Attica, N.Y. — "This is the only privacy we have and you are invading it." It was not the kind of greeting this reporter had expected as he peered into the inmate's cell.
The occasion was an anniversary of sorts. Just 10 years ago 43 people here at Attica state prison were killed in the nation's most publicized and, perhaps, most controversial riot. This outbreak shocked a nation and left the word "Attica" synonymous with prisons in the thoughts of many Americans. Now, a decade later, what has changed? And, more important, do prisons do what the public pays billions in tax dollars for them to do?
A tour of the prison was conducted for reporters by Lt. J.J. Quinn. At one point during the riot, Lieutenant Quinn had fired tear gas toward the place where inmates were breaking through a security gate to the prison hospital and its drugs. Today there is an extra security panel in that part of the prison.
On the first day of the riot, Sept. 9, 1971, officer William Quinn (not related to Lt. J. J. Quinn) was in the strategically important "Times Square," the intersection of four hallways leading to the four main cellblocks. The gates to the hallways were controlled from officer Quinn's post.
A group of inmates had beaten several guards after a dispute over a discipline question. Now this group of inmates threw themselves against the security door protecting Quinn. Apparently due to a defective bolt, the door gave way, and Quinn was attacked. By opening the other hallway gates, the inmates spread the riot to other parts of the prison.
Within hours, most of the prisons's more than 2,200 inmates had gathered in one of the four courtyards of the prison.They held guards hostage and demanded changes in the prison: better medical care, minimum wages for prison jobs, more religious freedom, less mail censorship, more communications with the outside world, better food -- and amnesty for the riot actions.
Tense negotiations were held. A civilian "observers" committee invited in by the inmates shuttled back and forth between prison officials and rebelling inmates.
On the gray, misty morning of Sept. 13, four days after the riot began, with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller still refusing to grant amnesty or come to Attica, and with knives drawn at the throat of several hostages, state troopers were ordered to attack.
In a few violent moments, a helicopter dropped tear gas on the inmates and troopers on the rooftops directed a blaze of gunfire at the inmates in the courtyard below. When the smoke cleared, 10 hostages and 29 inmates had been killed by police bullets. Three inmates had been killed earlier by fellow inmates, and officer Quinn had died of his wounds two days earlier.
The other 27 hostages survived. During the riot, some had even been protected by inmates from other rioters.
A visitor to Attica today has no trouble stretching out his arms and touching both sides of a cell.
The "privacy" the complaining inmate was trying to maintain was a space 6 by 9 feet, about the size of many American bathrooms, smaller than many animal cages at a zoo.
Each cell has a bed and a toilet. Limited personal belongings are allowed. In this space, most inmates spend about 10 hours of every 24. The rest of the time they are at meals, recreation, jobs, or on free time in the yards, all within the 30-foot walls of the prison.
Seeing those walls for the first time is stunning. "You can't miss it," this reporter was told, asking where the prison was situated. A mile out of town, past some open fields and across from a cornfield, thee it was. It looks like a movie set, or something from Walt Disney, plopped down in the countryside, the only high-rise in a rural village few had ever heard of before 1971. And there is something surreal about the guard towers atop the wall -- towers with pointed , tiled roops, as if the architect cared about style and detail.
No inmate has ever escaped over those walls, prison officials proudly point out. But then the same officials reluctantly admit one prisoner did escape through the back entrance to the prison, apparently encased in a packing crate closed by other inmates.
Outside the walls, life in the town of Attica is usually peaceful. You can still get good ice cream sundaes at an old-fashioned counter in a drugstore. Shops close early. There are no motels or movies. It is a farming -- and prison -- community. The prison provides many of the jobs in the area: not high-paying jobs, but jobs.
Chester Watson is a local bank president. "They [prisoners] should be treated like human beings, but there shouldn't be a country-club atmosphere. They certainly have it quite nice," he says, and laughs. "Of course that's looking at it from my eye."
If Attica has a country-club atmosphere, it's not a club attracting voluntary members.
Since the 1971 riot, a gymnasium, a vocational school building, and an additional visiting room have been added to the prison. Educational courses are available, but some seats in them are empty because of slack inmate interest, an educational director says. Inmates can make two phone calls a month. More calls could be handled, but Attica officials say they are following statewide rules. Married inmates are now allowed conjugal visits in trailers on the prison grounds. The prison, though, is a nine-hour drive from New York City, where more than half of the inmates are from. Visits by family are difficult.
Most of the changes are "cosmetic -- they do not affect the system," says Robert B. McKay, who headed an official inquiry after the riot. Even some of the "cosmetic" changed are not so clear. Prison officials say the food is better, but McKay says on a recent visit it "looked pretty dismal: no fresh anything; hot greasy-looking things and bread."
Attica is still Attica. And since late July it has again become overcrowded, jumping from about 1,700 to 2,000 inmates because of even worse overcrowding elsewhere in the state's penal system. The additional inmates "pose a lot of problems," Attica Superintendent Harold Smith says."A 1971 [riot] could happen any day," he adds.
Overcrowding was one of the factors cited in McKay's report on the riot. It was also cited as a cause in the New Mexico prison riot last year in which 33 inmates were killed by fellow prisoners. (Police retook the New Mexico prison without firing a shot, even though some guards were held hostage.)
But "idleness," not overcrowding, is the critical issue, Kenneth Schoen says. He is the former head of Minnesota's prison system, a system McKay calls "the best in the country" because of its use of alternatives to prison. "What are they [prisoners] going to be doing during the day that is going to be meaningful to them?" Schoen asks.
