A remembrance of the Attica Uprising, which began 40 years ago today. From Prison Legal News via the Freedom Archives' list-serve (sign up at the link below)...
By Dennis Cunningham, Michael Deutsch, & Elizabeth Fink
Prison Legal News
This year, September 9th will mark the 40th anniversary of the rebellion at Attica State Prison in upstate New York. As one of the prisoner leaders, L.D. Barkley, announced to the world, the rebellion was “but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.” The sound of Attica was heard cloud and clear, but the fury at the time was reserved to the assault force: several hundred violently angry white state police and prison guards, who carried out the massacre that ended the rebellion on September 13, 1971, with 43 men dead. The fury of the oppressed themselves has been a work in progress since that time…
L.D. was one of many politically aware prisoners in New York and elsewhere who identified with the struggle for liberation world-wide, with consciousness growing out the civil rights movement, the urban uprisings of the 60’s, and the ideology and practice of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. Much of it was given voice in the writings of George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver, especially “Soledad Brother” and “Soul on Ice”, whose searing indictment of injustice, racism, and cruelty in the prisons in California echoed across the country, and inspired resistance. A Manifesto demanding reform and urging resistance had come out of California’s Folsom Prison in 1970 and made its way around the Country and into Attica, and the prisoners there had delivered one of their own to NYS authorities, which was ignored, several months before the rebellion. George Jackson was assassinated at San Quentin on August 21, 1971; a few days later the prisoners at Attica staged a surprise protest at breakfast, during which nobody ate and nobody talked. The guards were stunned at the unanimity of it, and unnerved.
A number of the prisoners had been involved in previous, smaller rebellions in the Tombs jail in New York City and at the state prison at Auburn,. Various chapters of political groups on the outside had formed inside, including the BPP and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and the Black Muslims had large, organized contingent at Attica, as in all the prisons in the state at that time. Political literature flowed freely, and the groups were often able to gather in the exercise yards and various work and other locales in the institution. Grievances against the guards, the administration and the system were many, and widely shared, especially on the part of the Black and Latino prisoners, who came mainly from New York City, and almost all the rest from other big city environments like Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester. The entire staff at Attica at the time was white except for one Puerto Rican officer, who worked in a watchtower and had no contact with prisoners; and the surrounding rural area of Western New York State which they came from was mostly what some call “up South”, to denote the level of racial antipathy and outright bigotry endemic in the local population, and thus the prison work force.
At the same time, there was a strong and growing belief among the prisoners that they had clear-cut rights under the Constitution, that guaranteed fair and decent treatment, and freedom from discrimination; that, despite years of peaceful petition and advocacy, their rights were largely ignored by the prison administration; and that many kinds of nastiness and brutality they experienced from the white guards were a matter of policy. Many prisoners had come to feel that something had to be done.
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That morning of September 9th, a Thursday, after rumors that two prisoners had been beaten when taken to the hole the night before, a fight broke out between a handful of prisoners and guards in a hallway, when a door by which they would go to the yard after breakfast was locked, and they objected. A large number of other prisoners soon filled the corridor, and managed to break open a gate to the central connecting point between the cellblocks, “Times Square”, leaving large sections of the prison open, and hundreds of prisoners loose inside the institution. Staff members began to retreat to the administration building, but many were taken hostage by groups of prisoners and finally brought together in one of the four big, open exercise yards, D-Yard, inside the square of huge, three story cell blocks that formed the main prison, where hundreds of prisoners were now congregated. There it was quickly established that the hostages, guards and civilians, would be cared for decently, and protected at all costs, and the large, disciplined Nation of Islam contingent took responsibility for guarding them, in a protected circle in the middle of the yard, while the prisoners gathered in the far corner.
The prisoners quickly began to organize themselves into groups, to form a representative council and begin to talk things over, and decide things. There were roughly 1280 prisoners in the Yard. Several injured staff members were carried on litters to a distant gate, beyond a ‘no-man’s-land’ zone where there had been rioting, so the authorities could get them to the hospital. Thirty-nine guards and civilian employees remained in the hostage circle. The prisoners began to assemble a list of specific demands, and to listen to speeches from each other about the grievances they all shared. They soon had make-shift society set up, to provide protection, food, water and shelter for the hostages, distribute rations and water, and keep order among the large disparate crowd of men.
The prisoner leadership formulated and announced a first list of 28 demands. Leading points included replacement of two notoriously vicious and incompetent prison doctors, and better medical care generally, an end to prison censorship, and slave wages, and for fairness in the parole process. The leadership put out a call for independent observers to come to the prison, to intercede for them, and bear witness to the merits of their grievances, and the good faith of their desire to negotiate a peaceful settlement. They asked that the nation’s leading civil rights advocate of the day, William Kunstler, come to the prison and act as their attorney. They named other prominent citizens they knew were concerned with prisons or prisoners in some way: State Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, perhaps the one public figure in the state of New York who had previously expressed public concern about the conditions and treatment of prisoners at Attica; New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, who had written about problems in the prisons; New York State Senator John Dunne, head of the Senate Committee which supposedly oversaw the administration of the prisons, publisher Clarence Jones of the Amsterdam News, Congressman Herman Badillo, and many others, on a list that grew and grew. Most of them came; as many as 50 were there at various times in the five days. Kunstler arrived and went inside, to raucous welcoming cheers from this eager, charged-up crowd of new clients.
