A Warning at Rikers on the Anniversary of a Deadly Prison Uprising

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Today is Wednesday. We will look back at the legacy of the Attica Prison Rebellion, which ended 50 years ago this week with an armed attack ordered by the then government. Nelson Rockefeller.

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New York City public advocate Jumane Williams walked through the infamous Rikers Island complex on Monday and warned that a revolt-like debacle at the Attica prison in 1971 could soon play out in Rikers.

“We were all in danger there,” he said after the tour, promising to call Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cathy Hochul and describe what they saw.


Attica may have been mentioned intentionally: Monday was the 50th anniversary of the blood bath that ended a four-day rebellion at that state-run maximum security prison 350 miles from New York City. An armed attack by state soldiers and prison guards killed 43 people, including 10 guards and civilian prison staff, who were held hostage by prisoners for four days.

Attica gave life to the modern prisoners’ rights movement, even as it faded from the public consciousness. It has become little more than a footnote from a time when the nation was divided by the Vietnam War and emotionally scarred by the killings and civil unrest of the 1960s. Later generations used Al Pacino’s “Attica! Attica!” The rant in the 1975 bank-robbery film “Dog Day Afternoon” might make one wonder why that word energized the crowd.

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Soon after the attack to recapture the prison, New York officials lied to the public and the press. The officers wrongly blamed the prisoners for killing the hostages, saying that the prisoners had slit their throats. The autopsy revealed that the victims had been shot. Only the guards had guns.

Built in the 1930s, Attica was overcrowded with over 2,200 prisoners in 1971. Elements of daily life that might seem insignificant to outsiders had heightened tension: prisoners were limited to a bath once a week and a roll of toilet paper a month. He only received mail written in English as that was the only language the prison censors could read. Letters in other languages ​​were regularly thrown in the dustbin.

The head count in state prisons, which exploded in the 1980s, has fallen in recent years. There are now just over 32,000 prisoners in the state, almost half the prison population peaked in 1999. Last week, there were 1,635 prisoners in Attica.

A spokesman for the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that today’s Attica is “significantly different from the York state prison system in 1971” and that the agency “is critical to preparing incarcerated individuals for more humane supervision and successful release.” Made the changes. Back in the community.”

But the situation in Attica remains a concern for prisoners’ rights advocates. Karen Murtaugh, Executive Director New York Prisoners Legal Services, which was set up after the Attica uprising to provide representation for prisoners, said conditions had improved since 1971, but added: “I’m not sure they have improved much.”

Sofiyah Elijah, a former executive director of Correctional Association of New York, a non-profit prison monitoring group, noted that “soon after the Attica uprising, there were some reforms for some time, but the racism that existed in the state’s prison system continues to exist today.”

“It’s a shame,” said Ms. Elijah, who is now executive director of another non-profit group, Families Coalition for Justice“We haven’t made much progress at all.”

In 2005 – 34 years after the uprising – Elizabeth Fink, the lead attorney for the nearly 1,300 prisoners, stated that “Attica was over, except that it never ended.” This came after the state had agreed to pay $12 million in compensation to the families of prison personnel killed or injured in the attack by state troops. This was the same amount the prisoners won in their class-action suits against the state five years earlier. .

Then, in 2016, reporter Tom Robbins, along with Michael Wineripp and Michael Schwartz of The Times, looked at the 28 demands of prisoners in 1971. They found that the reforms made then were never completed or rolled back.

Advocates for prisoners’ rights say little has changed since their story was published. A new state law limits time in solitary confinement, which advocates say is often used as a punishment for prison violations. Policies now also provide for complaint procedures and religious rituals, and state regulations call for at least three hot baths a week.

But the reform union said that many Attica prisoners only get two. They can take a third shower in the yard, but the association said in a memo sent after a visit to Attica that yard showers were “not a viable option” due to cold weather, long lines, and resistance from corrections officers, who were asked to unlock the shower. have to stall

This indicates what the prisoners’ advocates describe as a constant tension between the prisoners and the guards. The Correctional Association said after a visit to Attica in 2019 that prisoners complained about “sticks out” when prisoners were being moved from their cellblocks to yards or other parts of the prison, improvising halls. A gauntlet of officers.

Prisoners are now given electronic tablets that they can use to communicate with relatives outside, not by email but by a different messaging system. The tablets do not connect directly to the Internet, although prisoners can pay to download some videos and e-books. But Jessica Schaff, executive director of the Correctional Association, said there were problems with the software and substandard content.

Another difference now is video surveillance cameras. About 2,000 have been established in Attica since 2014 “to help both the staff and the imprisoned population”.

John J. Lennon, who spent nine years in Attica serving a life sentence of up to 28 years, wrote in a 2018 Articles for The Marshall Project That the cameras have “achieved something that once seemed impossible in Attica,” naming “a violent us-against-them-culture.” He wrote that attacks on staff members were reduced by about 80 percent and injuries to employees by 40 percent after the cameras were turned on.

One of the promises made since 1971 was to pay prisoners the state minimum wage for work.

That hasn’t happened, said state senator Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn who has proposed a minimum wage measure for prisoners. He said in an interview that pay could range from 50 cents an hour to $1.25 a day. “Really unacceptable wages,” he said, adding that the last time he was raised was in the 1990s, Mario M. Cuomo was the governor.


It’s going to be another sticky day in the mid-80s, and rain and thundershowers will likely continue. Keep the umbrella with you till Thursday.

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metropolis diary

Dear Diary:

I was spending an entire day in front of a screen, familiarizing myself with the outside world and natural light.

As I wandered down Fifth Avenue toward the Met, a full moon was approaching and the summer breeze had blown over the tree pylons. This was a marked improvement compared to three hours ago.

A lone accordion player danced to his music at the bottom of the museum’s stairs. It seemed that he was enjoying his evening so much that I sat down to do the same. Notes of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” floated in the air, overlaying the crowd of the fountain.

If he was aiming for tips, he certainly had chosen a sparring time of day. But as he was playing, an old couple stopped, and then stopped. The doormen across the street drew closer. Three teenagers fell on their skateboards.

Finally, the accordion player waved good night to the security guards. He loaded his equipment behind a parked cab. Then, he climbed into the driver’s seat and turned on the lights.

Down the next block, a woman in high heels flagged him down.

— Lucy Cross

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could be here together. see you tomorrow. – jb

ps today is mini crossword And spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero, Jeffrey Ferticella, Rick Martinez and Olivia Parker contributed to New York TODAY. you can reach the team [email protected].

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