Social Justice Vol. 18, No. 3 (1991)
Attica: The "Bitter Lessons" Forgotten?
On September 9, 1971, the prisoners of Attica Correctional Facility resisted their non-existence through open rebellion. Taking control of the prison with the power of civilian hostages, they presented a list of demands for prison reform. Those demands included the perennial ones of prison riots, such as better food and improved health care, and some new ones, including religious freedom. But one of the uniquely important characteristics of the Attica rebellion was reflected in a second set of demands that accompanied "The Practical Proposals" for improved conditions. These "Five Demands," including amnesty and transport to a "non-imperialist country," gave the practical proposals a broad political significance. The Demands had a prolegomenon that called on "conscientious citizens" to help abolish prisons as institutions that "would enslave and exploit the people of America." By linking their struggle with larger social movements and political audiences, the Attica rebels were better able to have their definitions of social reality penetrate and become visible to penal authorities and to the ruling class. The Attica rebels were extremely articulate spokesmen for radical change, and they were media savvy. But the full power of the rebellion came from a conjunction of forces that gave the Attica demands political cogency: the unity of the Attica prisoners; the support they enjoyed from external reference groups, especially a nationwide prison-reform movement; a blossoming "prisoners' liberation" literature, which helped create and sustain a universe of oppositional discourse; and widespread media attention to the uprising at a time when public confidence in governmental authority was shaken by Vietnam, race riots, campus disturbances, and the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had vice-presidential ambitions at the time, and his Commissioner of Corrections, Russell G. Oswald, were confronted with a riot situation unlike any other and were very concerned about public reaction to their handling of the crisis. The complexity of their public-relations quandary was captured by Oswald (1972: 251) in his recollection: "We were dealing with a very sophisticated and determined coalition of revolutionaries who were trying to exploit public sympathy to achieve their political objectives, to trigger a chain reaction undermining authority everywhere." On the one hand, Rockefeller felt under strong political pressure ("for the authority of the state") to end the revolt quickly; yet he risked public condemnation should Attica turn into a Kent State, Jackson State, or My Lai.2 This tension contributed to the unique power of the rebellion to redefine social reality, a power to make these new perceptions and definitions of reality become visible to the ruling class.
To illustrate the radical change Attica represented in "the composition, ideology, and constituency" of prison resistance, Pallas and Barber (1980: 146), in their aptly titled essay, "From Riot to Revolution," contrast rebellions of the Attica period with the previous "wave" of more than 50 riots in the period 1950 to 1953. Unplanned and uncoordinated, those revolts were led by white "toughs," often gang leaders, who used intimidation or personal persuasion to keep rebellions from disintegrating into internecine personal and racial hostilities (Ibid.: 147). Earl Ward, one of the most notorious examples of this kind of riot leader, asserted his leadership of the April 1952 riot at Jackson State Prison in Michigan "when it became clear that internal fighting and disorganization needed to be controlled" (Ibid.). The list of demands, which he helped to formulate, was narrowly focused on basic living conditions. Nevertheless, the negotiated concessions were rescinded shortly after settlement, and Ward was dismissed as a convict of the worst sort at the time -- a "criminal psychopath." Prison authorities in other states experiencing riots also blamed them on the recalcitrance of a relatively few dangerous and "disturbed" prisoners. Individualistic and pathological interpretations were taken up by the media, professionals like Austin MacCormick, and many in academia. This gave a powerful rationalization for quick prison recapture and subsequent official inaction on prisoner grievances.
To successfully challenge the state's ideological power, the Attica rebels had to overcome serious internal divisions, especially the strong racial and class antagonisms. Prisons before the 1960s had much less open racial conflict, in part because African Americans were a segregated and often violently suppressed minority. The influx of African Americans and Chicanos in the late 1950s and early 1960s upset the balance of power among convicts, and open racial hostilities -- from stabbings to race riots -- became endemic. At the same time, Black and Hispanic assertiveness hastened the demise of the authoritarian system of prison governance based on the accommodation between corrupt guards and co-opted prison leaders.3 The Muslims in the late 1950s and then the Black Panthers in the 1960s refused to accept the mutually accommodative arrangements that made the "quiet joint" of previous generations. In refusing to acquiesce, they were joined by a new breed of white convict, younger and more politically aware. This power could have been used to forge a rebellion, but Black separatism alienated whites and increased racial hostilities at the same time as the old elite was losing its power to resolve disputes. Racial violence and general disorder reached a peak with one of the worst racial riots in U.S. penal history, the 1967 San Quentin riot, involving nearly 2,000 prisoners.
