Buford Prison Branch was called “The Rock Pile” because the inmates there broke rocks all day with sledge hammers—“made big rocks into smaller rocks,” the saying went—just as the chain gangs did in the movies. Little of the gravel went to road construction. Piles of surplus rose up here and there, reminding the inmates that their work served no purpose, a situation that Dostoevsky said would drive a man to desperation, which was the point. The Rock Pile was for the worst of the worst, the “incorrigibles,” the ones who didn’t straighten out even when thrown in the hole and fed cornbread and water for weeks on end. The Rock Pile’s purpose was not so much to break rocks as to break men.
The prison had been created as a deterrent in the late forties. The stocks, straps, and shackles had all been prohibited by then, ruled inhumane. The Rock Pile replaced them with a new sort of inhumanity. Not long after the Second World War, some members of the Georgia Board of Corrections, along with the more influential wardens, drove out to the site being proposed, forty miles northeast of Atlanta. They looked across the expanse of barren granite and imagined how hard and hot it would be. “This will do,” they thought. And it did: for the next fifteen years, every prisoner in the state knew that if he didn’t do what the warden said, he could be sent to The Rock Pile. Nobody wanted to go there.
Every morning, some two hundred prisoners woke to a walking stick clanging against the bars. They marched, half-dressed, to a nearby building to put on work clothes, no longer the wide horizontal stripes—those had been outlawed, too—but stark white shirts and pants with a blue line running down the seam, designed for a similar humiliation. They went out to the quarry, where they started breaking rocks with ten- or twenty-pound sledges. The shock went through the hands and wrists and arms, up through the shoulders and neck, again and again, all day long. The noise of steel smashing stone rang in their ears. When the sun set behind the wall, the inmates marched back past the piles of unused gravel to the clothes-changing room, then, half-naked, to the barracks. They slept. They woke to clanging bars and broke rocks all day again.
The food was bad at The Rock Pile. The cooks didn’t know how to cook. The prison’s farm was mostly symbolic: raising vegetables and livestock would have given the inmates too much satisfaction. Better to have food delivered, let them know they depended on others, a lesson we still try to impress on inmates today. The barracks—a long, narrow steel cage with walkways all around it—was overcrowded and dirty. Above it dangled a small crow’s nest, from which an armed night man watched. The guards were untrained, underpaid, often incompetent, and mean. They would shoot a prisoner over next to nothing. (One guard was accused of shooting an inmate in the arm for bending over to pull a tack out of his brogan.) The little prison store was understocked, so you couldn’t even treat yourself to a candy bar or a pack of Lucky Strikes after a nasty dinner. And at night, as there were no individual cells, the inmates could do to each other whatever they pleased. If a man stood up for himself, got into a fight, he was sent to the worst hole in all of Georgia.
The hole at The Rock Pile was almost literally a hole in the ground. It was down in the basement. There were no windows, no ventilation. It was dark. And on one damp, moldy concrete wall, an inmate had scrawled the words:
THAY IS NO GOD
The trouble with The Rock Pile (aside from the issue of human rights) was that it grouped together all the worst troublemakers in the prison system, locked them in a cage, and made them work side by side, as if encouraging them to scheme and make even more trouble together than they had on their own. There was always something going wrong. Fights involving fifty, sixty men broke out in the barracks. Men escaped or got shot trying. The inmates would overpower a guard, tie him up, and make a run for it, or simply bash his face with one of the rocks they were breaking, take his guns, speed off in the dump truck.
Protests were frequent at The Rock Pile. The most common form was both personal and simple: pick up the heaviest rock you can lift, hold it over your head, stick your foot out so that it is directly under the rock, and let the rock go. If you manage to keep your foot where it is for the fraction of a second it takes for the rock to smash it, congratulations: you just got yourself a free trip to the Georgia State Prison Hospital at Reidsville—heaven compared to The Rock Pile.
