August Rebellion: New York’s Forgotten Female Prison Riot
Carol Crooks in Harlem earlier this month.
J.B. Nicholas for The Village Voice
Soon after dusk fell on August 29, 1974, a group of around 200 female prisoners seized control of two buildings and a recreation yard at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison for women 45 miles north of New York City.
An 18-year-old named Cindy J. Reed, known as Sid, helped lead the women. They demanded proof that one of their own, Carol Crooks, was still alive after she had been seen dragged from her cell by an all-male prison SWAT team, thrown down a flight of concrete stairs, tied by her hands and feet to a pole, and carried away.
“The did me like a pig,” Crooks, now 69 and living in East Harlem, told the Voice. “Like a roasted pig on a stick.”
Reed, now 61 and living in Rochester, remembers, “At that point, it clicked in everyone’s mind we just gonna all have to die tonight because we just have to see what happened to her.”
Three years earlier, on September 13, 1971, prison guards and police shot to death 29 prisoners and 11 hostages, after the male prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility revolted over inhumane treatment and living conditions, took several guards and civilian prison employees captive, and issued demands for prison reform, until Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the retaking of the prison by force.
During the retaking, authorities let loose an indiscrimate 4,500-round fusillade into the yard, shooting hostages and prisoners alike. After they regained control, guards and police tortured some survivors, and summarily executed others.
Attica is receiving renewed attention in light of the recent publication of Blood in the Water , by Heather Ann Thompson.
In contrast, the August Rebellion, as the 1974 Bedford Hills uprising has been called, has received little attention beyond sparse reports that appeared in local newspapers shortly after the incident, and in underground feminist literature. Yet the women’s revolt eventually led to prison reforms that still protect female prisoners from arbitrary and excessive segregation in solitary confinement.
Carol Crooks in DYKE.
The story of the August Rebellion begins and ends with Crooks, who was born October 12, 1947, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father died when she was seven or eight. According to court records, Crooks “was forced to fend for herself and a younger sister,” named Shirley.
In a 1974 interview with the Patent Trader, a local newspaper in Westchester County, Crooks detailed a Dickensian childhood. At age 11, she was playing cards and shooting dice with men and stealing food to help support her mother and sister. “When I started getting in trouble,” Crooks then said, “was when people started bothering my sister.”
In 1972 Crooks was running a heroin distribution ring in Downtown Brooklyn when, she claims, a former associate tried to blackmail her. Police found the man shot to death.
Crooks was arrested for the killing, pled guilty to first degree manslaughter, and was sentenced to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for 0 to 15 years.
On Sunday morning, February 3, 1974, Crooks woke up, walked past a guard, and walked down a flight of stairs to the mess hall for a glass of milk. The guard ordered her to stop, but she ignored her. According to the female corrections officers who later testified against her, Crooks returned to her cell, took off her glasses, and attacked four guards, knocking two of them out with her fists, and striking two others with a flower pot and two table legs.
Sergeant Elizabeth Roggy tried to get to the scene to help, but was blocked by other prisoners. She said that when she finally made it through, Crooks was calmly strolling to her cell.
“I came forward, and I said to Crooks, ‘What on earth is the matter? What are you doing?’ Carol looked at me, and she said to me, ‘This woman isn’t going to fuck with me,’” Roggy testified, referring to CO Helen LaPay – who had first ordered Crooks to stop and was now bleeding from her face.
When the Voice asked Crooks about the brawl she replied, “I never attacked them. Only defend myself when they came to me. They training wasn’t all that sufficient.”
Male COs were, at the time, generally not permitted in the prison, but administrators were empowered with the discretion to allow it in extraordinary circumstances. Officials at Bedford Hills determined Crooks was an extraordinary circumstance.
A half-hour or so after the fight, Crooks said, she was sitting in her cell when several male COs came for her. They used a mattress as a shield, pushed their way into her cell, wrapped a white sheet around her neck, tackled her to the floor and used a leather harness to restrain her arms behind her back.
