Twenty-five years ago last month, the uprising at Attica and the state's bloody and brutal retaking of the prison was an event that shook the world. When the prisoners took over Attica they presented a long list of demands. They were really only asking for one thing, though. They were asking to be heard. They had suffered under brutal, inhumane conditions for too long, and they wanted the world to know how bad things in prison in America in 1971 really were.
They asked for the media to come to Attica. Some, like Tom Wicker, did. They asked for attorneys to come to Attica. Many, Bill Kunstler among them, were drawn there. I mention this because more than two decades later Bill was among our earliest subscribers. Sadly, Bill Kunstler died a year ago.
But back to Attica. The Attica Brothers, as the prisoners came to be known, wanted the world to come and bear witness to the reality of prison in 1971. They had no voice. They had no way to bear witness themselves. Prisoners in 1971 had almost no access to the courts. The constitution was blind to what went on behind the walls. America's courtroom doors were closed to prisoners.
Martin Luther King Jr., once said: "Riot is the voice of the unheard." The Attica Brothers had suffered mutely long enough. Since they had no other means to voice their grievances, they rebelled. Four days later, 31 prisoners and 10 hostages were gunned down in a maelstrom of bullets which rained from over a thousand rifles and shotguns brought to silence their collective voice.
The gunfire was too late, however. The Attica Brothers had been heard. And Attica wasn't the only prison to have howled its voice in rebellion. It was just the loudest. The echoes of Attica reverberated the furthest, reaching all three of the big P's - the Press, the People, and the Power structure.
The power structure heard the voice of bloody rebellion. They listened to the faint rumble of revolution. They saw the people in the streets in their thousands. They realized that the fuse had been lit. So they gave ground.
The power structure opened the courtroom doors in the years following Attica and invited prisoners to seek justice there. And as Allan Breed, former correctional administrator and the first director of the National Institute of Corrections, wrote in a recent Correctional Law Reporter article: "Most [prison] program development, building improvements, increased staffing, and improved training, as well as the establishment of standards that has occurred in the last 25 years, can be directly related to correctional litigation."
In the last 25 years. Twenty-five years ago the Attica Brothers stood up. Some of them were slain. Most of the survivors suffered savage beatings and years of intense harassment and retaliation. But they suffered not in vain. In the years following Attica reforms were made; landmark court rulings for the first time recognized the civil rights of the imprisoned and opened the way for prisoners to seek justice in the courts. The power structure didn't offer prisoners justice out of a sense of morality. No. Prisoners pushed hard enough - and more importantly, the people in the streets pushed with them - that the power structure gave ground. No justice, no peace. It was that simple.
Twenty-five years have passed, however, and the pendulum is swinging back. Events of the past couple of years (Sandin v. Conner, passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Lewis v. Casey, the "Anti-Terrorism" bill and Felker v. Turpin, to name a few) indicate that the power structure has forgotten Attica. Or maybe they haven't. Maybe they just think that the other P's have forgotten: Prisoners, the People and the Press. Maybe we have.
As the courtrooms doors once again swing shut in the faces of prisoners, we are at a critical juncture in the prison rights movement. Now is the time to look for other avenues besides litigation by which to seek justice. Now is the time for prisoners, family members and activists to form prisoner support and advocacy organizations. Look around you. Do such groups exist in your state? Are you involved? Are you willing to organize? Are you willing to stand up? Or will prisoners allow the darkness descend around us and take us back to 1971?
I'd like to tell Washington state prisoners about a new organization, Pro-Family Advocates of Washington (PFAW). They just published the second issue of their newsletter. Their masthead proclaims: "PFAW is a non-profit organization consisting of prisoners' family members, prisoners and concerned citizens, dedicated to preserving the rights, both legal and moral, of the families and children of the prisoners of the state of Washington." They don't say how much it costs to subscribe to the newsletter, but they undoubtedly need donations and support. I suggest that prisoners send a donation of at least $10 - $15 and ask to be added to their mailing list. Prisoners in other states may want to subscribe to PFAW's newsletter in order to "get in on the ground floor," to observe and learn how this type of organization is formed, perhaps offering a blueprint for similar organizations in states without something like PFAW. Their address is: PFAW; 221 SW 153rd Street, Suite #244; Seattle, WA 98166-2398.
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