Local News

32 Years After Deadly Riot, Lessons Learned at Raleigh's Central Prison

Posted April 16, 2000 7:00 a.m. EDT

— It was noon on April 17, 1968 when several inmates at Raleigh's Central Prison began what they called a sit-down strike. The strike lasted all afternoon and into the early morning hours of the next day. The result: loss of lives and lessons learned on both sides.

There had been warning signs before the riot, but not before the shots.

"The living conditions were atrocious in old Central Prison."

"The whole thing was intended to be peaceful."

"I knew there was something in the wind."

It only took ten minutes to end a 14-hour standoff. When the smoke cleared, 6 inmates were dead and 75 others were wounded.

There was damage from fires, bullet holes and blood inside the prison chapel.

"Some of the guys tried to hide in there, but they never left. At least not the way they wanted to," says inmate David Norris, who was 23 in 1968.

He says the years have not dimmed his memory.

"I consider myself real lucky," says Norris. "When they started firing I ran to the back of the chapel and I got shot in the leg."

To fight back, the inmates used shanks and homemade spears.

William Phelps could not fight. The inmate was sick in the prison hospital and hoped the sit-down strike would be peaceful.

"Then you had some inmates who had to be a fool, and it escalated from there," he says.

After Norris was shot, he says he assaulted one officer then ran into another.

"He had a baseball bat in his hand. I wasn't ready to go to hell yet, so me and him had a little round there and I ran to the back of the chapel where I got shot again," says Norris.

Since 1968, North Carolina has not had a major prison problem.

"We're fortunate in our state that with our system we manage under the circumstances as well as anybody. I'm very proud of that," says James French, who oversees the state's 77 prisons.

French believes there was a silver lining to the dark cloud of 1968: better communication.

"When a manager can walk through a prison and an inmate can walk up to that manager and have a conversation, then that's an indication that facility's being well-managed," he says.

French, a Vietnam Veteran, has served the state for 29 years -- seven as warden at Central Prison. He is thankful there are not major problems with 30,000 men and women behind bars, but he knows the potential is always there.

"As we're conducting this interview this morning, I hope to God nothing happens today," he says.

French says the lines of communication between officers and inmates is something that is worked on constantly. He says it is work that is never complete.