The mutual destructiveness of San Quentin forced a reassessment and renewed effort by the politically sophisticated to achieve racial and class unity. Shortly before his death, George Jackson, although an advocate of Black nationalism, attempted through Marxist discussion groups to overcome hostilities between African Americans and the Chicanos at Soledad (Yee, 1970: 125). And truces between Black, Chicano, and white prisoners were achieved in several other prisons. Two successful "unity" strikes at San Quentin followed in 1968, and in 1970 racially cooperative revolts broke out at several New York City jails, and at Soledad, Folsom, and San Luis Obispo prisons. The November Folsom work stoppage, lasting 19 days, was "the longest and most non-violent prison strike in the history of this country" (Pallas and Barber, 1980: 151). In the summer of 1971, the Black Panthers, Muslims, and Young Lords (the Puerto Rican militant group) at Attica were able to forge an alliance as the result of participation in a prisoner-led sociology class. This effort quickly bore fruit in a series of peaceful mass protests over the summer of 1971 (New York State Special Commission on Attica, 1972: 106-107). From a July manifesto to the daylong protest in September over the death of George Jackson, two months of unfulfilled promises by Commissioner Oswald and reprisals against suspected "ringleaders" put Attica on the road to riot. The lead article in this volume takes the story of Attica from there. Michael Deutsch, Dennis Cunningham, and Elizabeth M. Fink, attorneys for the Attica Brothers, provide an account of the uprising and its suppression that has been largely hidden. Much of this will finally be brought to light in a civil trial scheduled for September 1991.
The organization, discipline, and rhetoric of the rebels made Attica the exemplar of prison revolutionary action. In the wake of the Attica Brothers' heroic resistance and brutal suppression, "convicts in prisons across the land felt a new sense of class consciousness," observes Blake McKelvey (1977: 359). But this did not last long. Some guards immediately sought to undermine prisoner politicization by intensifying their efforts to foment racial strife. Further, within months a series of racially provoked stabbings occurred in California's four major prisons. Although there was a record number of riots in 1972 -- 48 in all -- none approached the unity and vision of Attica. From there, the prison movement began its precipitous decline.
Overview of the Volume
This special issue, a 20-year retrospective on the Attica rebellion, offers a variety of contributors -- including lawyers, academics, and former and current prisoners -- who were asked to write and talk about the significance of Attica. Yet this volume is more than a reminiscence. Contributors were asked to assess prisoner struggles since 1971 in Canada and Great Britain, as well as in the U.S., and to include the plight of women and political prisoners. These analyses help to broaden our understanding of important changes in penal repression and prisoner resistance. We know that, measured by Time Magazine's (1971) post-Attica recommendations on penal reform, the bitter lessons of that conflict were quickly forgotten.4 Since the early 1970s, crime and punishment have been cynically politicized and imprisonment rates are now the highest in history.5 Our contributors explore various aspects of this "war on crime." Vicky Munro-Bjorklund's article on the popular-cultural images of criminals shows how in the last 20 years the entertainment and news media have developed a symbiotic relation with demagogic politicians, helping to fashion a reactionary public attitude that is hostile to prisoner rights. While applauding a record imprisonment rate, voters have been unwilling to adequately finance expansion of facilities and programming. Budget crises and overcrowding are forcing penal officials to abandon many of the gains made in the wake of Attica. In addition, increasing violence has led officials to resort to escalating levels of coercion. This New Authoritarianism has replaced the last vestiges of liberal penology just when more prisoners than ever -- the detritus of neoconservative fiscal and economic policies -- are in need of medical, psychological, and educational support.6 With high levels of unemployment and a stagnant economy, the United Kingdom (U.K.) is moving fast down the same disastrous road of warehousing a growing underclass. Joe Sim's article, "Prisons, Protest, and Politics in England and Wales, 1969-1990," discusses the implications of that policy direction. In both the U.K. and U.S., understaffing, gross overcrowding, and a general deterioration in the quality of prison life have made prisoners more hostile and guards more fearful and reactionary.