The authorities first planned to go in immediately, with state police forces that were being assembled, and guards, to recapture the yard; but instead, and to his short-lived credit, the state Corrections Commissioner, Russell Oswald, came from Albany to negotiate. With several members of the press, and TV cameramen, Oswald and his assistant Walter Dunbar went into the Yard and sat down at the table with a council of prisoners; they talked about the demands. Oswald agreed to several of them and promised to study others, and discuss them outside and return. They were accompanied by television cameras, and the spectacle of prisoners controlling part of the prison and publicly negotiating for humane treatment with the Commissioner of Corrections, captured the attention of the American public.
When Oswald came outside the prison, however, apparently not realizing that the prisoners would see him on television, he denounced them for refusing to release the hostages immediately; they saw him, and saw and heard that he showed a different face, and betrayed their trust. The observers committee went inside and another day passed in discussion of grievances and remedies, and terms. A new set of three demands emerged as the prisoners’ terms for ending the standoff: Point One: That the Warden, Mancusi, be replaced; Point Two, That prisoners who wished to, be removed and deported to “a non-imperialist country”; and Three: That there be an Amnesty, for all those involved in the rebellion, from prosecution for crimes alleged as part of it. Needless to say, this was much tougher to negotiate. Oswald did not come back inside the Yard after he was denounced. He met with the Observers, but held out little hope of compromise.
Over the weekend a guard who had been hit in the head in the early stages of uprising, when the big gate broke and prisoners surged into Times Square, died from his injuries. Now, hypothetically at least, everyone in the riot was responsible under the felony-murder rule, where the felony was the riot; so now, amnesty became the primary issue. The guards and state police, waiting outside day after day, full of hostility since the beginning and bombarded by false rumors, were now seething; and the Observers felt a massacre would take place if a settlement was not reached. They urged Governor Nelson Rockefeller to come to the prison and meet with them, give assurances against mass prosecution, and particularly to see the state of high emotion the police forces were in, spoiling for the attack. Several urged that he replace the officers with National Guard troops, who had also called out and were ready and much more prepared to carry out a re-taking; but he wouldn’t. He did give an order that the prison guards stay out of the assault force, but it was ignored.
The Governor declined to come. He told the Observers on that Sunday he felt it would do no good, that there was an impasse, and he had no choice but to order an armed assault on the yard, to rescue the hostages and put down the rebellion. They convinced him to wait at least until the next day, so that people at home on Sunday would not see it on TV and start riots of their own.
After three days of fitful negotiations, during which the hostages were safely guarded by the Muslim prisoners, and the prisoner negotiators, aided by the outside observers, attempted to reach a resolution that would insure meaningful changes, and amnesty from reprisals and prosecutions, Governor Rockefeller moved to re-take the D-Yard by force.
Tom Wicker, Sen. Dunne, Congressman Badillo and Clarence Jones, who had been friends with Rockefeller for years, all warned him urgentlybased on their harrowing passage each day through the masses of heavily armed, white prison guards and state police waiting just outside the walls, their racist rage fueled by false rumors of inmate atrocitiesthat an attack would result in a “bloodbath”. Conventional wisdom and plain common sense dictated waiting until prisoners would tire of holding out, so that some compromise for peaceable surrender could be arranged, but the Governor ordered the state police to prepare to attack. Rockefeller still harbored presidential aspirations, and obviously did not want to appear soft on prisoners, or law and order generally; it was an opportunity for him to make hay politically, and he seized it. His only, wholly self-serving “concession” was to postpone the assault from Sunday to Monday morning. As Congressman Badillo lamented bitterly afterwards, “What was the hurry? There’s always time to die.”
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That Sunday it rained all night; by morning D-Yard was a sea of mud and everyone was soaked, cold and miserable. Commissioner Oswald made one last demand for surrender over the P.A. system. Some prisoners took some of the hostages onto the “catwalk”, the one- story roof over the long corridors which divided the interior yards, crossing at Times Square. They stood spaced out on two sides, blindfolded, each guarded by a prisoner with some apparent stabbing device held at the neck. Then an National Guard helicopter flew low over the Yard; and some prisoners believed it was Rockefeller, come at last. Instead it blew a huge cloud of military-grade CS gas into the mass of men and mud; Oswald and the police commanders were told by General O’Hara, the National Guard commander, the CS would “put them on the ground”, to defeat resistance, and it did. Within seconds every one of the 1300 men in the yard was face down in the mud, gasping for breath; then the shooting started…
Marksmen on the high roofs opposite D-Yard quickly felled everyone on the catwalkkilling two of the hostage shields themselves, and several of their “executioner” escortsas helmeted squads broke over and through the barricades the rebels had built on the far catwalks. One shield hostage, Attica guard Michael Smith, shot four times in the gut by the attack force, said his life was saved when the prisoner holding him, Donald Noble , put his own body in the way of the shooting, to shield him. Michael Smith said he never understood why his own people kept shooting at him, or in truth, why the assault was necessary at all. He had appeared on a TV broadcast the day before in which several hostages had urged the Governor to come to the prison and get things settled peacefully, another plea the Governor spurned.
