By Susan Townley
Attica still haunted me more than 45 years after the harrowing events I witnessed on television led me to engage in my first incarnation as a social reformer by working to redress the systematic violation of inmates’ rights throughout New York State.
Back in 1971, I was an innocent because, as I just learned reading “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” Heather Ann Thompson’s masterly history of the uprising, the efforts to blame the prisoners who were victims of devastating and unnecessary violence at the hands of prisoner guards and state troopers during the storming of the prison (as well as the vicious retaliation instituted by prison guards that went unabated by the knowing administration at Attica and in Albany). Not only was Governor Rockefeller’s behavior so corrupt that he was morally bankrupt well before he was appointed Vice-President, but the same can also be said for many of his staff for the cover-up to which they all contributed (a cover-up which continues to this day).
Many, if not most of the attorneys assigned to prosecute the malefactors at Attica created not just trumped up charges, but false charges against inmates. They were determined to give a pass to all employed by the State who participated in the decision to storm the prison, and who perpetrated brutality against inmates afterward.
Prosecutorial misconduct in New York State is a well-known story now, but was unheard of in the days following Attica.
This history is particularly disturbing to me since it became clear as I read “Blood in the Water” that the lies told initially by the state troopers and guards before the violent invasion the prison (which contributed to the brutality perpetrated against the prisoners by the keepers of the peace; such as the castration of a hostage by inmates) that gave the rise of the practice of mass incarceration as we know it today.
When Attica broke out the total prison population in New York State was less than 13,000 prisoners. Today, there are nearly 80,000 prisoners. Just as could be said when the uprising occurred, the majority of prisoners were men of color; so too, today’s prison population continues to be mainly comprised of men of color.
The racism that was rampant in 1971 at Attica persists to this day. I have little doubt that racism remains a significant and festering problem within the prisons themselves. Not only is our criminal justice system inherently racist, but many of the Caucasian guards are as racist as were the guards whose behavior help to provoke the uprising.
Examples of this racism are plentiful, but as an examples include: the [mostly] white prison staff carrying and often attacking black inmates with ‘nigger sticks,’ its largerly African American inmate population that was treated poorer than the white population, often “treated like animals” (as I detalied in my column last month), and the systemic occurence of imprisoning black inmates in higher proportion than whites and a lack of justice towards white guards who abused black prisoners.
In the immediate aftermath of Attica, the spirit of reform permeated the New York State prison system. Yet, as soon as the uprising fell from the public’s view, the State began to claw the reforms back. Conditions in New York’s prisons are worse today, thanks in part to overcrowding and underfunding than they were in 1971 when the uprising occurred.
It took the inmates and their lawyers three decades to receive a minimum of civil justice. No administrator, guard, or trooper was prosecuted for his misdeeds. That is a horrible legacy for all of us.
Angered by the settlement the inmates received, the families of the hostages – who were either killed during the uprising or who survived the brutally violent retaking of the prison – sought redress from the State that had failed to assume responsibility for their pain, suffering, and loss.
The State employed the same kind of tactics in resisting the efforts of the hostages and their families as they demonstrated during the 30-year ordeal of the inmates. During their efforts to seek compensation from the State, many family members finally learned the truth about what transpired at Attica on September 13, 1971, a day that should, as a former governor of the state once observed: “live in infamy.” It took the hostages and their families more than a decade to secure compensation for their losses and suffering.
A needed truth and reconciliation commission is increasingly impossible as prisoners, guards, troopers, administrators, prosecutors, as well as Rockefeller as his representatives are dead. The State has never owned up or apologized for the horrors it unleashed and the cover-up in triggered.
Attica still haunts the United States. How so? Prisoners across the country continue to be treated as subhuman. The criminal justice system is just as racist as ever while apologists persist in protesting that “justice is blind.”
It is time that we all get honest about the horrors perpetrated in our names. We need a system that rehabilitates people sentenced for crimes. We need a psychiatric system for all who are mentally ill. We need a criminal justice system that is truly just and that treats inmates as the people who will return to live, work, and thrive amongst us.
*photo via Time Magazine