"If it's just one prisonlet's say Sing Sing closes down January 1then the effect will be minimal," says Ellis, a former Black Panther who spent 23 years in prison and now heads the Criminal Justice Center, a Harlem-based prisoner advocacy group. "If the demonstrations exceed 10 prisonslet's say 20 prisonswe're looking at some real problems because [prison officials'] traditional way of dealing with[a protest]identifying and segregating the leaderswould be a lot more difficult to do."
As Pataki and state legislators have made life tougher for prisoners, it is the guards who have had to enforce their policies. A carrot-and-stick strategy had long prevailed, and the promise of parole was a powerful management tool for maintaining peace inside the state's prisons.
"A lot of guys have been keeping a very clean record for 20, 25 years on the chance of possibly someday getting out to see their family and see the world one more time," says an upstate correction officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Now that that light has been put out, it's pretty dark. If there is nothing left for an inmate to lose, there is nothing to take away from him."
Prisoners with nothing to lose, who have lost all hope, can be dangerous. It hardly seems to matter that their anger is not directed at the men and women in uniform who will show up for work on January 1. While charges of brutal guards and dismal conditions sparked the Attica uprising nearly 30 years ago, this time the target of inmates' frustration is outside the prison walls. "It's not against the officers or the administration," explains an inmate at a maximum-security prison, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. "It's against the parole board and the governor. They have to understand we're not dollar signs."