David Gilbert's article, "These Criminals Have No Respect for Human Life," assesses changes in the values and attitudes of guards and prisoners at Attica since 1971. "Broadly speaking," Gilbert observes, "prisoners are less socially conscious and yet angrier." According to Gilbert, prisoner unity has suffered and the old inmate code proscribing snitching and predation is weak. Other sources indicate that assaults and rapes are common, and collective violence has sometimes been internecine. The 1980 riot at New Mexico, in which rioters slaughtered 33 of their own, is the worst example of this value deterioration. In the Guest Editor's Interview, Frank (Big Black) Smith and Akil Al-Jundi were asked to account for this degeneration of prisoner values and attitudes. They believe that, in part, the younger, shorter-term convict has taken for granted many of the hard-fought reforms of the Sixties and Seventies. Moreover, short-termers simply have less incentive to comply with prison norms favored by the long-term convict. More fundamentally, as Gilbert points out, convict values reflect the individualism and hedonism of the Reagan-Bush era.
The diminution in prisoner unity and loss of political purpose since Attica has not meant that prisoners have been totally incapable of concerted action directed at the authorities. As penal conditions deteriorated in the late 1970s and 1980s, prisoners in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. were organized and focused enough to participate in several large, nonviolent protests and a few disciplined rebellions. In their article, "Prisons in Canada," John Lowman and Brian MacLean report 69 major "disturbances" in the mid-1970s. In the last decade alone in the U.S., there were dozens of serious disturbances and, although many were not progressive, some showed prisoner unity and politicality. For example, in 1983 Attica was hit with a 1,700-strong work strike against racism, physical brutality, inadequate rehabilitative programming, and poor medical care. In May 1990, moreover, there was a large protest at Attica over the killing of a Black prisoner. Gilbert gives us a first-hand account of this disciplined and widely supported action. During this period, British prisons also experienced many revolts. Sim's article includes an analysis of the April 1990 Strangeways prison riot, the most destructive uprising in a century.
The state's response to these revolts (as well as to the rash of prisoner assaults) has been to go to the farthest reaches of penal severity. In what The New York Times has aptly termed the Iron Hand, three control strategies are being employed in the U.S. to recreate an authoritarian system of prison management characteristic of the pre-World War II period. One is to create high-security areas in the Big Houses. Aimed especially at gangs, this strategy targets "ringleaders" and "troublemakers" for a "new order" of leg irons, handcuffs, and small, windowless cells (Johnson, 1990; New York Times, 1991). JoAnne Page (Johnson, 1990) of the Fortune Society, concurs: "The move is toward isolation, electronically controlled gates, as little contact as possible." In New York, for example, as of June 1991, over 1,400 prisoners were in Special Housing Units (SHU). Nearly half of the SHU prisoners are serving more than one year, spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. They receive no educational or drug-treatment programming. Folsom and Stateville officials, in their war on gang leadership, have created the nation's most remarkable of these "prisons within prisons" (Johnson, 1990). The "machine within the machine," to borrow Michel Foucault's metaphor, is far more advanced in design and technical capability than the version that amazed Foucault during his tour of Attica (see his 1972 interview in this volume). Canada has been relying increasingly on its super-super maximum-security Special Handling Units (SHU) for proactive security; prisoners sent to SHU need not be guilty of any overt acts that threaten security. A second approach to neutralizing convict leadership is to put suspected organizers on a perpetual transfer circuit from prison to prison -- "doing your bit on wheels," in U.S. prison argot, "kidnapping" in Canada. These two approaches are extensions of old methods. A third strategy, just emerging in the U.S. state-prison system, is to devote entire facilities to very high security. In these Alcatrazes for the "worst of the worst" (Raab, 1991a; New York Times, 1991), the regimes normally include 23-hour-a-day lockdown, continuous camera surveillance, and various degrees of sensory deprivation. The stated rationales for these "electronic coffins" are simple. One is fiscal: a single maxi-maxi prison is more economical than maintaining many "tiny theaters" of segregation. As a secondary benefit, according to the warden of Marion Federal Penitentiary, "the concept of consolidating 'predatory' inmates in one institution of a penal system allows other prisons to be run more safely" (Raab, 1991c). Yet Marion houses more than predatory convicts. Michael Deutsch and Jan Susler's article describes the treatment of political prisoners at Marion. California, Oklahoma, and Maryland have modeled prisons after Marion, and it is not unreasonable to assume that states also will employ their facilities for the segregation and punishment of political activists and protest organizers. Since February 1991, New York's Southport Correctional Facility has operated as a maxi-maxi facility. Further, according to Robert Gangi, the executive director of The Correctional Association of New York,7 Southport is being used to confine not just predators, but also those who have been too verbal in questioning authority.