As the squads came out on the catwalks above the D-Yard, several with long guns took up positions along the length of the roofs and began shooting into the mass of men huddled in the mud, clearly oblivious to the presence of the hostages in the middle of the yard, several more of whom died in that barrage. The “turkey shoot” lasted some fifteen minutes, from when the snipers opened fire to when the supposed covering fire ended, and the squads of guards and state police swarmed down ladders into the Yard. More than four thousand rounds were fired, many of them dum-dum bullets. One hundred-eighty-nine of the 1300-odd men in the yard were hit, of whom 39 were killed, 29 prisoners and 10 hostages, counting those on the catwalk, by rifle and shotgun fire. Several more of both were maimed for life, because of the denial and delay of medical care. Many who died had been left to bleed to death, lying in the mud. No records were kept of which officers fired which weapons, and they made a point of mixing them up afterwards and then bulldozed all the evidence into a dirt pile in back of the prison, so that the killers could not be traced.
White revolutionary Sam Melville, the alleged “Manhattan bomber”, was murdered in cold blood, with his hands in the air in surrender, by State Police Detective Vincent Tobia, who hurried along the catwalk, stopped, aimed down, and fired a shotgun into his chest from 15-20 feet awayand later testified proudly that he had done it. The firebrand and prisoner spokesman L.D. Barkley was also killed, with credible evidence that he was seen alive after the retaking, but later executed. The issue was never resolved.
Some three dozen ambulances had been mustered outside, but they were reserved for the hostages, whether or not they were injured. No medical care had been planned for the prisoners and the National Guard was forced to step in, without advance preparations or any adequate supplies. More than an hour after the shooting stopped , Warden Mancusi called Dr. Worthington Schenk, the head of emergency services at Meyer Memorial Hospital, the big city hospital in Buffalo and told him they had a problem he should come look out. With no idea of the massacre he was about to encounter, Schenk got two residents and drove the 45 miles to Attica. Only when he got there did he see the horror before him and call back to Buffalo for emergency medical services. Meanwhile at least six prisoners had died needlessly, while scores lay in agony for hours waiting for medical care. .
After the shooting stopped, the officers on the ladders were joined by many more coming through the tunnels, as a small state police helicopter circled overhead, with a loudspeaker booming repeatedly, “Surrender to an officer. You will not be harmed”. The officers quickly began clubbing the gasping, unresisting men to their feet, including many who were wounded, and driving them across the yard to a doorway in one of the tunnels, across the tunnel and out the door opposite into the adjacent A-Yard on the other side. They had to go up five or six steps to the door, across the tunnel, then back down. Inside and out they were met with more officers, who beat them and tore their clothes off, took away glasses, watches, false teeth, etc, then put them naked in a long snaking line that wound slowly through the yard leading into the other tunnel, next to A-Yardwhich led into the A Cellblock, its cells now emptied to hold themwhere a gauntlet awaited them. Those who were considered leaders, the prisoner negotiators, spokesmen and security men were singled out for prolonged abuse and isolation.
As they waited in that long line which many people have seen in the lurid photographs that became hallmarks of that day, listening to the cries of those who preceded them into the tunnel, and the shouts and curses of the officers who lined the tunnel with rifles and axe handles, beating them, another preliminary torment was also enacted upon them. There was one prisoner everyone knew as Big Black (Frank Smith), a maximum leader during the days in the Yard, chosen as the over-all chief of security, and head of the escort squad that protected Oswald and Dunbar, and then the Observers, when they moved in and out of the yard. Mostly a smalltime hustler from the streets of Brooklyn, he had been in Attica for several yearsbasically because of rotten lawyering, and conflict of interest, whereby he got a sentence three or four times longer than what he should have hadbut he had not become involved in any of the political activities or groups which had developed there, except as audience. A large, dark-skinned man, very direct but with a ready, friendly smile, he coached the cellblock football team, worked in the laundry, and was on good terms with everyone, all groups; everyone respected him, even the police. But they changed their attitude during the five days, as he stayed at the center of things, directing the security force, and turned up repeatedly at the gate where the visitors came and went..
Now as the smoke cleared and the huddled men started struggling up, officers came through the crowd shouting for “Big Black! Where’s Big Black?”. They found him, beat him and stripped him, and took him across into the A-Yard. There they laid him on a steel table near the door where the curving line fed into the gauntlet, with the middle of the back of his head at one edge lengthwise, a and the other end reaching to mid-thigh. They beat him more, especially in the groin and testicles, cursing him loudly, and stubbing out cigarettes on his body. Officers stood above him on the catwalk and would hold empty shell casings in the flame of a lighter until they were too hot, then drop them on his body. They put a football under his chin and made him hold it against his chest, and told him that if it fell he would be castrated, or shot. They left him there for the others to see, keeping it up for more than five hours, as the line slowly snaked past him into the tunnel.