Sit-downs and other nonviolent strikes never amounted to anything. The participants were just carried down into the dank hole. They lost their good behavior time, had to stay at least another year before they could hope for a transfer. That was the deal at The Rock Pile: act right, do as you as you’re told, and you’ll be transferred within a year, but keep causing trouble and you’ll be breaking rocks for a long time. Nevertheless, the troublemakers at The Rock Pile often chose to stick to their parts, go on making trouble.
In 1951, about thirty inmates managed to attract the attention of the national press by slashing their Achilles tendons. (They may have even inspired Angola’s “The Heelstring Gang,” which did the same thing the following year.) The inmates at The Rock Pile in ’56 decided to one-up their predecessors. They would break their own legs with sledgehammers.
The ringleader was one Jimmy Lee Stark. The various psychiatrists hired by the department of corrections had diagnosed Jimmy Lee as a “schizophrenia-paranoid type,” but then changed their minds and decided he was “a sociopathic personality” with “a gross stress reaction” and should be regarded as “temporarily psychotic.” George and Odell, fellow inmates who broke rocks with him all day, had a more straightforward diagnosis: Jimmy Lee was crazy.
Jimmy Lee had previous experience in self-mutilation. He had busted his own leg once before with a sledgehammer, gotten some hospital time at Reidsville. As soon as his bones had healed, Warden Balkcom had sent him right back to The Rock Pile, where he was thrown in the hole. He lost all his good behavior credit: one more year breaking rocks. But Jimmy Lee didn’t give up. He tweaked his original idea, took it a step further. He thought it just might work this time.
One day in July, between hammer blows, Jimmy Lee said, “What-you-think-would-happen-if-we-all-broke our-legs-at-the-same-time?” Jimmy Lee was from Atlanta. He talked fast, especially compared to George and Odell.
“What you talking about, Jimmy Lee? Nobody would do that.”
“I-did.” Jimmy Lee glanced over his shoulder. Guards weren’t paying much attention. “You-just-use-the-sharp-edge. Not-the-blunt-one. Like-this.” Jimmy Lee brought the sharp edge of his sledgehammer down on a rock, broke it in two. “Jimmy Lee, you crazy. Nobody could do that to himself.”
They went on breaking rocks.
The sun beat down.
At about two or three in the afternoon, just when it seemed they would burn up, George and Odell began to wonder if Jimmy Lee wasn’t on to something. If they could bring themselves to break their legs, they wouldn’t have to break rocks anymore. And who knew? Maybe the Atlanta Journal would make such a stink that they’d improve things, even shut The Rock Pile down.
George, Odell, and Jimmy Lee talked it out. All agreed that the central problem was human nature: most men just don’t have the willpower necessary to bring a sledgehammer down on their own shins with sufficient force to break bone.
But Jimmy Lee was full of ideas. “All-y’all-just-stretch-your-legs-out-on-the rocks-during-the-afternoon-smoke-break-and-I’ll-break-them-for-you: bam-bam-bam-bam-bam.”
“You ain’t breaking my legs, Jimmy Lee.”
Still, as the sun beat down, the plan began to take shape. Why not appoint official leg-breakers? Naturally, the three of them—Jimmy Lee, Odell, and George—appointed themselves. Everyone else would be the breakees.
They tested the waters.
“Got-something-cooking,” Jimmy Lee would say.
“Is it going to be a heelstring or a hammer this time, Jimmy Lee?” was the general reply.
As word spread, another problem arose. The white participants in the protest did not want a black man—certainly not Jimmy Lee—breaking their legs, and for their part, the black inmates didn’t want white boys—definitely not George and Odell—breaking theirs. So it was decided they were going to do this the Georgia way: separate but equal. Jimmy Lee would break black legs. George and Odell would break white legs.
There was one catch: nobody could scream.
If somebody screamed, the guards would hear and come before Jimmy Lee, Odell, and George could get all the legs broken. So, to participate in the protest, you had to agree to the following condition: you couldn’t let yourself scream. No matter how scared you were, no matter how bad it hurt, no matter how awful the sound when you heard your own bones cracking—“and-you-gonna-hear-’em-crack’n,” Jimmy Lee assured them—don’t scream.
