News & Politics

‘Whatever Your Worst Fear Was, That Was Attica’: Former Prisoners Ask Cuomo to Shut Down NY’s Infamous Prison

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On Thursday afternoon, the day before the 45th anniversary of the most famous prison uprising in U.S. history, dozens of people gathered across the street from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office demanding that he close the maximum-security prison at Attica.

Fed up with brutal conditions, men imprisoned at Attica seized control of the prison on September 9, 1971, taking 43 staff members hostage. They issued 27 demands, including educational programs, fair disciplinary and parole processes, and an end to racism and violence by the majority white staff. They held the prison for four days; during that time, outside negotiators went back and forth between prisoners and state officials outside. On September 13th, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to retake the prison. Thirty-nine people died that day—29 prisoners and 10 hostages. Numerous others were shot.

Among them was Melvin Muhammad, one of the prisoners assigned to guard the hostages. “I was one of the first ones who got shot,” he told the Voice. “I got a big hole in my back. I gotta keep exercising to keep the pain down.”

“We never expected that they would come in the way they come in—that they would drop gas and shoot,” Carlos Roche, now 74, told the Voice. After troopers stormed the prison, he says he was hit in the back of the head with the butt of a shotgun. “It knocked me out. My hands being stepped on is what woke me up.”

That was only the beginning. He and other men were forced to strip and walk in circles for hours. Then they ran a gauntlet down a hall lined with police. “They beat us nude all the way from the yard to the cell,” he said. He was placed in a one-man cell with two other men. His hands swelled, but Roche says, “When I thought about it, they hurt. If I didn’t think about it, I didn’t feel no pain.”

Two days later, he was taken to see the doctor. He was still naked. “My hands were on top of my head. I had a trooper behind me with a twelve-gauge shotgun on my neck,” he recounted. The doctor told him that his hands were broken. Roche was returned to his cell without any treatment. The next morning, he was transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility, five hours away. There, he finally received medical attention. Today, Roche has full use of both hands, but when he lays his hands flat, both of his ring fingers curl at the middle knuckles.

Muhammad and Roche were among the dozens of people holding signs and chanting “Attica! All of us!” He was not the only person who has spent time in Attica calling for the prison’s closure. Those rallying charge that, decades later, conditions inside remain brutal. But they’re not simply calling Cuomo, who has already shuttered 23 adult and juvenile prisons, to shut down Attica and shuffle those inside to other prisons, many of which have similar issues with violence and racism. Instead, they are demanding wholesale criminal justice reform to reduce the numbers of people imprisoned throughout the state.

Tyrrell Muhammad didn’t know anything about Attica’s history when he stepped off the prison bus eleven years after the riot. Officers singled out another man from the bus to carry a bag full of handcuffs and other supplies. “Don’t drop it,” they warned him. But the bag was so heavy that the man inevitably dropped it; when he did, the guards set upon him, beating him badly. “Whatever your worst fear was, that was Attica,” Muhammad said.

Now working with the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors prison conditions, Muhammad says “things have deteriorated more.” When he visits Attica, it’s not unusual for him to see men he knew 35 years ago. Those men, now in their seventies and eighties, often suffer from age-related infirmities. Not only is Attica ill-equipped to address the needs of elderly people, Muhammad has heard numerous stories of staff violence against those who file grievances (official complaints) about inadequate medical care. But with the passage of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, the only way that a person can challenge their treatment in court is to first exhaust the prison’s grievance system.

Violence also continues. In February 2011, less than two months after arriving at Attica, Terrence Slater was on his way to recreation when he was stopped by an officer. Slater assumed it was a routine search for contraband until the officer punched him in the face.

“Four of them jumped on me,” he told the Voice. Other officers joined in. He was kicked in the arms, the back and the genitals. He said that officers held his hands so that others could kick and punch his face. Then he was placed in solitary confinement and charged with assaulting staff. He recalled being in pain any time he moved, but despite his repeated complaints, medical staff initially refused to give him pain medication. When they did, Slater said that the medications didn’t help. “There wasn’t too much that didn’t hurt,” he said. Every time I moved—to reach for my toothbrush or toothpaste—it all hurt.”

While that was his first direct experience, he wasn’t surprised. “It seems to be an unwritten rule that if you go to Attica, you should expect to be beat up,” he said. Five years later, Slater still suffers chronic pain in his neck, back and shoulder.

In 2015, Attica made repeated headlines when charges were filed against staff for another 2011 beating, this time of 29-year-old George Williams. It was the first time in state history that staff had been indicted for a non-sexual assault of a person in custody. Three staff members ultimately pled guilty to misdemeanor misconduct. They avoided prison time, were forced to resign but allowed to keep their pensions. That same year, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into abuse by staff. (The Department of Justice has not returned request for comment or update.)

Neither the indictments nor the ensuing publicity has decreased staff violence. The Correctional Association continues to receives numerous letters detailing abuses ranging from racist names to beat downs for protesting these epithets.

Muhammad, Slater and other advocates are calling for Attica’s closure as part of the Beyond Attica coalition. “Attica is a symbol of all that’s wrong with our prisons,” Muhammad said. But, he adds, “the abuse is not just in Attica.” Muhammad recalls a recent (scheduled) visit to the medium-security Washington Correctional Facility, where nearly half the incarcerated men are black. As he walked through the prison, he saw an officer in a security booth where he had hung two black dolls dressed in prison garb. “In plain view of everyone,” he said. “These are the things I saw 35 years ago and this is still prevalent.”

Scott Paltrowitz is Muhammad’s colleague at the Correctional Association and another member of Beyond Attica. “New York must close Attica to end the atrocities there and send a clear message that brutality will not be tolerated at any of the state’s prisons,” he told The Voice. But their demand isn’t simply to close Attica and transfer the men inside to other prisons, some of which are just as brutal. “Closing Attica must not mean just shuffling people who are incarcerated there to other abusive prisons. New York also needs to end violence and abuse across all of its prisons, decrease the number of prisons and people imprisoned in the State, and redistribute resources away from incarceration and toward community upliftment.”

In other words, Beyond Attica is calling for decarceration—or reducing the number of prisons and people inside them. This can happen in several ways, Paltrowitz says. He points to the Raise the Age campaign to change New York’s policy of automatically charging 16 and 17-year-olds as adults and the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which would allow judges to consider the role of domestic violence during sentencing. Paltrowitz also notes the need to eliminate extreme sentences; as of January 1, 2016, 275 people are serving life without parole sentences while 9,262 people (or 18% of state prisoners) have a maximum sentence of life, meaning that they may spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Advocates are also calling for parole reform. Despite a 2011 executive law mandating the parole board to consider all factors relating to rehabilitation, many people report being repeatedly denied parole because of their original crime. Advocates are pushing the SAFE Parole Act requiring parole boards to provide specific requirements for release, that the prison system provide the means to meet these requirements and, once a person has met those requirements, a new hearing.

Nearly 300 people signed a petition calling for Cuomo, who has promised to shutter more prisons, to close Attica. After the rally, they marched across Third Avenue to deliver these petitions to the governor’s office, but police stopped them before they reached the revolving glass doors.

Even 45 years later, Roche says he still has nightmares about Attica. “I wake up still smelling gas, still hearing gun shots,” he said. The closing of Attica is long overdue. But, he also adds, it’s not only Attica that should be shut down. “They all do. They’re horror houses. Those joints was built to spread misery.”

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