Inside the tunnel the floor was strewn with broken glass for some 50 yards, to the A-Block gate, and both sides were lined with officers with ax handles, 2x4s, baseball bats and rifle butts. The naked prisoners had to run, or, when they were tripped or knocked down, stumble and crawl the length of it, being struck and jabbed repeatedly over the whole distance, by violently freaked-out, cursing, sworn peace officers of the State of New York, all white men. Inside the cellblock they were herded up the stairs and into the cellsfour or five men stuffed into single cells, including many who needed medical attention. There they remained, naked, ill fed, and often terrorized through the night by officers who came in with flashlights and threatened to shoot them, frequently cocking and dry-firing rifles, shotguns, and pistols at them, and promising much more death and mayhem to come, for the next 3-4-5 days.
Big Black was finally taken off the table at about four in the afternoonafter about five hoursand over to the hospital, outside the main building. There he was put in a small room with several guards armed with clubs who resumed beating and kicking him, on the floor, until a National Guard medical officer chanced to open the door and found him, and that was the end of it. Twenty years later he broke down weeping on the witness stand while describing this day, in the class-action civil rights trialdespite having told the story many timeswhen the memory hit him full force; he was the first of several witnesses this happened to in the trial.
Afterwards, a news photographer found and recorded a pair of inscriptions, in separate hands, written with a white marker on a dark steel wall, that told the story. The top one said: “Attika fell 9-9-71. Fuck you pig.” Just underneath that, it said: “Retaken 9-13-71. 32 Dead Niggers.”
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The prison officials falsely announced to the world that the dead hostages had been killed by prisoners slitting their throats, and emasculating one of them, which they said they had seen, and which left them “no choice” but to attack. When autopsies showed that all hostages died from gunshot wounds from the lawmen’s weapons, state officials denounced local pathologist John Edland as a communist, and tried to discredit his findings. As Mark Twain said, A lie will travel half-way around the world before the truth gets its boots on: three years later, when the Erie County population in and around Buffalo was polled in preparation for jury selection in the first criminal trials, it was found that fully a third of the public still believed that the dead Attica hostages had been murdered by the prisoners.
The truth could not be suppressed however, and the massacre, one of the two or three largest slaughters of Americans by other Americans since the Civil War, was acknowledged in an official investigation, the McKay Commission Report.
There had been no plan to rescue the hostages, they were simply sacrificed at the altar of race hate, and, in aid of Rockefeller’s political ambitions, the need to make it clear that resistance would not be tolerated. The U.S. Court of Appeals denounced the so-called “re-housing” of the prisoners after the assault as “an orgy of brutality”.
To add insult to the grave injury, many of the surviving victims of the massacre and torture at Attica were later indicted by a local grand jury, made up of friends and neighbors of the prison guards, and run by a Rockefeller intimate, Robert E. Fischer, a former judge now appointed as a special attorney general, with a large task force of lawyers and ex-state police cops as investigators, which looked into alleged crimes by the prisoners, and studiously ignored those of the police and state officials. A later state investigation uncovered intentional killing of unarmed prisoners by the state assault force, but was suppressed, andwith the exception of one hapless trooper, who was indicted for “reckless endangerment”, for discharging his shotgun twelve times to “keep up the noise”, as he put itno charges were ever filed against the police.
Sixty-two prisoners were indicted in December 1972, charged with more than 1400 felony counts all together, more than half of which carried a life sentence upon conviction. Lawyers and activists from all over the United States came to Western New York to defend them. Attica Brothers Legal Defense (ABLD) was born, combining the legal defense with investigation of the crimes of the State actors, public education, and fundraising, and justice for the Attica Brothers became a nation-wide political issue. The main demand was to drop the charges, and jail Rockefeller and the police killers. Hundreds of people demonstrated in Buffalo, where the trials were to be held; thousands participated in one great march in September, 1974, when the first frame-up trials were about to start. Many of those who came to work for ABLD, including the authors of this article, had their lives dramatically changed by the Brothers’ example of militancy and courage, and the reality of how far the State was willing to go to suppress the rights and righteous protest of prisoners. In all, five trials (involving eight Attica Brothers) were held with four acquittals and one conviction.
A national political campaign was initiated, under the leadership of Big Black, whose experience at Attica had transformed him into a committed activist. Dozens of lawyers and young people volunteered, organized and demonstrated, forcing official investigations which exposed the planning and cover-up of the killings and torture. In late 1974 a young lawyer on the special prosecutor’s staff, Malcolm Bell, quit in disgust after his efforts to develop cases against officers were repeatedly blocked by the higher-ups. He went to the New York Times with his story, and soon a big expose appeared on the front page, telling the world what everyone involved in the case knew well: that the special investigation was a completely one-sided fraud. An investigation of the investigation was launched, and, ultimately, a new governor, Hugh Carey, was pressured to give amnesty to the indicted Attica Brothers, and clemency for two who had already been convicted calling the Attica prosecutions the “darkest day in the history of New York jurisprudence.” Twenty years and tens of thousands of work-hours later, despite the concerted efforts of the state officials to delay and defeat any public accounting for what was done, a class-action civil suit on behalf of the Brothers in D yard was tried in federal court in Buffalo. For the first time the full extent of the killing, brutality and denial of medical care inflicted on the men of Attica was publicly exposed.
