On July 20th, 1985, a sunny Saturday afternoon in New Hampshire’s High Summer, with most of the inmates at the State Prison drawn by the perfect weather out into the yards to play handball and softball and to loll in the sun, an attractive woman guard five feet tall and not over a hundred pounds was patrolling alone in the block of 247 open cells. Other guards male guards had been assigned to the cellblock too, but just after two o’clock they had left the area through the control station, out of sight and earshot of the young woman.

As she walked unarmed and unprotected down one of the two tiers on the second level of the four—story block, she was attacked without warning by an unstable psychopath with a homicidal history who was so physically slight that a larger, tougher woman, let alone a man, could have swatted him aside like a fly. The tiny victim was a graduate student in criminology, gaining credit toward her degree by working in the prison.

The girl was stabbed repeatedly-over a dozen times in the arms, hands, chest, back and head with a homemade knife nearly long enough to run her through. The inmate had tied the weapon to his hand and wrist to make it difficult to disarm him, but the knife was secured in such a manner that the blade was prevented from penetrating to the hilt. Combined with fortuitous placement of miraculous proportions, this saved the woman’s life. When she was carried from the cellblock no one could have guessed the original color of her blue uniform shirt. It was blood red.

Her pitiful assailant was locked away deep within the Special Housing Unit – a modern maximum security structure which incorporated state—of—the—art design and electronic surveillance. He hanged himself in his cell a few weeks after the attack. Many inmates think that he was assisted in this effort by the guards. This seems farfetched, but it did represent the only time in his wretched life that he had managed to do something right.

No one knows why he attacked her, but there are a few theories The least unlikely has it that she had threatened to cut off his between—meal access to the soda machine in the mess hall, denying him the quarts of Diet Coke that he consumed compulsively each day. But no one really knows what was in his mind.

The girl’s cries were clearly audible to the initiates who had stayed in the cellblock and, through the open windows, to the sunbathing men in the south yard.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, over and over. “Why are you doing this? Stop it! Oh, God!”

Although the duration of the attack could be measured in minutes and the girl kept screaming the whole time, no inmate went to her aid. Some thought she was being raped, a thing that had happened to another woman guard in the cellblock a few years before. Others thought it was a joke-that an inmate was mocking a girl’s voice in falsetto, a frequent occurrence. But the inmates in the cells adjoining the scene knew what was happening and did nothing.

Prison life inculcates a passion for minding one’s own business, and given the convict ethic that governs the attitude of inmates toward guards of all genders, it isn’t surprising that no one helped her. What was surprising was that in the few hours following the attack during which the men were able to discuss it, sentiment was almost unanimously against her assailant. And, even more surprising, those who had been nearest her during the attack were in trouble with their fellow inmates for their inaction.

Late that afternoon the prison was locked down. Every inmate was returned to his century—old, 6 x 8 cell and his door remained locked for the next three days. A lockdown is an agonizing procedure for a prison, one that polarizes the institution, creating enmities among staff, guards and inmates that can last for years. There hadn’t been a lockdown at New Hampshire State Prison since 1982, and that one had lasted but a single day.

Box lunches bologna and sliced American cheese sandwiches were shoved through the small opening in the little barred window of each man’s cell along with cardboard containers of milk. Teachers and secretaries were pressed into service preparing the simple meals and performing the kitchen cleanup tasks that were normally the work of inmates No prisoner was permitted out of his cell to take a shower.

On Saturday night the guard force entered the prison, their ranks augmented by off-duty state policemen and attendants from the state mental hospital. Property officers, supply officers, perimeter guards, tower guards and mailmen poured into the cellblock in full riot gear bulging flak jackets arid grotesque crash helmets which obscured much of the face metamorphosizing even the most familiar and benign figures into strange and threatening apparitions to the inmates locked helplessly in their cages.

The main cellblock is an independent brick structure set within the shell of a large old building. It looks like something built by insects. It is four stories high and the widths of thirty-one cells perhaps two hundred feet in length. The disguised guards, snarling over what had happened to the girl, using the tragedy as an emotional cathartic to relieve their repressed bitterness at the unresponsiveness of the administration; at grievance procedures and formal disciplinary hearings and the dissolution of their goon squad, the Silver Eagles; at all of the symptoms of ‘softness’ shown the inmates whom many of them regarded as little more than captive animals.. The same guards who had joked and horseplayed with the prisoners only the day before, now evinced a savagery toward the caged men that no inmate who was there will ever forget. They were out of control. It was a guard riot.

They began on the top story of the block, evicting each inmate in turn, strip-searching his person, and handcuffing him to a railing or a steampipe outside his cell. They ran- sacked his room, his home for the past two, or four, or, in a few cases, ten years smashing his meager possessions, ripping at his accumulated memorabilia, tearing his family pictures from the walls along with the Playboy Bunnies, and tossing it all indiscriminately out into the walkways.

They smashed everything made of wood with axes and sledgehammers: bookcases, picture frames, footlockers, shelves, bed boards, tables, even jewelry cases the inmates had made in the hobby shop for their wives and mothers. The guards swept it all under the railing to crash onto the brick floor twenty-five feet below, just in front of the men locked in on the flats, as the cells on the ground floor are called. The din was horrendous, incessant a Kristallnacht of wood!

The amicable relationship between inmate and guard- unique among America’s maximum security prisons- was smashed too.

