Attica: There is No Fixing It
My first contact with guards’ threats was during the eight months a close family member was an inmate at Riker’s Island. I visited several times during my first year of law school, driving the seven or eight hours from Buffalo, parking, taking the bus, checking in. Waiting. My first few visits had gone smoothly, or as smoothly as a visit to Riker’s could.
But on this one occasion, there was a lengthy delay. I did not get called. Time passed. Hours. Other visitors came and went. And I repeatedly questioned the guards about the delay. Finally I asked to speak to a supervisor.
And then came the threat. If I wanted to speak to a supervisor, if I wanted to make waves, then something would happen to my relative. Did I know what that meant? Something happen to my middle-aged, white, suburban, somewhat well connected family member because a relative was trying to see him? Ridiculous, right? I persisted, visited my relative, and told him. He told me not to worry. And nothing did happen to him. Perhaps because he was middle-aged, white, suburban and somewhat well connected.
After law school, I joined the staff of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (P.L.S.). I wanted to handle civil rights cases. I wanted to do legal services work. I wanted to help those who needed it most.
And so began my visits to Attica, and my understanding of what guards’ threats can really mean. Each week the mail brought heartbreaking complaints from inmates of beatings. Anguished family members would call with tales of broken bones and false accusations against loved ones, resulting in delayed releases. These families did not have resources, connections, or anything that would lead prison guard to be cautious in their interactions. P.L.S.’s limited resources meant minimal or no legal work in beating cases. We were a false beacon of hope in a dark tunnel.
The same guards’ names appeared in so many letters. I still remember them.
I would drive through the small town of Attica and up to the looming prison; cement walls, barbed wire. Through security – leering male guards telling me I had to remove my underwire bra. Staring as I walked through, braless. I bought wireless bras for visits.
The most devastating letters led to a series of legal proceedings in which I participated – a mentally ill man had killed himself while in solitary, ignored or worse, goaded, by guards. The letters came from S.H.U. (Special Housing Unit) inmates, there because they had been found guilty of violating institutional rules.
I visited the S.H.U., and sat alone with these inmate witnesses as we prepared for litigation. Little did I know that one had a history of killing those who helped him, and had even killed in prison. A book was later written about him. The guards knew. And as I met with these inmates, the guards would lock us in soundproof rooms and walk away. One man jerked off as I met with him. (The famous one was charming, handsome and bright; it was many years after I left P.L.S. that I read the book.)
As a result of some of the litigation, a judge ordered cameras to be focused on inmates during transport to and from the S.H.U. During one video review we watched the footage – camera focused on a dark cell, guards rushing in, yelling “This one’s for you, P.L.S.” Jeering. Did we cause that? Was it a beating? Sure enough, one of our witnesses wrote later that week about a guard assault.
After two and a half years I left P.L.S. I felt we did too much letter writing, and too little litigation. I felt impotent.
I read the New York Times article this week about the upcoming trial of three guards charged with brutally assaulting an inmate at Attica. The trial was scheduled to start on March 2nd .
The charges included gang assault and witness tampering. I remember a line from Buckaroo Bonzai ( a sign of my misspent youth – or perhaps well spent) – “No matter where you go, there you are.” And as I read, I flashed back to my days as a young attorney at Attica. Belligerent, leering guards; claims of physical violence; helplessness.
This article is a must-read for anyone working in the criminal justice system. This is where too many people land. Not all prisons are Attica, but most have at least an element of it. Not all guards are the like Attica guards who were the subject of this article. But sadly, too many, especially at Attica, are.
When I worked at P.L.S. I was naïve enough to think that the court system and the state had some check on the brutality of the guards. But as this article reveals, and as today’s proceedings confirm, the arrogance of the guards has been vindicated. They are untouchable. They continue to work, choosing their stations, retiring with their pensions. They continue to spread terror and violence.
I desperately hoped for convictions this week (not a position I often take). I hoped something would change. The guards pled today to A misdemeanors with conditional discharges. And so life goes on at Attica. As long as Attica continues to exist with its culture of brutality, and its guards continue to flout the law, facing nothing but slaps on the hand, criminal charges against guards don’t matter. Lawsuits don’t matter. The guards have won again.
As described in the article, there is a unique, pervasive culture at Attica. There is no fixing it. Shut the damn place down.