Walpole State Prison/MCI-Cedar Junction at Walpole

2405 Main Street, South Walpole

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

In 1970, Walpole State Prison was considered one of the most violent prisons in the United States. That same year, Francis Sargent, a liberal Republican dedicated to prison reform, won the Massachusetts governorship. In the aftermath of the prisoner rebellion and its bloody suppression at Attica in upstate New York in 1971, prison reform took on greater urgency in Massachusetts.

In this context, Sargent’s administration allowed members of the National Prisoners Reform Association (NPRA), a union of the incarcerated founded at a prison in Cranston, Rhode Island, to contact inmates at Walpole. Around the same time, two inmates, Ralph Hamm and Robert Dellelo, one Black and one White, were working to build a cross-racial alliance of Walpole prisoners. The pair would become the key organizers of a NPRA chapter at Walpole. The union was dedicated to racial justice, nonviolence, and prison abolition, and was effective at building alliances with political progressives outside the institution. Eventually, Walpole’s NPRA chapter won the right to engage in collective bargaining with the prison administration over labor issues as well as prison conditions.

In the face of growing prisoner power and an expansion of programs that lessened the incarcerated population, the guards’ union rebelled and walked off the job on March 14, 1973. For the next two months, the NPRA and its members—with the help of civilian observers—ran almost the entire prison, managing everything from the hospital to the kitchen while establishing a school and a conflict resolution process. One result was that levels of violence in the prison plummeted. Under political pressure, however, state authorities eventually and violently reasserted control of Walpole with returning guards aided by the state police, bringing an end to unprecedented experiment in prisoner self-determination.

Prisoners searched after cell block riot, Walpole State Prison, circa 1969. Photo by Spencer Grant.
Source: Boston Public Library Art Department, Digital Commonwealth.

Opened in 1956 to replace Charlestown State Prison, Walpole, a maximum-security facility, is today called MCI-Cedar Junction. It serves as the Massachusetts Department of Corrections’ “reception and diagnostic center” and, as such, receives all entering male prisoners in the state before they are assigned to another institution.

Getting there:

MBTA Commuter Rail to Walpole. The prison is 3.7 miles away.

To learn more:

Jamie Bissonette with Ralph Hamm. Robert Dellelo, and Edward Rodman, When the Prisoners Ran Walpole: A True Story in the Movement for Prison Abolition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2008.

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