Tom Wicker speaks out

Many people know narrator-writer Tom Wicker as a result of his involvement in the Attica prison insurrection.

In 1971, when inmates rioted, they requested that Mr. Wicker act as intermediary in their negotiations with authorities. Later, he wrote a book about the experience, ''A Time to Die,'' which was adapted for ABC-TV.

Wicker has written many other books, too, both fiction and nonfiction, besides writing his regular column in the New York Times. For many years he's had an interest in the American prison system.

When I caught up with him by telephone during his current writing and resting stay in Vermont, he was eager to talk about ''America's Battle With Crime,'' of which he was coauthor and narrator.

Has America's prison system learned much from the Attica experience?

''I don't think they've learned very much,'' Wicker said. ''Prisons in this country are not in any great degree better than they were in 1971. The major result of Attica is that now no governor or prison administrator would want that to happen again. So they would be less likely, in the event of a riot, to send in the state police, firing at random. That is all to the good.

''But the fact is that the conditions which caused the Attica riot still exist in hundreds of prisons across the country. And we have many more people in prison today than we had in 1971. The situation is pretty much as it was then, and that's why scarcely a month passes without a riot here or there.''

Mr. Wicker, who hails originally from North Carolina, speaks with a gentle Southern accent, despite his current Yankee (New York City) residence, where he dwells with wife, Pamela Hill, who heads ABC News Closeups.

He is eager to correct any impression that might imply that he feels what is happening in the Belmont section of the Bronx can be easily imitated.

''Belmont is a throwback. They are living under a glass dome. They've been protected from what's happening in the rest of the country. Take that father in Belmont who says that if his daughter goes to college, he wants her to attend a nearby school and live at home where he can keep his eye on her. Well, there are not very many daughters today who would stand for that kind of protectiveness. . . .

''I don't see a renaissance of the old values. The influence of technology, the sexual revolution, the move away from family and church -- all of those processes mean we have a society in which the restraints are breaking down. Until we learn somehow to adapt to the new conditions, cope with them, we will have an unrestrained society.

''Adding more cops, arresting more criminals, putting more of them behind bars, toughening our courts, and lengthening sentences simply cannot deal with the changing society in which we live.

So what can we expect in the near future?

''More of the same. . . . I am certain there are individuals in universities, perhaps even in politics, who know of good things that ought to be done to stop youngsters, for instance, from shooting people. But those kind of things cost too much money or there's no real support for them in the present climate.''

Isn't that an extremely pessimistic point of view? Won't more money spent on deterring crime help eventually?

''Not so much more money, but money spent in different ways. We've got to do more about schools. You can't have thousands of kids in cities, with no family ties, living on the streets, not being socialized, not going to school, not having jobs, not being able to hold jobs because of the lack of skills. . . .

''I'm not pessimistic, even though it may sound that way. I'm an eternal optimist. And although I think things will get worse before they get better, I believe they will get better.

''I believe that ultimately people learn to act in their own self-interest. Right now we are a frightened people, acting more out of panic and revenge than self-interest. Soon, we will calm down and go about reviving the feeling of community that somehow we have lost.''

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