Whenever the term Attica is mentioned, what comes into one’s mind is the past riot that took place in Attica penitentiary in 1971. The prison was built with the state-of-the-art equipments, and it was believed to be one of the best prison facilities in New York City. On September 13, 1971, inmates went on a rampage accusing the prison warders of denying them essential needs such as sanitation (Zinn, 2003). The atmosphere in the facility had been tense for a long time, but the prison’s management made no effort to address the situation. Inmates complained of racial discrimination against the blacks, who were the majority in the facility. An uprising ensued when a prison warder intervened in a fight between two inmates. The prisoners were put in isolation and stories went round that they were to be tortured for fighting (Lewis, 2012). Other prisoners could not sit and watch this happen. They revolted and within a short period; they had control of the facility. The inmates had a number of demands to be met before they surrendered the facility. Among the requirements included “federal takeover of the prison, better conditions, amnesty for crimes committed during the revolt and the removal of the jail’s superintendent” (New York State Special Commission on Attica, 1972, p. 18). In spite of the riot leaving twenty-one prisoners and nine waders dead, the riot had, and still has a historical significance.
One of the historical meanings of the prison is that it reminds people about the perception that the whites had about the blacks and the level of racism that existed in 1971 (New York State Special Commission on Attica, 1972). The facility was established as a rehabilitation centre. However, it turned out to be a dumping ground for the minority groups, which the whites deemed to be the primary causes of all the problems affecting the United States. President Nixon once said, “….you have to face the fact that the whole problem is the blacks” (Slade, 2012, p 11). That was an unfortunate remark from the president, who was supposed to unite all the Americans regardless of their race. It explained the reason majority of the prisoners were blacks in the penitentiary. It is during this time that the government declared that everyone behind the bars was an enemy of the state. The riot in the prison helped to expose what was going on in the jail and the deplorable conditions that the minority groups, especially the blacks had to go through at the facility.
Slade (2012) alleges “The Attica rebellion is more than a prison insurrection….is also a window into the time and history that produced it” (p. 15). The resistance helps both intellectual and non-intellectuals to scrutinize a feature of the American society that many Americans overlook, but is considered by other communities and countries as a spar of American survival. Every year the New York state sends thousands of people to penitentiary institutions. Sooner or later, just like in Attica, the prisoners go on a rampage and become politically and publicly noticeable. The riots expose the flaws in the American criminal justice system as well as penal complexes. The event in Attica penitentiary serves as a historical reminder that the Americans need to improve the conditions in their prisons as a way of safeguarding the country’s reputation. The Attica rebellion was all about the Americans (Slade, 2012). Analyzing the revolution helps the Americans to understand the circumstances that they have created for themselves, and probably look for measures to restructure their criminal justice system to avert future uprisings. The event triggered, and still triggers heated debates concerning the American criminal justice system and the wellbeing of prisoners in the different penitentiaries across the country.
In spite of the bloodshed witnessed in Attica in 1971, it is good to note that the uprising led to numerous reforms that prisoners enjoy until today (Benjamin, & Rappaport, 1974). The changes have made prison a better place for rehabilitation rather than hardening the inmates (Benjamin, & Rappaport, 1974). One of the reforms that came in the wake of the rebellion was introduction of contact visits. Prior to the rebellion, prisoners were not allowed to enter into contact with their people whenever they visited the prisons. Despite immense political resistance, New York lawmakers came up with laws that allowed matrimonial visits in 1976 (Slade, 2012). The visits were designated “family visits” where children were also allowed to visit their parents in prisons. The move was to counter the claims that such visits were meant only for sexual liberation. Prisoners were happy to spend time with their wives and children. Being far from family members served as a severe punishment to inmates, and it acted as one of the ways of disciplining them.
Prisons were disconnected from the public prior to the riots. No one knew what was happening in penitentiaries apart from the inmates and the prison warders. Inmates would go through harsh conditions in the hands of the waders, but it was hard for prisoners to report such cases (Benjamin, & Rappaport, 1974). Moreover, prisoners could not petition their convictions. All letters emanating from prisons were read by warders and later destroyed. Besides, those found to write letters that incriminated the jail staff were liable to punishment. Indeed, prisoners were locked out of the outside world entirely. The revolt led to reforms that allowed inmates the access to law libraries and courts (Benjamin, & Rappaport, 1974). Besides, they could now meet and air their concerns to inmate grievance committee. The riot opened the prison to the outside world. Prisoners could petition their sentences. In addition, access to law libraries helped prisoners to know their rights and to maneuver the legal system. Presently, all penitentiaries have libraries, thanks to the Attica riots.
The convicts were not allowed to pursue their education dreams. The state was not willing to give “free college” to individuals found guilty of any crime. Moreover, majority of the unlearned prison warders could not tolerate seeing prisoners in classrooms (Benjamin, & Rappaport, 1974). All these made it hard for prisoners to learn. Some detainees believed that they could not understand anything in school due to their upbringing. After Attica’s riot, the prisons opened schools, and prisoners were accorded free education. They could pursue secondary and college education. Some detainees were surprised to see how talented they were in different fields. Besides, the schools helped them to stay in touch with the outside world and to avoid problems. This reform cut down on the rate of conflicts in prisons seeing that prisoners got occupied with studies most of their time. In 2011, there were over 1,121 prisoners pursuing college education in New York State (Slade, 2012). What’s more, all penitentiaries started the general education development (GED) programs to equip prisoners with skills in various fields. Attica riot is credited for the decline in rate of crimes in New York State. The crime rate has gone down significantly with a number of prisons closing down altogether. Majority of those released from prisons secure jobs in the state or use the skills they acquire to employ themselves. Therefore, cases of people falling back to crimes after they are released have gone down. Re-entry groups have been established to help those coming from prison to reintegrate into the society.
The Attica confrontation of 1971 is a historical event that has had significant effects on the criminal justice system in New York State and the United States at large. The riots exposed a number of flaws in the state’s criminal justice system and the magnitude of racial bigotry that existed in the United Sates. The riot is currently revisited when making reforms to criminal justice systems in the United States. It gave birth to a number of reforms that helped to improve the conditions in the prisons. Days were set for prisoners to meet with their wives and children. Besides, they could enjoy their conjugal rights while under incarceration. Prisoners were allowed to petition their convictions and get a hearing from the inmate grievance committee. Furthermore, inmates could study law, discern their rights and steer the legal scheme without difficulties. From the Attica confrontations and reforms that followed, it is clear that penitentiaries can help in molding life if used well. Any person who goes through prison in New York State comes out a different person. Cases of crimes have gone down significantly in the state, which is an indication that the reforms are productive.
Benjamin, G., & Rappaport, S. (1974). Attica and Prison Reform. Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 31(3), 203-212.
Lewis, W. (2012). Attica Prison to be Convicts’ Paradise. The New York Times. Web.
New York State Special Commission on Attica. (1972). Attica: the official report. New York: Bantam Books.
Slade, K. (2012). Attica state correctional facility: the causes and fallout of the riot of 1971. The Exposition, 1(1), 1-20.
Zinn, H. (2003). Surprises. A people’s history of the United States: 1492–present. New York: HarperCollins.