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Prisoners' Legal Services of NY Victim of Budget Ax

September 13, 1971 Bloody Monday. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller unleashes a firestorm of bullets and shotgun blasts into Attica's D-Yard. Eight minutes and 3,000 rounds of ammo later, 29 prisoners and 10 hostages lay fatally gunshot in spreading pools of blood. Another 89 are wounded.

May 18, 1998 Bloody Monday II. Using the veto power of his office, New York Governor George Pataki slashes more than $300 million in human services and education spending from New York's $71.4 billion budget. Among the items hacked by Pataki's budget ax is the entire $4.8 million budget for Prisoners' Legal Services.

PLS was set up by the New York State Bar Association in 1976, as a reform mechanism following the Attica uprising. For the past 22 years, the state has funded PLS to assist prisoners, to act as a watchdog and deterrent to official misconduct and prisoner abuse, and to provide a "safety valve" to help prevent explosive and deadly incidents like Attica.

Due to the governor's veto, PLS immediately laid off about two thirds of its staff, with the remaining staff working part-time. No new cases were initiated. PLS scrambled to find substitute counsel for 150 cases in various stages of litigation. By summer's end, the outlook was gloomy. Letters from NY prisoners seeking legal assistance were marked "Return to Sender" and mailed back unopened.

"The hope had been to raise some money from private sources to keep the program intact and limping along," said PLS Managing Attorney Michael Cassidy. "Our fundraising efforts have not been as successful as hoped, and as of September 11, 1998, Prisoners' Legal Services will effectively close down."

September 11, 1971 Governor Rockefeller refuses to negotiate with the Attica Brothers. Attica prisoner Flip Crowley makes his famous proclamation: "If we cannot live as people, then we will at least try to die like men."

Among the most vocal critics of PLS have been NY prison guards and their union. "We don't like them too well," said Andrew Guynup, a guard at Clinton Correctional Facility (CCF). "They try to make cases for themselves by soliciting inmates on frivolous issues."

But far from increasing the number of frivolous lawsuits, PLS actively discouraged such claims. "During our 22-year history," said PLS Executive Director David Leven, "not one of our litigation cases has ever been dismissed as frivolous by a court."

Furthermore, PLS often worked to settle countless grievances outside of court, sometimes with a simple phone call, other times through formal mediation or negotiation.

But it's not hard to understand why CCF guards, in particular, hold PLS in contempt. The upstate prison holds fewer than 5 percent of NY state prisoners, but in recent years approximately 50 percent of guard brutality cases filed statewide by PLS stemmed from incidents at CCF.

Bob Lawson, a spokesman for Council 82, the union that represents 26,000 NY prison guards was asked what his members thought about the impending demise of PLS. "I doubt if a tear would be shed," said Lawson.

The State Bar Association, in an April 29, 1998, letter to Pataki, argued that eliminating funding for the program would be "clearly dangerous."

That warning didn't stop Pataki from killing PLS on Bloody Monday II. And along with the PLS budget, Pataki cut $6.8 million from dozens of civil legal aid clinics that provided services for the poor; $5.8 million for AIDS and HIV prevention; $18.4 million for alcohol and substance abuse prevention and treatment; and $17.2 million in modest pay increases for those who care for mentally disabled and developmentally disabled New Yorkers.

These cuts hurt mostly the poor. Left untouched by Pataki's veto ax was $700 million in tax cuts, the main beneficiaries of which are the wealthy, and business interests.

But this is an election year. And prisoners don't vote; poor people and the disabled don't bankroll political campaigns.

"Taking out Prisoners' Legal Services is really short-sighted," laments Daniel Meyers, a Manhattan attorney, one of five lawyers representing 1,289 Attica prisoner plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit. "It's a political issue that will boomerang.''

One prisoner who was involved in the 1971 Attica rebellion, Frank "Big Black" Smith, 65, has worked as a paralegal investigator, occasionally for PLS lawyers, since his release in 1973. Smith says that PLS is essential.

"I think it's a sin," he said of Pataki's veto. "It's wrong. Without PLS, it means another Attica. For sure."

Sources: Newsday, Albany Times-Union , Prisoners Legal Services

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