50th anniversary of the Walpole prison union

June 7, 2023

From the May-June 2023 issue of News & Letters

Fifty years ago inmates at Walpole Maximum Security Prison in Massachusetts assumed the management of the prison for two months until the state and the prison guards’ union pressured the Corrections Commissioner to allow what became a violent retaking of the prison.

The prisoners were organized as a chapter of the National Prisoners Reform Association (NPRA), with the goal of becoming a labor union. They formed 20 committees, accountable to the general prison population, to manage the hospital, kitchen, educational programs, industrial production, and internal problem solving.


Walpole State Prison inmates at rally for better conditions, September 29, 1971. Source: Boston Public Library Arts Department, Digital Commonwealth.

From March 15 to May 18, the NPRA functioned as the elected representative of the prisoners at Walpole, running the entire institution. Prisoners ran a school, conflict resolution, and counseling. During the whole time of the non-violent takeover, not a single outbreak of murder or rape occurred.

Sustaining the character of this rebellion were: inter-racial prisoner organizing, the visionary leadership from the Commissioner, John O. Boone (the first Black state Corrections Commissioner in the country) and community support, with over 1,300 volunteer observers entering the prison. Organizational support was diverse, including a state representative, Black African Nations Toward Unity (BANTU) and the American Friends Service Committee.

White and Black leadership of the NPRA made a conscious commitment to stand together. The NPRA framework included certification as a union to minimum wages and safety standards. The Department of Correction (DOC) gave them bargaining-unit recognition. The concrete goals were to exercise self-determination within the prison, and to demonstrate that the prison was unnecessary.

Volunteer observers had been trained not to discipline, give orders, argue with the guards, or hold keys. They wore armbands, and moved freely throughout the prison, free to talk with prisoners. They left behind daily reports, from which accurate information was to be released to the press to counterbalance false reports by the guards.


In December 1972, guards had denied men clean clothes, showers, and visits during a Kwanzaa lockup that lasted two and a half months. Prisoners organized a general work strike on Feb. 21, demanding the Superintendent resign, and allow “citizen observers” to enter. On March 2, prisoners formally negotiated to end their strike in return for both goals.

The correctional officers’ union responded with a walkout and strike. When the first observers took their posts, 50 guards refused to punch in, and an entire shift walked off the job, and issued a strike ultimatum on March 14, demanding Boone’s removal. On March 15, 200 guards walked out on strike. Boone responded by suspending 150 of them for five days without pay. He recruited cadet trainee guards—many of whom were young men of color, unlike the guards—and trained them to aid the observers.

Meanwhile, Governor Sargent and the public pressured Boone to reinstate the guards and shut down the NPRA. Boone created a task force to determine how to reintegrate guards to Walpole, which excluded the NPRA. The task force decided on a lockup and shakedown of the prison. NPRA attempted to negotiate with the acting superintendent to no avail, unaware that state police had been put on alert.


On May 18, the NPRA asked prisoners to prop open cell doors so that guards could not close them by remote control. Observers still in the prison recorded that it was “quiet as a morgue.” But when false reports of mass destruction reached the superintendent, he called in the state police, who with the guards entered with guns and violently ended the prisoners’ nonviolent takeover of Walpole.

Following rumors of a riot, state troopers and corrections officers returned again with clubs and dogs on May 20, excluding the Observers. Although the National Labor Relations Committee (NLRC) denied the NPRA’s petition for union recognition, prisoners nevertheless voted to keep NPRA as their representative body.

Fifty years later, the movement for prison abolition has only grown stronger. The vision of a humane system, along with the experiences and practice of the Walpole rebellion, can help those millions still incarcerated today.

—Susan Van Gelder

Accounts from the historic hunger strikes that won the settlement to end indefinite solitary confinement in California in “Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers: ‘We want to be validated as human.’”

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