armed raid by authorities. Ten hostages and twenty-six inmates are killed. After much criticism and a (still secret) government report, the state of New York pays $8 million to inmates and their families to settle a lawsuit.
At Seyms Street, the negotiations halt for the night, and after they are guaranteed no reprisals, the inmates end their brief strike at around 2:30 in the morning. The next day state officials tour the facility; some call the conditions “appalling” as they view soiled mattresses and smell the unwashed inmates.

They meet David Bradshaw, 22 years old and already a civil rights veteran from his voter registration efforts in the south. David says he was picked up during the recent disturbances in Hartford’s north end. When he arrived at Seyms Street he was immediately put in “Siberia,” a section of the jail worse than the rest.

Seyms Street jail.
Seyms Street jail.

Jail authorities promise some immediate improvements. They say other changes can only be made with more state funding.

Seyms Street has been the target of criticism since 1920, and the subject of a legislative investigation in 1938, but very little changes from year to year. In the course of its existence at least 75 men escape from the jail; too many have committed suicide there.
Although funds have been approved by the General Assembly to build a new jail, no suburban town will take it. The jail continues to be the site of protests by local community activists and college students who demand reforms to the jail’s “sub-human” conditions (in the words of a former corrections official). The Attica rebellion spurs local students and others to increase the pressure on the Seyms Street authorities.
Seyms Street is finally closed in 1977 and prisoners are transported to the new Hartford Correctional facility on Weston Street.

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