[Ppnews] Remembering Attica

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 8 11:00:45 EDT 2011


REMEMBERING ATTICA

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.

**                    **                    ** 
                 **                    **

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.”

             **                    ** 
        **                    **                    **
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.[1]
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. .[2]

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.”

             **                    ** 
        **                    **                    **
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,[3] 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.

             **                    ** 
        **                    **                    **
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.[4]  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.[5]   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.[6]   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!

********************8
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.



[1]    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.

[2]    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.

[3]     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


[4]     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.

[5]     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


[6]    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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