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Attica Prison Report

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Attica Correctional Facility, prison in Attica, New York, one of the last so-called big house prisons built in the United States. Constructed in 1931, it was the most expensive penal facility of its day. New York state officials believed that a modern secure facility would solve the problems that they were experiencing with inmates in the wake of a pair of serious riots at state prisons in 1929. The facility included a seemingly impenetrable wall that was 2 feet (0.6 metre) thick, 30 feet (9 metres) tall, and topped with more than a dozen guard towers. Conditions for prisoners at Attica were harsh. Inmates spent at least 14 hours each day in their cells. Cramped cells, bad food, inadequate medical care, minimal recreation, and lack of employment training contributed to a dehumanizing atmosphere.

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On September 13, 1971, inmates at Attica Correctional Facility “castrated and slit the throats of their hostages.” Luckily, a government commissioned assault force quelled the violent prisoners, or at least that is the account governmental leaders choose to divulge to the public.[1] In reality, the assault force were the violent ones but, since the government has a major role in shaping public memory, the master narrative of the prison reform movement is associated mainly with violence, when thought of at all. The Attica Correctional Facility Riot is the most well-known and, to some, only known flashpoint of the prison reform movement. The unpopularity of this social movement stems from the inherently unlikable nature of the inmates. When citizens outside the prison community think of prisoners lobbying for basic human rights, they sometimes feel as though the prisoners do not deserve these rights because they have committed a crime. Commentators on the Attica Riot during its time period echoed this discrimination by saying the prisoners were “not like other people. They are uncivilized, antisocial, and if they are treated like animals, it is because they are, after all, subhuman.” News and governmental reports on the riot further this sentiment by blaming inmates for the massacre, influencing the thoughts of the public. As a result, citizens watching from the outside of the movement are further distanced from prisoners fighting for their rights. Because of the lack of relationship between prisoners and society, the master narrative of the prison reform movement is largely unacknowledged but, when it is discussed, discourse takes place through the perspective of government and political leaders. Unlike the portrayal of the prison reform movement as one of violence, the view related by the government, inmates employed many strategies of grassroots change taken from the civil rights movement and implemented in innovative ways unique to the prison reform movement. To fully explain the master narrative of the prison reform movement, one must first analyze the public memory of the movement and its motivations. As mentioned previously, the only truly well-known event in the movement is the Attica Riot. Inmates took control of the prison on September 8, 1971 in order to achieve negotiations with Corrections Commissioner of New York, Russell Oswald, and elicit reform in the prisons. The public’s perspective of the event would say prisoners were only angry because they were in jail, not realizing the grievances were concerning basic prison conditions. For example, in the thirty complaints proposed to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, there were simple requests, such as “adequate food, water, and shelter,” freedom of religion, and “increase [the amount of] fresh fruit.” After a few days of communication, Oswald, in conjunction with Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon, determined the riot and negotiations hurt the government’s reputation and subsequently sent an assault force to quell the supposed rioters. Afterward, the government stated that inmates slit their hostages’ throats and castrated them; however, after performing autopsies on the bodies, medical examiners determined the only violence of the riot stemmed from the assault force’s indiscriminate shooting of those inside the prison. Richard Clark, one of the leaders of the Attica Riot, said, “We are the only civilized men here,” referring to the violence of the assault force. Sadly, this act of concealing true events of the Attica Riot was not the only governmental action aimed to impede the prison reform movement.

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The experiences of youth which will be remembered were formative experiences. They shaped perceptions, world views and personal histories of a great many people

One event, a form of collective violence (Lombardo 1999), which I hope does not get lost in the stream of remembrances is a prison riot which came to be known as ATTICA. Attica was an event that shaped my life and lead me where I am today. In this essay I explore the personal connections between Attica and myself and the understandings and meanings of Attica looking back over the past twenty-five years. Through this personal exploration I hope to provide a experiential context for the understanding of the cultural and hisorical roots of a specific conflict and the human lessons for resolving conflict in the future. In the autumn of 1971, ATTICA, a small Western New York town, added its name to list of places and events which needed to be remembered 25 years in the future. This small prison town is one that must be remembered in the long and tortured history of the American prison. But Attica clearly goes beyond the American prison. Attica seems to be one of those conflicts that was much easier to understand before it happened than after. Before Attica the politics of crime and punishment were central to national criminal justice debates. Before Attica racism, poverty and abuses of power were central concepts in understanding the prison, and the nation's urban and political violence. National commissions of the late 1960's saw that we were moving toward two societies: one black and one white (Kerner Commission, 1968: 1).

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In short, they had 10 hostages they had obtained from the rioting and their plan was to use them as bargaining tools to get the prison rules and culture changed, they had a long list of grievances they wanted to be enforced but mostly wanted amnesty from future prosecution from starting the riot. There were many reasons for the buildup and eventual takeover of the prison from the prisoners and many mistakes were made in how it was handled and retaken. The governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller ordered the prison retaken by force if negotiations continued to fail between mediators or observers and the prison population.

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Jackson, G. (1970) Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson,NY, Bantam Books.

Kerner Commission (1968) Report of the National Commission on Civil Disorders.

Lombardo, L. (1999) Collective Violence in Prisons: Psychosocial Dimensions and Ritualistic Transformations, in Summers, C. and Makkusen, E. (editors) Collective Violence: Harmful Behavior in Groups and Governments, Lanham, MD, Rowman and
Littlefield (141-168).

McKay Commission, New York State Special Commission on Attica (1972) Attica, NY, Basic Books.

McNamara, R.S. (1995) In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Viet Nam, NY, Times Books.

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