How effective has the Iron Hand approach been in restoring penal order? Officials in Texas, California, and Illinois claim that their "get tough" strategies have produced a sharp drop in murders since the mid-1980s, although the rate of assaults has not declined (Johnson, 1990). While heightened repression has apparently quelled rioting in Canada, self-directed violence appears to be increasing. Lowman and MacLean predict that this learned helplessness will turn to militancy as security contradictions mount. The U.K. pioneered the maxi-maxi system in 1969 with a version called "dispersal" prisons. Today, eight super-max prisons form part of a circuit that receives troublemakers on a rotating basis. Nevertheless, as Sim points out, the U.K. has had dozens of major disturbances in those 22 years. Those Americans who argue that the Iron Hand will eliminate rioting would do well to recall the irony of Attica's origins as the ultimate "solution" to prison disturbances. Attica was the pinnacle of "the ever escalating process of constructing ever more secure prisons" (New York State Special Commission on Attica, 1972: 13) in reaction to the nation's first "wave" of prison riots, which occurred in the 1920s. At its opening in 1931, Attica was heralded as "the most secure, escape-proof prison ever built." Penal authorities seem to have forgotten this history, however. Surprising only top officials, prisoners at Southport rioted on May 28, 1991. Just a few months into its maxi-maxi conversion, several prisoners broke out of individual recreation cages, ripped apart sections of chain-link fence to free others, and took four guards hostage. The 26-hour siege by the 52 prisoners ended when negotiators promised to videotape prisoner grievances for audio replay to the rest of the prison's population.8 On the videotape, "inmate Miguel Sanchez complained that guards were abusive, meals were often late and inmates were given only five minutes to shower and shave each morning. 'We in general didn't want this to happen. But it got to a point, you know?' he said" (Kates, 1991).9
Commissioner of Corrections Thomas Coughlin blamed lax guards for the Southport uprising, saying that union membership had been "non-cooperative and resistant" to the conversion of Southport and to recent staff budgeting cuts (Raab, 1991b). Yet the Iron Hand approach is fundamentally flawed. As Richard McCleery (1960: 76) argues, "...any endeavor to maintain both an authoritarian system and conditions of equality among inmates involves inherent contradictions." Authoritarianism requires censorship, but prisoners need information for their physical and psychological survival. When communications are tightly controlled, and the prisoners' situation is not being accurately defined by officials, the prisoner community will create a hierarchy based on an elites' ability to predict, explain, and in some measure control events. No amount of punitive segregation can thwart leadership or eliminate resistance. Prisoners run prisons, and ultimately their keepers must have their consent. Even the most authoritarian warden of the prewar period recognized the vital importance of informal controls, and supplemented rule by fear with some degree of accommodation with convict leaders.
When repression tightens so firmly that there appears to be no possibility of escape from deadening routine, no room for evasive maneuvers or face-saving "secondary adjustments" (Goffman, 1961), the impossibly oppressive nature of the whole system becomes evident to most of its victims. This consciousness is the first step to rebellion. Marty Miller, in his review essay of Useem and Kimball's States of Siege, reveals other conditions:
These are the general penal conditions of the 1990s. The concern, at least for radicals, is not whether prisons will be in turmoil, but the direction prisoners' anger will take. Will aggression be self-destructive -- assaults, internecine riots, and (largely for women) self-mutilation and suicide -- or can it become focused on political issues? This depends in part on outside help. Gustav Ichheiser (1970: 208), in his seminal study of perception and social coercion, points out "the great, sometimes even decisive, importance of the neutral-detached spectators in defining what is collectively accepted and recognized as 'reality.'" Ichheiser (Ibid.: 208-209) continues:
Their predicament, "not being collectively perceivable, is something which is very difficult and sometimes outright impossible to communicate to those who do not share it; it makes, therefore, people who are trapped in it feel isolated, forsaken, and deserted," according to Ichheiser (Ibid.: 212). A main leitmotif of this volumeconcerns the invisibility of prisoners today. The central argument of Joe Sim's book, Prisons under Protest, according to Tony Ward's review, "is that prison riots are not psychopathic orgies of destruction, but desperate attempts at communication." Ward urges greater attention to prisoner accounts of penal reality to help prisoners overcome their terrible isolation.
