“Put the State on Trial”: The New Afrikan Prisoner Organization and the Pontiac Prison Rebellion, 1977–82

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Toussaint Losier, University of Chicago
On July 22, 1978, one of the most destructive prison disturbances in Illinois history broke out in the severely overcrowded Pontiac Correctional Center as several prisoners armed with shanks and other homemade weapons attacked guards. This ambush left three white correctional officers dead and three others injured, as more than 1,000 prisoners destroyed millions of dollars worth of the prison’s interior. In response, prison officials not only locked down prisoners for twenty-four hours a day for more than six months, but also used this “deadlock” as the context in which to investigate the rebellion as a conspiracy by Chicago street gang leaders, ultimately indicting thirty-one Black and Latino prisoners on conspiracy, assault, and capital murder charges.

These prisoners soon became known as the “Pontiac Brothers,” defendants in the largest death penalty case since the Scottsboro Boys. Arguing that the riot was the spontaneous reaction to deteriorating prison conditions, the Pontiac Brothers and a coalition of outside supporters successfully convinced a Cook County jury to find ten of the Pontiac Brothers not guilty of the most serious charges against them in 1981. Central to this legal victory was a vigorous defense campaign guided by the New Afrikan Prisoners Organization (NAPO), a group of revolutionary Black nationalists held in Pontiac and Stateville prisons. Working in partnership with church committees, family member groups, and white anti-imperialist allies, NAPO helped to shape the way in which this outside coalition waged a sophisticated anti-death penalty campaign. Examining this organization’s key role in the defense of the Pontiac Brothers sheds light not only on the emergence of mass incarceration prior to the Reagan administration’s war on Drugs, but also the ways in which revolutionary black nationalist sought to contest this developments by bridging the distance between the streets of Chicago and gang ways of downstate prisons.