The jury found that the rights of the class members were denied in the assault, and by the brutality inflicted upon them after the prison was retaken, but split, and hung, over whether any of the four officials on trial were responsible; they assigned blame for the beatings in the yard and the tunnel, and other tortures done that day, to just one assistant warden, Karl Pfeil, the only one of the four who was part of the planning and then personally oversaw the brutality in the yard and the tunnel. They hung again on responsibility for the torture as to the other three defendants: Commissioner Oswald, who had died; Major Monahan of the State Police, commander of the assault force, also deceased; and the Warden himself, Mancusi. At a subsequent trial for damages another jury returned an award of $4 million in damages for Big Black, and a third verdict awarded $75,000 to David Broesig, selected as an example of someone who suffered the average level of harm common to all prisoner class members not singled out for special vengeance after the assault.
Refusing to resolve the case, the State appealed the liability verdict; and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, still beholden to the legacy of Rockefellerand obviously determined to protect the State of New York from liability for the tens of millions of dollars the two damage verdicts showed that the Brothers were entitled to, and to block the sensation of so much money being paid to rebellious convictsrefused to recognize the legal validity of the class of prisoners, and set the jury verdicts aside. Faced with the impossibility of returning the Square One with 1200-odd individual cases, as ordered by the Court, and the likelihood of further prolonged delay, uncertainty, and clearly impossible expense, the Brothers still involved in 1999 bowed to an inadequate settlement, for a total of 12 million dollars including attorneys fees for a quarter-century of legal work. This meant that most of the survivors got paid a few thousand dollars, which, in light of the two damage awards, was a wretched pittance for what they went through.
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For a time, the horrific events at Attica, followed by several other less publicized prison uprisings and riots elsewhere, fueled nation-wide efforts for prison reform. Programs for prisoners and ex-prisoners were instituted throughout the country and for the first time people began to be sympathetic to the rights of prisoners, and to realize the importance of realistic efforts at rehabilitation. Prisoner rights legal programs were established in almost every state and many prison reform and watchdog groups sprung up. It was a period of political militancy and unrest throughout the country, and there were the beginnings of awareness in many sectors of the population that prisoners were subject to widespread mistreatment and abuse by their captors. Even the federal courtsoften as a result of prisoners acting as their own lawyershad begun to recognize for the first time that prisoners had constitutional rights, to due process prior to discipline and parole denial, first amendment access to literature and mail, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment in the form of deplorable prison conditions.
But it didn’t last. Before long the renewed emphasis on prisoner rights, and prison reform, began to evaporate in the heat of the nascent ‘war on drugs’especially in New York, with the infamous Rockefeller Drug Lawsand “tough on crime” politics generally. In the mid 1970’s a series of decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the protections earlier envisioned as guarantees of prisoners’ welfare, and dignity, and instead sanctioned supposed due process rules, which prison officials could satisfy by simply creating bureaucratic procedures and paper records in dealing with complaints and disciplinary actions, which in fact rarely if ever were decided in prisoners’ favor, and never when it was the prisoner’s word against the guard’s.
And, rather than implement programs of rehabilitation, prison technocrats throughout the country began to develop special solitary confinement unitscontrol unitswith sensory deprivation cells, where they isolated people they identified as activist and politically aware prisoners. Public support for reform and rehabilitation waned, and Attica for many was just past history. Then, as time went on, mandatory sentencing, increased penalties for drug crimes, gang proscriptions and an epidemic of “three-strike” laws and other sentencing “enhancements”, resulted in a virtual incarceration explosion in America. Dozens, really hundreds of new prisons were built, all over the country, replete with every phenomenally complex, expensive, high-tech electronic security and surveillance system and device that anyone could invent, especially if it could be sold to government in large quantities. From 1972 until the present the total U.S. prison population increased from about 400,000 to more than 2,300,000 today, as the prison-industrial complex has blossomed into big business, with big corporate profits.
During that time, the upswing in popular consciousness flowing from the disgrace and vanquishing of Nixon, and the end of the Viet Nam waras well as response to earlier events like the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, along with Atticasoon leveled off in Gerald Ford’s “stagflation”, and the weirdness of the Carter presidency, suddenly blown up by the hostage crisis in Iran. Then came an election in whichbesides being snookered by Reagan agents in a secret deal with the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election, to deny him the campaign triumph of bringing them homeCarter was simply over-matched. More to the point, Reagan and his ad agency handlers ran an overtly racist campaignbrazenly kicking it off in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the notorious slaughter of three young civil rights workers in 1964, and denouncing “welfare queens” and supposed freeloadersappealing shamelessly to the prejudice of white working-class people in cities filled with “Reagan Democrats”, and trumpeting the politics of anti-communism and crime, while building the atmosphere of fear and selfishness in which those politics would thrive; as they did. The backlash had arrived.
