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October 11, 1972, Inmates Riot Over Conditions At Washington D.C. Jail - Today in Crime History

On this day, October 11, in the year 1972, approximately fifty  inmates at the Washington D.C. jail seized control of a cellblock and held twelve jail officials hostage, demanding improved jail conditions and reductions in jail overcrowding.

Some time prior to October 11, 1972, two inmates at the District of Columbia jail, obtained a loaded .38 caliber pistol.  In the early morning hours of October 11, 1972, one of those inmates feigned sickness, and when two correction officers entered his cell to assist him, the other inmate assaulted them with the pistol and took them as hostages. Those inmates proceeded to take control of the entire cellblock and to release other prisoners to assist them in obtaining additional hostages.   While prison officials and prosecutors later contended that these events were part of an elaborate escape plan, jail inmates that joined in and participated in the uprising said the riots were only an attempt to change oppressive jail conditions.

Three and a half hours after eleven correctional officers had been taken hostage by the rebellious prisoners,  D.C. Corrections Director Kenneth Hardy entered the cellblock held by the inmates and was promptly captured.  During the next twelve hours, prison officials claimed that he was the object of numerous dramatic threats; at various times inmates held a pistol to his head, placed a noose around his neck, all the time demanding that he "negotiate" the release of the other hostages. Hardy eventually signed the following note presented to him by the inmates:

    I, Kenneth Hardy, Director of the Department of Corrections of the District of Columbia, hereby promise that there will be no reprisals of any kind, including no deadlock, nor will I bring any court action against any of the inmates involved in the action that has taken place on October 11, 1972 at the D.C. Jail.

Inmates requested that U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm come to the jail.   Chisholm, School Board President Marion Barry and other community leaders went to the jail and met with the inmates.   Together they convinced the inmates to release the hostages as part of a deal that would allow six of the inmates to go before a federal court judge to air their grievances.  

An emergency hearing before U.S.  District Judge William J. Bryant was convened the evening of October 11.  Six armed inmates took Hardy, still their hostage, to the United States Courthouse to express their grievances.  Judge Bryant allowed the six to express their complaints and listened to their hopes concerning resolution of the uprising.   The D.C. jail rebellion, which had lasted almost twenty-four hours ended when the judge assured the inmates that immediate action would be taken regarding their demands for better conditions.  The hostages, including the jail's director, were released after the judge stated that none of the inmates would be charged for their actions.

Unfortunately for the inmates, their hopes of immunity from prosecution were short lived.  Following a five-month special grand jury investigation, twelve individuals were charged with conspiring to escape, attempted escape and rioting.   Ten of the individuals charged were convicted, despite arguments by their criminal defense attorneys that the jail director and a federal judge had granted them immunity from prosecution.  Both the trial courts and appellate courts ruled that neither the federal judge or the jail director had legal authority to grant prosecutorial immunity based upon well established principles of law.   Additionally, the Courts ruled that Hardy’s agreement and the Judge’s statements had been produced under threats of violence and duress and were, therefore, unenforceable.

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