It is one of those unpleasant anniversaries that society would be the better for without -- but which serve as a useful reminder of the work yet to be done. The terrible riots at New York State's Attica prison that began Sept. 9, 1971, left 43 people dead and shocked the US into rethinking the fitness of its extensive prison system in which more people are incarcerated than in any other nation in the world except the Soviet Union and South Africa.
The tenth anniversary of Attica this week ironically follows by only several weeks the recommendations of a new Reagan administration task force that urged the federal government to spend $2 billion to help states build new prisons. Whether because of better apprehension and conviction methods, or just simply because of the increase in crime, more and more persons are now being sentenced to jail. From 1978 to 1981 the state prison population grew by 60,000 persons to 329,000. Yet, some 39 states are currently under litigation involving serious problems in their prisons, such as overcrowding.
Attica is no exception. Ten years after that dreadful human explosion, as Monitor correspondent Robert Press recently noted in an article in the special section of this newspaper, there is still a question as to whether promised "reforms" at Attica have changed conditions all that much. Although a gymnasium , vocational school building, and new visiting room have all been added, overcrowding is still a serious problem. More visits are allowed from outside family members but, given Attica's physical isolation in upstate New York, few families of prisoners are able to make the long trip to the facility. Although prisoners are allowed more time away from their cells -- in fact, they are now away most of the day -- much of their work is of a makeshift nature and not geared to developing job skills. "Rehabilitation," as one Attica official describes it, "is a word of the past." For most convicts, he says, prison is "a warehouse to keep people off the streets."
Reforming the nation's vast prison system -- both at the federal and state levels -- will not be an easy or inexpensive task. Yet reform is essential to cut down the high recidivism rate which is nurtured by current incarceration methods and which finds most convicts on an endless cycle of prison, parole or release, and return to prison.
The administration's plan to convert unused military facilities into prisons offers one innovative way of easing overcrowding without having to build expensive new buildings. But money is not the only problem. The public will also have to decide to what extent it wants its countryside dotted by institutions.
New facilities are needed. But a long-run solution will have to include more alternatives to prisons ranging from greater use of probation to restitution (making the criminal pay the victim), halfway houses, community service, and job training. The issue is not one of "coddling criminals" but getting them back into the mainstream of society and ending the cycle of confinement and future crimes that merely leads to new Atticas.