From there on“We’re going to move this country so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” crowed the Congressman-turned-Reagan Budget Director David Stockman, as he began to engineer the first of the preposterous tax cuts for the rich people and big corporations that led to the Country’s present evident bankruptcygovernance was more and more a matter of conscious stage management. The perfect actor was in the presidential role, and he set a tone of truculence, and unyielding, moralistic harshness, with unmistakable racial undertones, that was perfectly adapted to the emerging uses of mass incarceration. As the American population came to identify more and more as the “Me Generation”, and activist elementsbeleaguered by FBI “counterintelligence” (COINTELPRO) and kindred programs of repression all over the countrylargely drifted into the by-ways of identity politics, administrators of growing bureaucratic empires in state prison departments systematically set aside what federal judge Marvin Frankel once identified as an “elementary” understanding, that “people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.”
Finally, the larger trend was sealed with the awful story of Willie Horton, by the ghastly, successful, racist exploitation of it in the 1988 presidential campaign of George Bush the elder (first former head of the C.I.A. to become president)and to a important degree, just about every campaign for high office thereafter. The 'lock-em-up & forget 'em' mentality became an article of faith across the political spectrum, and has flourished. Rehabilitation, education and training programs wilted, everywhere, with the supposedly excessive costin the growing “big government is the problem” atmosphere always the cover story. In reality, prisons old and new were filling up with drug offenders, and alleged members of “criminal street gangs”, who were growing up on streets where the would-be revolution of the 60s and 70s was now played out, and a flood of illicit drugs played in; apparently a great deal of it by the CIA and associated instrumentalities of capitalist culture. The politics that had been rife in the prisons at the time of Attica gave way to internal red–blue rivalries among both Latinos and Blacks, and inter-racial conflicts, often systematically promoted and manipulated by jailors who were well aware that ‘if they’re fighting each other , they’re not fighting us…’ With such an approach, the prison system became the focal point for a much-heightened level of social control of populations, especially Black and Brown men, who were increasingly crowded out of a shrinking labor market, as whole industries continued to be dismantled, exported, and made obsolete.
Outside, anti-drug propaganda and legislative scourgings of drug and gang defendants suffused the public sphere. The Supreme Court did its part with one anti-human ruling after anothermeaning decisions where the iron law that power corrupts people was studiously ignoredgranting the jailors and wardens more and more arbitrary power and discretion over the intimate daily lives of convicts, shrinking further and further the process of any accountability for, or recourse from, the many perverse ways they used that power, and teaching the lower courts to defer to prison officials whenever possibleagain barely showing even the slightest awareness of the likelihood that the power they conferred would be abused. In the midst of this transition, the Control Unit paradigm continued to gain strength.
Possibly the first control unit as such was established in what was then the federal maximum security institutionthe notion of “maxi-maxi”, now morphed to “supermax” was just coming into playat Marion, in downstate Illinois, also a substantially “up South” region. Prisons had always had solitary confinement units for punishing rule violations, but the idea here was different, namely, that certain prisoners had to be permanently separated from the general population, because of their supposed influence on other prisoners. At Attica before the rebellion, prisoners overtly involved in prison and political issues or organizing were just beginning to be recognized, and grouped together dealt with together; indeed it was just such a grouping, from a certain tier, “5th Company”, including Sam Melville and L.D. Barkley and several others killed on the 13th, that started up with the officers in the tunnel when they found the door locked, and brought on the riot. At Marion, authorities decided that certain prisoners associated with protest inside, or political causes on the outside, or both, men respected by other prisonersas well as some whose resistance was more directly acted out should be subjected to programs of “behavior modification”, in the form of prolonged isolation, with basically uncertain terms for release, whereby they could be conditioned to submission, so to speak; which is to say, broken.
The idea caught on. The courts, predictably, accepted it; determining that as long as the prisoner was let out of doors for an hour or so each day, or maybe every other day, he could be kept locked up alone all the rest of the timeor at least until he would be deemed by officials to have satisfied some gobbledegook standard or prescription for correct conduct, or had served a peremptory minimum term, perhaps fixed by the government shrinks who now began to appear in profusion, to certify the supposed need for this new regimen in general and in each case. All the officials had to say was that confinement in the unit was not intended as punishment; and they were quickly learning how to pronounce whatever formulaic justifications and rationales the courts said they needed to hear…
Soon isolation units were being established in prisons everywhere, and it was not long before they were being specially constructed in new prisons. An early refinement was construction of isolation cells which each had its own adjacent outdoor space, to eliminate the need to move prisoners outside their cells. These were “dog pens” were similarly cramped (usual cell size would be 6x8 feet, the little yards maybe 6x10) with nothing but high, blank walls and a patch of sky, which the sun or moon might or might not ever pass over. The front doors of the cells would be solid, maybe with a pattern of small holes for ventilation, and a meal slot, openable from outside only, where the food is shoved in on a tray, and where you have to back up and stick your hands out behind you through the opening, to be cuffed and chained, before you can ever come out for any reason. Many cells are painted white entirely, and some are reputed to have rounded angles at the tops of the walls, so the eyes are deprived even of the tiny stimulus of a ceiling line. Usually a light is kept burning all the time. In the SHU at Pelican Bayan isolation unit inside an isolation prisonyou’re permitted your “appliance”, a small-screen TV which also picks up (and is sometimes rigged by staff to not pick up), one or more local or regional radio stations; and you have a small space for property, including the boxes of your transcripts and legal materials (if these have not been confiscated).