Women suffer the greatest invisibility, reflecting their general powerlessness in society. Their protest against poor treatment has taken "silent" forms of self-mutilation, suicide, and attempted suicide. Sim reports that in one recent year in the U.K. there were 429 reported incidents of self-inflicted injuries in adult women's prisons. Adela Beckerman and Kelly Moffat report that in the U.S. and Canada most female prisoners are mothers. In the U.S., women prisoners can be permanently separated from their children if they are unable to provide arrangements for childcare, or are unable to maintain regular contact. Beckerman's article addresses the obstacles incarcerated mothers face in maintaining their parental rights. Moffat's article examines the conclusions of a recent Task Force on women in Canadian prisons. This Task Force has helped to illuminate the plight of women, especially Native offenders (who represent a disproportionate number of incarcerated women in Canada). While the Task Force recommendations for restructuring women's imprisonment are laudable, Moffat outlines several practical difficulties with attempts to implement them.
Prisoners are invisible even to a significant segment of the intelligentsia. In the 1960s and 1970s, radical lawyers, academics, and political and religious groups helped prisoners to redefine social reality, helped to "open their eyes." Today, however, Left intellectuals are in disarray over the penal question. One wing seeks to abolish prisons, while another, calling itself "left realism," actually supports the increased use of imprisonment for selected offenders, such as rapists and corporate and state criminals (Mathiesen, 1990; Taylor, 1991: 3). Most radical criminologists simply ignore the penal question. Jim Thomas and Sharon Boehlefeld, in their review of Willem de Haan's The Politics of Redress, assess this sad state of affairs and discuss the merits and prospects for penal abolition. Whatever its flaws, the authors argue, abolitionism has value in confronting cynicism and in challenging wrong-headed notions and policies.
Few on the Left any longer question penal practice as an instrument of class domination. In their article, "Constitutive Penology," Dragan Milovanovic and Stuart Henry argue that we should focus critical attention on the ways the discourses and ideologies of penology reproduce "free world" forms of domination. Yet critical criminologists need to go farther to reveal how even oppositional discourse may be constitutive of existing reality. As an example of how victims contribute to their own domination -- even when they think they are struggling against it -- the authors point to jailhouse lawyers, who "often legitimize a hegemonic law-and-order discourse by translating everyday contextualized inmate understandings into legalistic versions cleansed of interconnectedness and potential articulations of system-centered injustices." Working on the assumption that humans actively reproduce the conceptual and institutional apparatuses that dominate them, the authors argue for a new ("replacement") penological discourse and practice ("transpraxis") that would be truly liberating.
In "Managing Prisoners in Japan: 'Attica' Is Not Probable," Elmer H. Johnson provides the reader with a national example that stands in sharp contrast to the situation in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. Japanese prisons are relatively tranquil; aggression against staff and other convicts is rare, and riots are unheard of. Certainly, the very close supervision, ritualism, and severe sanctioning of deviance account for part of the quiescence. As Johnson points out, however, sociocultural factors are of greater importance. Japanese culture stresses vertical social ties based on loyalty and paternalism. This source of cohesion combines with the policy of encouraging social interaction between guards and prisoners (highly discouraged in Western penal systems) to effect a high degree of compliance with official values and norms. Except for the Yakuza (criminal gangs), there are no prisoner subcultures to support organized resistance. The Yakuza, moreover, are politically right-wing and tend to try to do "easy time." Perhaps the principal reason why Japan's prison system remains tranquil, though, is that its criminal-justice policy has not been politicized. Authorities are free to emphasize prison diversion and to impose relatively short sentences, eliminating overcrowding and widespread resentment as sources of frustration and instability. These policies are not likely to be adopted by Canada, the U.K., or the U.S. without a radical structural transformation of their societies.
