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September 14, 2016

Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica ... lessons unlearned 45 years later

For film buffs, repeating the words Attica brings to mind a great scene in one of Al Pacino's greatest movies.  But, for lots and lots of reasons, Attica and the riots and attacks that took place at this famous New York Prison in September 45 years ago should be remembers for so much more.  But, as this new Daily Beast commentary highlights, it is not clear that we have really embraced enduring wisdom from that sad month in upstate New York.   The commentary is headlined "Attica’s Lessons Went Unlearned: Our Prisons Are Still a Disgrace," and here is how it gets started: 

Forty-five years ago today, on Sept. 13, 1971, nearly 1,300 men were waking up in the yard of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, eager to begin another long day of negotiations with state officials.  After first failing to get help by writing to their state senators and pleading with the commissioner of corrections, these men had begun a protest against inhumane treatment four days earlier. On this rainy, damp morning, they were now hoping that they could finalize the list of improvements to the prison they had been negotiating, as well as secure a promise of no retaliation, so that they could bring their protest to a peaceful end.

Suddenly, however, the men looked up in horror to see a helicopter rising over the walls of the prison.  Within minutes, it began blanketing the yard with a thick cloud of toxic tear gas. Then, as men began choking, gagging, and falling to the ground blinded by this noxious powder that now covered their skin and filled their lungs, a phalanx of nearly 600 heavily armed and gas-masked state police rushed into the prison and began shooting these men down.  Then, over the next weeks and months, behind the closed doors of Attica, these men were brutally tortured.

Today, Sept. 13, 2016, hundreds of people who live behind bars are once again in jeopardy because, on this 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, they too just launched a series of human-rights protests as well as work stoppages.  Like those prisoners in upstate New York more than four decades ago, prisoners from Florida to Michigan have erupted because they too endure terrible overcrowding, insufficient food, too much time locked in solitary confinement, terrible medical care, and even bruises, broken bones, and, yes, death at the hands of abusive guards.

Their mistreatment is well documented. White guards in one Florida prison, for example, recently forced a black prisoner into a chair, and while choking, kicking and punching him, they screamed “Let’s beat this n——- and teach him a lesson.”  What had he done? He had dropped a cookie on the floor.  In another Florida correctional facility just a few years earlier, prisoner Darren Rainey died after officers punished him by forcing him to stand in a scalding 180-degree shower for two hours.  In Michigan’s prisons, juveniles and women prisoners have been raped by correctional staff, suffered medical abuse and neglect, and have been forced to eat rotten and rat-ridden food.

And yet, just as it was overlooked in 1971, this inhumane treatment has been utterly ignored by prison authorities as well as by the politicians who have the power to do something to stop it.  And so prisoners are once again protesting.

For those not familiar with the events in Attica two score and five years ago, the Marshall Project has this very modern review of events there,

September 14, 2016 at 11:51 AM | Permalink


The racist policies of prison administrators force prisoners to act. In Washington State prisons Mexican offenders who have an immigration detainer are not authorized to participate in self-help programs, educational programs, work programs because of their status as undocumented prisoners. Other offenders are afforded rehabilitative opportunities--not Mexicans. It is either a violent prison revolt, or boycotting all Washington State products. Maybe affecting their economy will put pressure on the state government to change their racist prison policies.

Posted by: FatCat | Sep 14, 2016 12:38:34 PM

If justice doesn't convince, pragmatics should.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 14, 2016 12:58:15 PM

"Sorry, but why exactly should we spend any money on helping inmates who are set to be deported upon release?".

You're right. Why should we treat these animals like they have any human worth? They harmed us and it is our right, nay, our duty, to prolong their lives as miserably as possible. They harmed us and revenge is ours.

Why waste good food on them? Let them eat the food with rodent droppings and dead bugs if it will save us a few dollars. Why not beat them at every opportunity to let them know how much more superior we righteous people are. If they fear us, we have met our objective as there is no rehabilitation for their kind.

I could not be a judge. It is one thing to sentence someone to a period of incarceration/incapacitation/rehabilitation (hah). It is another to sentence someone to a period of fear, torment, abuse, rape, beatings and slow - deliberate death of body and soul.

Remember, WE are the "better" people!

Posted by: albeed | Sep 14, 2016 8:34:38 PM

Sorry, Albeed, the comment to which you were responding got accidentally deleted. But you have preserved it via your response.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 14, 2016 9:05:51 PM


What little value I see in such programs stems from the fact that the inmate is going to be released back into our country. Without that I see no reason to provide anything more than the absolute bare necessities. (Note that I don't assign value to human life as such, to my thinking it is only the way someone lives that creates value).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 15, 2016 12:05:13 AM

When one gets out and has been mistreated and not given any chances to improve ones skill set. Then I guess when they retaliate at you by burgalery, stabbing or shooting you to take $25 from you for food. Its no biggee, youve treated them like a low life sub human, so its only way of getting by or putting it to you as they no longer care.

This is about the level of mentality of both sides. Its why blacks are shooting cops right now.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Sep 15, 2016 5:30:20 AM

I wonder if these prison strikes have spread to the various civil commitment centers where former convicts who have completed their sentences are still confined afterwards. I wonder about Moose Lake in particular which may have the largest number of civilly committed detainees within its walls.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Sep 15, 2016 9:28:56 AM

"Note that I don't assign value to human life as such"

That's a way to go. The law doesn't quite go along with it.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 15, 2016 11:09:02 AM

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