These units came to be all the rage in U.S. “penology”, especially as gangs and supposed gangs began to proliferate during the 1980’s; and before long whole prisons were being designed and built for long term solitary confinement, based on so-called “classification”, and typically located as far as possible from population centers, to discourage visiting and promote the feeling and pressure of isolation. The federal government built one in the Colorado mountains, at Florence; Illinois put theirs at Tamms, all the way at the other end of the state from Chicago, and California put one as far away from Los Angeles as they could get; about 780 miles north, at Pelican Bay. Again, many of the locations chosen were distinctively “up South”…
And if you build it, you have to keep it full, to justify the trouble and expense; so you have to have a steady supply of dangerous characters you can classify as in need of segregation from the others, in long-term lockdown; “the worst of the worst” is the ominous description always used. As the prison population swelled in the 80’s and 90’s, and the great red vs. blue gang rivalries developed on the streets and inside, prison officials more and more used supposed “validation” of gang membership as the criterion for assignment to “special housing units”, and, like other political figures, used propaganda about the supposed menace of the gangs, and the difficulties and dangers of dealing with them, to encourage and maintain public indifference to what prisoners were going through inside.
SHU isolation obviously falls short of the vile regimen of dogs, nakedness, hoods, and the rest, ordained by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and worked up by the Army and the CIA at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and all those places they had for prisoners taken in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, particularly in light of the manifest intention to degrade and break those subjected to it, and the institutional as well as individual disposition to de-humanize them, it absolutely qualifies as torture under both U.S. and International Law. Particularly with respect to alleged gang members who are locked down, there is the added feature that the regimen of enforced isolation and sensory deprivation is explicitly designed to extract information, in the form of so-called “de-briefing” of information about the gang and other gang members, which brings it still more solidly within the legal definition of torture. Indeed in California and other places, de-briefing, and the Catch-22 the demand for it creates for prisoners marked by authorities as gang members, and confined in the SHU on that basis, has become a burning issue within the larger issue of long-term confinement generally. De-briefingin which the prison “intelligence” officers will insist that your betrayal of the gang and gang members be so abject and complete that “they will never accept you back”puts a target for vengeance on your back for life, as everyone knows, and also greatly endangers your whole family on the outside; and most prisoners understand that, regardless of the promises they make, sooner or later the police will leave you exposed; and the likelihood is you’ll be in solitary again until then. It is not a realistic optionas the authorities well know, much as they also know that after years on end in the SHU there’s nothing much a prisoner can know about gang action that’s of any use at allstill that is the impossible hoop they hold up for these men to jump through. Some have been confined the whole time the tormentarium has been open; 20 years, and even before that. No wonder there were no scruples at Abu Ghraib…
** ** ** ** **
Most recently, first in Georgia, then briefly in Ohio, and now in California just this summer (2011), prisoners held in long-term isolation units were driven to the point of mass hunger strikes; and prisoners in the SHU at Pelican Bay were able to organize theirs despite their concerted isolation. The PB strike plan drew unified support across racial lines inside, a remarkable development, and accomplishment, which apparently helped the message to spread to other prisons up and down the state. The strike was planned ahead for weeks, and for once there was strong, effective support outside, resulting particularly in broad coverage in the press, usually so oblivious to conditions in the prisons. The brothers who initiated it said they were hoping maybe three or four hundred people at Pelican Bay would participate, then after about two weeks more than six thousand prisoners, in at least 12 institutions statewide, had refused meals in support of the strike and its core demands; including an end to the de-briefing requirement.
After three weeks, an assistant commissioner came from Sacramento and sat down at a table with prisoner representatives, and also allowed them to hold a conference call with a team of outside negotiators that had formed to help and intercede for them. Some token concessions were made regarding living conditions, along with a promise that the need and possibility for changes in the SHU system would be discussed within the state administration, and further talks would then be held. Believing they had made real progress, especially in gaining public attention and getting a promised hearing on SHU conditions and policies scheduled in the State Assembly, the prisoners agreed to accept these assurances, in good faith but without illusions, and see what would happen. The four strike leaders sent out this message:
- We’ll see soon enough where the CDCR is really coming from. More important is the fact that while the Strike is over, the resistance and struggle to end our subjection to human rights violations and torture in the SHU is just beginning!! We’ve drawn the line on this, and should the CDCR fail to carry out meaningful changes in a timely fashion, we will initiate a class action suit and additional types of peaceful protestwe will not stop until the CDCR ends illegal policies and practices in the SHU.
- We’re counting on all of our outside supporters to continue to collectively support us, and carry on shining a light on our resistance in here. This is the time for change in these prisons, and the movement to do so is growing across the land. Without the people’s support outside, we can not be successful!! All support, no matter the size and content, comes together as a powerful force; we’ve already brought more mainstream exposure about these SHUs than ever before, and our time for real change to this system is now!!! (emphasis added)
It is true that, in keeping with the increasing dog-eat-dog reality of American life in general, street gangs in many places, and drug dealers everywherein the predictable chaos arising from the country’s failure to learn from its experience that prohibition doesn’t workdisrupted society and often preyed on their own communities. But the fact is, a substantial majority of prisoners are jailed for non-violent offenses, and are themselves victims of a racist system that denies them opportunities for education, and any real chance at all for decent jobs.