About eighty inmates took an interest in the protest, but as the particulars became known and especially as the chosen day neared, that number dropped by half. Still, they figured that forty or so men breaking their legs would be enough to get some attention. They might just outdo Angola.
On the chosen day, they marched out to the quarry. All morning, they broke rocks. When they stopped for a smoke break after lunch, thirty-eight inmates—nine black and twenty-seven white—stretched their legs out a bit more than usual, rested their ankles up on flatter rocks, and took especially deep drags off their hand-rolled cigarettes. They flicked away the butts, raised their arms or bowed their heads so they could bite their sleeves. They bit hard. They tasted the sweat and powdered rock in the fabric. Each man repeated to himself: don’t scream.
Jimmy Lee, Odell, and George leapt up. Jimmy Lee took the black row; George and Odell, the white. With well-practiced aim, they brought their sledgehammers down onto shin after shin, just like they’d planned.
And no one screamed. They ground their teeth into their sleeves, whined, writhed, and, in some cases, passed out, but every last man managed to hold back. They all knew they had to play their parts in this drama if the protest was to have its intended effect, and that always requires a certain amount of self-control.
Jimmy Lee, George, and Odell managed to smash the legs of thirty-six inmates before the guards realized what was happening. George and Odell broke each other’s. But when it came time to break his own, Jimmy Lee, even with all his experience, just couldn’t make himself do it. He cut his calf open with the sharp edge. That was enough to get a trip to Reidsville, nothing more.
Once the guards realized what was happening, the men were free to scream. Howls echoed through the granite pits.
It all worked perfectly. Not only did the Atlanta papers cover the story, but the national media, even Time magazine, went down to Georgia to investigate. The state house and senate formed a committee. Accompanied by journalists, they drove over to Reidsville to interview all the men with broken legs, who told the usual chain gang stories: the guards had beaten them, cursed them, shot at them for no reason. The reporters even managed to find a guard who would back the men up.
Governor Marvin Griffin held a press conference, swore there were going to be some changes at the Buford Rock Camp. He was going to get to the truth of the matter.
“I will not tolerate brutality.”
That was what he said. He did the opposite. One of Griffin’s main goals as governor was paving Georgia’s rural roads; “Let’s get Georgia out of the mud” had been his campaign slogan. The paving projects often depended on inmate labor and the cooperation of wardens, most of whom wanted The Rock Pile to stay just the way it was. It served as a deterrent: the inmates knew they’d better do like Cap’n said or they might wind up breaking rocks. Operating a motor grader or an asphalt sprayer, or even digging ditches with a shovel, was heaven compared to breaking rocks.
Griffin relied on Jack Forrester, the director of the board of corrections, to smooth things out. Smoothing things out was Jack’s specialty. When the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs complained about conditions in solitary confinement—insisting that thirty days in the hole was just too long, cornbread and water just not enough—Jack called a board meeting, said they really ought to consider what the ladies were suggesting, try giving those boys a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee for breakfast.
“How about some soup for lunch? How about some vegetables, bread, and some more coffee for dinner?”
The board nodded. Yes, the ladies had a fine idea. Warden Dub Goff of Crisp then moved that the action be deferred. The motion carried. But the ladies didn’t have to worry: the board was going to get that solitary menu planned out real soon.
And that was that. If you got thrown in the hole in Georgia, you got cornbread and water.
In response to the leg-breaking scandal, Jack had some of the board members ride with him over to The Rock Pile. They talked to the guards, Warden Hubert Smith, the inmates, and—surprise—found nothing wrong. The prison was clean. The food was good. The treatment of the men was fine. Complaints of brutality and inhumane living conditions were completely unfounded.
Jack admitted the guards did cuss some in front of the prisoners, and they really ought not to do that. Jack said they were going to put a stop to that cussing.
And that was that. The broken legs healed up. The prisoners were sent back to The Rock Pile, thrown in the hole for protesting, and put back to breaking rocks for another year.