Some of the caged men in the traditionally fractious divisions roared and chanted and sang derisively, greeting each passing guard and “whitehat” officer with verbal abuse, and, occasionally, a hurled object. Toilets and sinks were made to overflow. Little bombs were fashioned from dozens of matchheads and sharp explosions punctuated the bedlam. Fires were set in the trash in front of the cells of the First Division, and, when they were put out, set again. Only the Second Division, the row with the highest percentage of murderers, was quiet.

Just before midnight, the Commissioner of Corrections made an appearance in the block, materializing at the cell doors of a few inmates, chatting, questioning, even apologizing. The pandemonium abated soon after, and the guards knocked off for the night. The block settled into a fitful doze.

In the morning the search was resumed, but more decorously. There was no further gratuitous destruction. Each cell was searched with great care. Toilets were unscrewed from the floor and the drains of the sinks were disassembled. Vents were explored with mirrors on sticks. If the inmate had books, each page was riffled. Personal correspondence and legal material were carefully scanned. Certain cells took the two—guard teams over an hour to examine while the occupant waited anxiously outside, chained to a pipe. Serial numbers on radios and television sets were checked and the appliance was confiscated immediately if any irregularities were discovered. The inmate’s wooden property was tagged with his name and hauled away, some of it to storage, but most of it to the dump. When real contraband, such as drugs or knives, was unearthed, the culprit was hauled away at once to the Special Housing Unit, but there was ample opportunity for inmates to dispose of potentially embarrassing items by tossing them surreptitiously through the bars onto the piles of trash outside the cells before the inquisitors arrived.

Staff members, some of them women, pushed and hauled and swept at the incredible mountain of refuse stacked in front of the cells on the ground floor. The prisoners were surly, the guards/tense and volatile. When three inmates in adjoining cells made the mistake of reminding a passing woman guard that she was vulnerable to the same fate as the girl who had been stabbed, they were on their way to Federal prisons before their feet touched the floor.

The wounded prison recovered slowly. It took three nights and two days to search all the cells. On Tuesday morning, ten men at a time were let out of their cells and marched to the shower room. They were permitted to take only their towels. Several men whose waistlines were too ample to be wrapped in the small prison towels asked to be permitted to wear their trousers. They were refused. Teetering on their shower clogs and trying to hide their nakedness, the men were paraded past a gauntlet of guards. It was to be expected that there were uniformed women guards among them. It seemed unnecessarily embarrassing that the female Director of Classification, in civilian clothes, should also be standing there, arms folded, watching them pass.

The prison administration bragged in the media about the tonnage of wood they had hauled to the dump, as if it had been a plot they had frustrated in the nick of time. Almost anything, after all, is a potential weapon. An innovative convict can fashion a knife from a sliver, or a club from a table leg. The search was characterized as a search for weapons, but its real purpose was to end the feeling of entrenchment the inmates had developed in their tiny brick catacombs with the double—vaulted ceilings and painted wainscotting.


{C}{C}To demonstrate the necessity for the lockdown, the Warden appeared on television with an assortment of confiscated “weapons on his desktop. It seemed an exceptionally meager collection representing, as it did, the entire arcane arsenal of an admittedly lax prison which hadn’t been shaken down in years. The Warden picked up several of the objects to demonstrate their lethal potential. One of the things he called special attention to was a soda can filled with sand. The inmate who had fashioned this engine of destruction was a Chaplain’s Assistant, one of the most innocuous men in the prison. He had intended it as a prop to support a bookshelf.


What was an exceptionally attractive, petite, young woman doing in the cellblock, patrolling alone in the middle of a thirty unit division of open cells housing rapists and murderers and men who hadn’t been kissed on the mouth in a decade? Wouldn’t it seem more considerate of the safety of all concerned (including the inmates adrift in their dangerous and predatory environment) to have limited women guards to noncritical positions such as the infirmary or the visiting room or the front door?

On the first shift on Easter Sunday in 1985, four of the guards in the cellblock were women. On the second shift the same day, the acting Block Sergeant- a functionary who needed to exercise as much personal forcefulness as a lion tamer or the Topkick of the Dirty Dozen-  was a shy slip of a girl who had panicked before in at least one tight situation. She was discharged a few months later when she formed a romantic attachment for an inmate.

There had already been trouble. Big trouble! In 1982, a woman patrolling the upper divisions was raped at knifepoint in one of the cells by a convicted murderer serving life-without-parole, and who consequently had little to lose. He was ‘punished’ by being banished to a Federal prison. A real tragedy was inevitable.

But Affirmative Action is a fact of modern institutional life, and the State of New Hampshire is an equal opportunity employer. More and more women were accepted into the guard force seemingly without regard to age or size or psychological suitability, and they were placed on rotating assignment which inevitably brought them into the cellblock on all shifts, at all times, and in all weathers.

The young woman who had been so grievously wounded recovered with near miraculous speed, but she suffered permanent damage to her hand, and, undoubtedly, to her psyche as well. She brought suit against the prison.

A tragic incident for which blame should have been apportioned more or less equally among the judicial policies which blur the boundaries between the prison and the madhouse, the dereliction of the guards on duty, and the aggressiveness of the Women’s Liberation Movement, was used as the rationale for an exercise which took from the inmates what little they had in the way of freedom and possessions, and did it with prejudice and violence.