Moreover, most prisoners will be released at some time, despite the huge sentences so heedlessly put on so many of them. If they don’t receive education and training in prison, and instead are maltreated, disrespected and hopelessly idle and bored; and then there are no jobs upon their release, the cycle of crime and incarceration will obviously continue; as it has. To our enormous cost in all ways. Currently, almost two-thirds of prisoners who get out commit another crime within three years of release. In California, huge numbers are returned to prison for the most minor, non-criminal infractions of parole conditions, as a matter of policy, decreed by the State’s punishment overlords. Only now, because of the tax-debt-budget crisis fomented in the political sphereand in California, certainly, the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a lower court order, after many years of litigation, that the State must move or release some 30,000 prisoners, almost one-fifth of its total, to relieve over-crowdingis there renewed impetus to look seriously at who is sent to prison, why and on what terms, and what happens to them when they’re released.
Despite the difficult climate, prisoners continue to organize and protest inside; and, finally, hopefully, as the depredations of the rich classes on the society as a whole awaken the conscience of more and more people, especially youth, there is a rejuvenation of support groups on the outside. The recent protests embodied in the hunger strike and its public support, following earlier work inside and outside challenging the gouging of prisoners and their families by phone companies, in cahoots with ‘corrections’ officials, are examples that show that the spirit of resistance is still alive.
It should be clear to us, however, that a prison reform movement based on the fiscal needs of different governments will not bring about real change. Unless we begin to de-construct the whole system that denies real opportunity to so large and growing numbers of people, and transform the class-based and racist enforcement structures of the criminal justice system, prisons will continue to be used as warehouses, and torment centers, for those who are expendable in the larger political economy, especially those who act out their resentment or resistance in any way. We need a movement that demands an end to discrimination and exploitation, as well as draconian prison sentences, conditions and treatment, and fights for equal opportunity, education and decent jobs. Prisons should be reserved for only the truly dangerous, always with the goal of rehabilitation and release, and with adequate resources provided to bring both about in positive ways.
We do well to hearken back to the revolutionary spirit that motivated the Attica rebellion: a demand for justice led by those who are oppressed. But we must remember as well the message from the Brothers at Pelican Bay: Without the people’s support outside, we cannot be successful!! As Big Black said: Wake Up America! Nothing comes to a Sleeper But a Dream!
Dennis Cunningham, Michael Deutsch, and Elizabeth Fink, along with Joseph Heath, were staff attorneys at Attica Brothers Legal Defense in Buffalo throughout the criminal trial phase which ended in February, 1976. They continued as lawyers for the Attica Brothers in the civil suit that was begun in 1974 and finally ended in 2001.
 Michael Smith remains a stalwart witness for and friend and supporter of the surviving Attica Brothers, four decades afterwards, and will be present in NYC to join in the 40th anniversary commemorations.
 The famous pathologist Michael Baden reviewed the autopsy reports and testified in the trial in 1991 that Sam Melville and L.D. Barkley, both wounded in the lungs, both might well have been saved if they had received timely medical attention when the shooting stopped.
 More people were slaughtered by the U.S. Army at (the first) Wounded Knee, for example, in 1890, and at Sand Creek, Idaho, in 1875; and as many or more probably also died in the race riots at Tulsa in 1921…
 In the 90’s Bill Clinton, the hustler president, aiming as he did so often to beat the reactionaries at their own game, flogged and then signed the so-called Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which basically shut down federal relief from wrongful convictions of state prisoners; and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, in reality a litigation suppression act, which put huge, really malicious and legally perverse impediments on civil rights lawsuits by prisoners, and lawyers trying to represent them.
 The Geneva Convention Against Torture states: PART I , Article 1, 1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. * * * *
Article 2 , 1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction. 2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. 3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.
U.S. Law, Title 18, Sec 2340 of the U.S. Code is more restrictive, requiring infliction or threat of pain, or forced drugging or some similar extension beyond simply “any act” by which severe mental pain is inflicted…
 Indeed the mighty New York Times itself has granted coverage, and, belatedly as to PB but in terms that were admirably straight from the shoulder, considering, demanded that long-term isolation be ended. See, “Cruel Isolation”, NYT editorial, August 1, 2011 NEED LINK In contrast, the close-by supposedly liberal San Francisco Chronicle was happy to banner-headline the low-life propaganda smear from the authorities, that the always-handy-to-take-the-blame gangs were enforcing the strike; then were silent on the whole affair when a peaceful compromise was reached, obligating CDCR to consider real changes, and negotiate further, to end the strike. That’s not news, in their commanding view, meaning it’s not something positive about these supposed ‘worst of the worst’who our state holds in such deep torment that they begin to starve themselves in protestthat they have any interest in having their readership learn about… See, “Gang ties alleged in hunger strike” (full-page headline, Bay Area section, July 14, 2011)
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