Then the guards dragged her across the snow-covered grounds to the solitary confinement cell-block, where they stripped her, and put her in a dank cell, with only a toilet, and a broken window. “It was very cold. I didn’t have a blanket. I didn’t have a mattress,” Crooks said.
For what happened that day, Crooks was convicted of three counts of felony assault, sentenced to an additional 2 to 4 years in prison, and condemned to solitary confinement until the expiration of her now 19-year prison sentence. In solitary, Crooks said, the male COs showed the female COs at Bedford Hills how to manage her.
“Mens was telling the women how to control me they way they would do their men in their box,” Crooks said, adding that they would gradually give her necessities like food, or blankets based on her behavior. Crooks’ comrades helped her survive.
One of them was Sid Reed, who arrived at Bedford Hills 2 years before, in 1972, when she was 16, with a 5-year sentence for robbery. Reed and Crooks became lovers.
In solitary confinement, Crooks’ cell was on the ground floor, in a building where, she said, “everyone had to walk past. And they would sneak up to the window to talk. And sneak up and stick cigarettes through a hole.” Women on the outside helped too.
Crooks was friends with Efeni Shakur, who was a Black Panther. Shakur used her connections to make Crooks’s case a Leftist cause célèbre and covered in the first issue of DYKE, which summarized Crooks’s struggle as part of a fight “against this mindfucking white male bullshit.”
Crooks and her attorney, Stephen Latimer, filed a precedent-setting civil rights lawsuit that established the right of all women at Bedford Hills to due process of law before they are sent to solitary confinement, which Crooks had been denied.
The victory got Crooks sprung from solitary confinement and sent back into general population, where she reunited with Reed. To most of the women at Bedford Hills, Crooks was their champion – she had fought their keepers, and won. But prison was still prison, and, after dinner on August 29, 1974, Crooks got into a fight with another prisoner.
An article in the Patent Trader about the riot.
Though the fight ended quickly, and Crooks was sitting in her cell, authorities responded by sending in a squad of male COs, from a nearby prison, carrying truncheons and clad in riot gear.
In an interview last week, Reed said prison officials intentionally overreacted because they wanted to punish Crooks. They had been “looking for any excuse anyway to go after her because they thought that she was the ringleader ... They wanted to eliminate her for any little thing,” she said.
As the guards approached the building, Reed remembers the collect-call pay-phones in the cell-blocks went dead, and klieg lights came on outside. The men entered the cell-block through a concrete-enclosed, fire-proof emergency stairwell in the rear of the building, went to Crooks’s cell, pulled her out, handcuffed her, threw Crooks down the stairs, and locked a steel door behind themselves.
“They came from Greenhaven,” Crooks remembers, referring to a nearby maximum-security male prison. “They didn’t come to talk, they come to stomp.”
Reed and other prisoners witnessed what had happened. Reed described it as “300-pound football players took her out the back. They drug her down the hallway, like a rag, and literally threw her down these concrete steps.”
The male “beat-up squad” threw Crooks into the back of a station-wagon, and drove away.
“Once they threw me in there,” Crooks said, “they started beating on me. Beatin’ on me until they got where they went, dropped me in seg,” referring to disciplinary segregation, a formal term for solitary confinement.
Some of the woman gathered and decided to do something, “because it could be any one of us next,” Reed said.
The women asked to speak with someone from the prison administration. Instead, guards ordered them to lock into their cells. The women refused.
An older black female CO was supervising the cell-block at the time. The CO, Reed said, “was more of a motherly type than an officer.” She threw her keys to the prisoners, then “she left. She ran. Out the other way.”
With the keys, the women moved fast. They went floor-to-floor, building-to-building, flowing through hallway gates, overwhelming guards, snatching more sets of keys, opening cell doors, gathering numbers, building momentum, spreading the word “that they killed Crooksie.”
Besides Reed, other leaders included Dollree Mapp – who has been called "the Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment" for refusing to let police into her apartment without a search warrant. Her case led to a 1961 Supreme Court decision in her name, Mapp v. Ohio, that requires state courts to exclude evidence from criminal prosecutions if it is seized illegally.