1. Other work by Jerome Washington appears elsewhere in this volume.
2. Just such an association was made by Time (1971: 19). Vicky Munro-Bjorklund's article in this volume also indicates that there was much public sympathy for prisoners' grievances. In a 1972 national survey, she reports, "an overwhelming 65 to 10 percent" of the "American people reject the use of armed force to put down prison riots, such as the shooting during the Attica outbreak."
3. Besides Black and Hispanic militancy, several other forces had been at work in the postwar period to destroy mutual accommodation. The advent of liberal governance, in which wardens were willing to provide prisoners with policy explanations and discuss administrative changes, denied the elite its privileged access to communication and information on prison operations, which they had exploited in exchange for respect, scarce goods, and contraband (McCleery, 1960). Also, civilian bureaucratization eliminated many prison clerical jobs that were the source of information and influence. Finally, the expansion of prisoner rights through prisoner activism left fewer privileges with which to reward convict leadership.
4. Time's September 27, 1971, cover story argued that prisons were inherently counterproductive, and should be used only as a last resort. From "The Bitter Lessons of Attica," Time suggested "The Way to Reform": "(1) Reform the Nation's Criminal Laws; (2) Replace Local and County Jails with Regional Correction Centers; (3) Abolish Fixed Sentences; (4) Destroy Every American Bastille Built before 1900; (5) Develop Alternatives to Prisons."
5. In the U.S., state and federal prison populations have swelled from 200,000 in 1971 to over 770,000 by 1990, an almost three-fold rate increase. Yet this Great Incarceration has not made the public feel safer. Opinion surveys suggest that Americans fear crime more than any other social problem (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1989: 55-56). Thisfear shows in the public's increasingly punitive attitude: a 1988 National Opinion Research Center poll showed that 82% of respondents believed that the courts are not dealing harshly enough with criminals!
6. The Great Incarceration has involved a remarkable change in prisoner demographics: the U.S. penal population is darker, younger, and a larger proportion of convicts is serving shorter sentences (even though mandatory sentencing laws have recently countered the trend somewhat). In 1971, 37% of Attica's prisoners were white. Further, the leading crimes of sentence were armed robbery and murder, in that order. Two-thirds of its prisoners were over 30 years of age, over half of whom were serving sentences of seven years or more (New York State Special Commission on Attica, 1972: 490-493). Today, at New York maximum-security prisons like Attica, whites comprise only 18% of the population; the leading crimes of sentence are murder and then robbery, but drug crimes make up nearly 19% of the total; 54% are over 30 years of age, and less than half are doing seven-year minimum sentences (but there has been a great expansion of medium-security prisons, where over 90% are serving under seven years). Systemwide in New York, African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 80% of total prisoners, and the leading crime of sentence (46%) is drug possession or sale (all profile data are as of August 1, 1991, State of New York, Department of Correctional Services; see also McFadden, 1988). The prison staff profile has not changed, however. Of Attica's 656 guards in 1991, two are Hispanic and 10 Black. Out of a total staff of 970, three are Hispanic and 19 Black.
7. August 15, 1991, phone interview with Guest Editor.
8. This video was never aired to public audiences, however. What penal authorities did learn from Attica, and what the White House learned from Vietnam, was the importance of collaring the news media. During the uprising, TV correspondents were not permitted even to pan the exterior of Southport, few details were given to the press, and prisoner demands were not made public until after the institution was retaken.
9. Prisoners also complained of Ku Klux Klan chants and racial slurs by guards. "About 92 percent of Southport's inmates are black or Hispanic, while more than 90 percent of the officers are white" (Raab, 1991c).
Bureau of Justice Statistics
McFadden, Robert D.
The New York Times
The New York State Special Commission on Attica
Oswald, Russell G.
Pallas, John and Bob Barber
Yee, Min S.
Citation: Robert P. Weis. (1991). "Attica: The 'Bitter Lessons' Forgotten?" Social Justice Vol. 18, No. 3 (1991): 1-12. Copyright © 1991 Social Justice, ISSN 1043-1578. Social Justice, P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140. SocialJust@aol.com.