With evening programs available, there is now less idleness than there used to be at Attica. But inmates are not forced to join programs. One inmate interviewed calls Attica a "playpen" because inmates can just play basketball or do nothing. Another, asked what his prison "job" is said: "porter -- I sweep floors." Many jobs are makeshift and take little time.
Each day prisoners are marched silently down hallways to meals, where they sit at prescribed seats at prescribed tables. They are given a prescribed number of pieces of sugar for their cereal. "Control" is the key, guards say.
But the result is that when a prisoner is released and given a bus ticket and usually $50, he arrives (typically) in New York City almost broke, jobless, not used to making decisions, and out of touch with his family. Not surprisingly, he may soon be back in prison.
America actually sends only a tiny fraction of its criminals to prison. Most are never caught; others are not convicted; many get off without a sentence under some other supervision. The Quakers promoted the idea of penitentiaries in the United States as places to quietly reflect on one's wrongs, to mend one's way; a more humane treatment than killing or maiming the guilty, it was said. Today more than half a million are locked up in jails or prisons. According to one estimate, more than 150,000 new cells are being planned, at a cost of up to that recommends building new prisons as a deterrent to crime.
Taxes pay for all this. What do taxpayers get in return? A safer community? Less crime? Yes, some experts say. No, other insist. Prisons are either the best defence against soaring crime or one of the biggest hoaxes ever played on the American public, depending on whom you believe.
But most agree that only the most dangerous should be locked up in maximum-security prisons like Attica. It is cheaper, and more humane, to use less austere, less confining confinement for the nondangerous. Yet most states do not make this distinction, often locking up nonviolent offenders with those convicted of violent crimes.
And there is little disagreement over the devastating effects of prisons on prisoners.
According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, citing a variety of studies, homicide in state prisons was more than eight times as frequent as in the rest of the US in 1973. Suicide in correctional institutions averaged 50 percent higher than the national average from 1952 to 1973. Psychological deterioration in prisons is frequent; homosexual attacks are commonplace.
In prison, with only a "cage" to call your own, you "feel like an animal," one inmate says.
Being "tough" on crime is politically popular. Prison reformers contend they are not "soft" on crime, just looking for ways to get better results from the criminal-justice system. Leaving someone for many years in an Attica, they contend, leaves him more bitter, less in contact with his family, less prepared to assume a normal life, than before he entered the gates. Shorter sentences, reformers argue, are more effective, less debiliating. It is the likelihood of a sentence, not the length, that has whatever deterrent effect exists, these reformers, including McKay, say.
The fact that many prisoners commit new crimes and return to prison again does not mean the system is failing, argues Ernest van den Haag, one of the most conservative experts on prisons and a New York University Law School professor. The purpose of prisons is "punishment," he says; they do not rehabilitate. Prisons deter a lot of would-be criminals, but alternatives to prison are "totally ineffective" as forms of punishment, in his opinion.
Van den Haag points to a study in the early 1970s by Issac Ehrlich of the University of Buffalo, who compared burglary rates in two states. The state where punishment was seen as more likely was the state with the lowest burglary rate. Van den Haag admits there are some "complications" with the study, and other criminal-justice experts have criticized its methodology.
Another study, by William Nagel, who was deputy superintendent of corrections in New Jersey in the 1950s, points to very different conclusions.
Nagel, now a leading advocate of prison reform and head of the Institute of Corrections and the American Foundation, looked at crime rates and incarceration rates in every state over a 15-year period and found no correlation. Some states with high lock-up rates had high crime rates, some had low crime rates. Some states with low lockup rates had high crime rates, others did not.
He also found that in states where taxpayers balked at paying for more prisons, preferring cheaper alternatives such as greater use of probation, fines , earlier parole, and shorter sentences, crime was no more a problem than in states with major prison construction. The findings of his study have been examined and supported by the School of Public and Urban Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
"The 'lock-'em-up' solution affords us even less protection and at a greater cost than the alternatives," Nagel concludes. The US already imprisons a greater percentage of its people than any nation in the world except the Soviet Union and South Africa, he adds.
What are the "alternatives" that states are increasingly using? They include: (1) greater use of probation; (2) restitution, in which the criminal pays back the victim; (3) community service, such as working with the elderly or retarded or renovating a community center; (4) halfway houses for people addicted to drugs or alcohol; (5) fines based on ability to pay, with the wealthier offender charged more.
Other variations include weekend sentences which allow the convicted to hold down jobs and support their families; release from prison during the day to attend classes or a job.
But a growing concern among those favoring such alternatives is that they are being used not for people who would otherwise have gone to prison but for those who might have been sent home without supervision. In other words, the alternatives may be increasing the number of people under court supervision instead of spreading out those already headed for incarceration into various programs.
As this reporter walked the hallways of Attica with the other journalists, officers conducting the tour tried to hurry the group along. But in snatches of conversation with inmates along the way, one allegation was voiced repeatedly: "harassment" by guards. One inmate whispered instructions to be sure to visit the isolation cells, where, he alleged, brutaility occurred.
But Mr. Smith, the superintendent, was "emphatic" about forbidding journalists to see that part of the prison, a guard said. So ours was a carefully planned tour of what prison officials wanted us to see. (Smith later said that in the past few years some guards had been disciplined for excessive use of force against inmates.)
"Our [inmate] population has gotten harder, tougher, more toward the bottom of the barrel" as medium- and minimum-security prisons absorb less dangerous prisoners, Superintendent Smith says. The opportunities exist, nevertheless, for Attica inmates to rehabilitate themselves, he says.
Do prisons work? I asked him. "They keep a man off the street for a while," he said. Then he added: "I guess we're still looking [for the answers]."