In the end, Reed said, 200 women acted together and seized full control of two buildings and an adjacent recreation yard, where they formed a circle. The women demanded proof that Crooks was alive. They demanded that members of the press and lawyers be brought to the prison. And they demanded that the phones be turned back on.
Prison officials stalled.
“They were saying that there was no one in command that night that could give that order. I said, ‘Well, who gave the order to turn the phones off?’” Reed said.
Meanwhile, authorities used the time to rush reinforcements to the scene – armed male guards from nearby prisons, and State Police Officers.
“We were all organized in the yard, in a circle,” Reed said, “peacefully.”
At one point, Reed said a captain “came up and said everybody to disperse and they were gonna call the National Guard.”
The women refused to move, so authorities brought out water cannon.
“They water-hosed us for quite a while, then they threatened to shoot tear-gas.”
After midnight, Reed said, “We just couldn’t take it anymore, so we just peaceably put our hands behind our heads and everybody just marched back to where they were supposed to be.”
The day after the rebellion, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections told United Press International that the women had taken seven hostages: 4 guards, 2 sergeants and a nurse. But Reed disputes that, and said that there were no hostages.
One guard, Reed said, locked herself in a closet, though. “She claimed that we locked her in a closet. But she locked herself in there.”
No one was injured, Reed recalled, “A couple people had an asthma attack.”
For a week, no one knew what happened to Crooks, until Reed and other suspected leaders were sent to solitary confinement. There, they found Crooks, Reed said, “still half-dead, moaning, groaning – I don’t even think at point she had gotten any medical attention.”
Reed and other suspected leaders were sentenced to one year each in solitary confinement. Crooks was given two years, for the fight that lead to the rebellion.
J.B. Nicholas for The Village Voice
But Crooks and the women brought another landmark lawsuit, which they won, and resulted in them being released from solitary confinement in 1975.
Elizabeth Koob, a noted prisoners’ rights attorney, helped represent the women through the Women’s Prison Project at the New York University School of Law (Disclosure: Koob's firm, but not Koob, also represented the author of this story from 1999 to 2003.)
Koob said that many of the woman at Bedford Hills “had relinquished all responsibility for their lives and how they had been conditioned by society not to speak for themselves.” Prison officials, Koob continuted, “appeared to encourage this submissiveness and passivity,” by referring to the woman as “girls,” and by teaching them “skills common to women and lowest-paid positions: sewing, typing, laundry, hairdressing.”
“Carol Crooks stood out as a leader and as a strong woman who knew her self-worth,” Koob said.
The women’s lawsuit, Powell v. Ward, ended in 1981, with a binding pledge by prison officials to conduct disciplinary proceedings fairly, to only send truly mentally-ill prisoners to psychiatric hospitals, and with an award to the women of $127,000.
The women established a committee to determine how the money should be used, so that it benefited everyone. After polling the prison, the committee decided to use the money to purchase washers and dryers, Black and Hispanic literature for the general library, and equipment for the prison law library, including word processors, typewriters and copying machines.
With the last of the money, the women of Bedford Hills threw themselves a party, with ice cream, in June 1983.
Crooks was still there. According to the New York Times , she organized the celebration, and told the paper that ''sometimes prison inmates and officials can sit down at a table and settle things without rioting.'' Later that year, Crooks was released.
Reed was paroled from Bedford Hills in 1975, but returned in 1979 for a drug possession conviction, before being released again in Feburary, 1983. She was back in prison in 1990, was released in November 1993, and was back two years later. She was last released in August, 2001. Reed spoke for the record from a hospital bed.
Last week, Crooks reflected on current conditions in the prison system.
“The male officers is runnin’ wild,” Crooks said, referring to the male COs that are now assigned to regularly work inside female prisons and have been convicted of exploiting their female charges at Bedford Hills.
“It didn’t get no better, it got worse.”
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.