How New York avoided another prison tragedy

When the last of 17 prison guards held hostage by rebellious inmates walked safely to freedom from a state prison here, two things were evident. The tragic events of the bloody 1971 Attica prison riots, where 10 guards and 33 inmates died, had not been repeated. But the conditions that caused the Attica revolt had.

New York proved it could handle a maximum-security-prison crisis. It has yet to prove it can prevent one.

Most observers give high marks to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and state correctional officials for resolving the siege here at the Ossining Correctional Facility - once known as Sing Sing - without violence or loss of life.

''In this instance the state clearly learned from Attica,'' said Robert McKay , the former chairman of the special commission established to investigate the Attica uprising. He praised Governor Cuomo ''for taking the right stand, setting the right tone, and making a concerted effort to understand the problems.''

''The governor stayed close to the situation throughout,'' says Steven Chinlund, chairman of the New York State Commission on Corrections from 1976 to 1981. ''It was appropriate that he had commissioner of corrections (Thomas) Coughlin directly involved. The biggest thing in a hostage crisis is to let inmates know who speaks for the governor, what will and will not be open for negotiation.''

In the wake of the latest uprising, however, the role of the press during crises at prisons will likely come under intense scrutiny. One of the first demands of the inmates was for the presence of reporters during the takeover of one of the Ossining cellblocks. Indeed, newspapers and the electronic media gave saturation coverage to each step in the crisis. Officials eventually imposed a news blackout.

''It is important for the press to let the public know what conditions are like inside,'' says Mr. Chinlund, ''but not to let them know every step of the negotiations. The whole picture won't necessarily be clear and the danger exists of mixed signals going out.''

Some penologists argue that inmates, isolated within a prison, tend to ascribe more power to the news media than they really have. Many prisoners, these experts say, tend to view the press as one of the only outlets for expressing their grievances. Consequently, during a prison takeover they often call for the presence of journalists.

Akil Al-Jundi, a former Attica inmate, received wounds in the riot there. He is now out of prison, and he says the press can take an active role in helping to prevent future tragedies at penal institutions. The press, he says, fails society when it merely sensationalizes the plight of inmates.

Instead, he argues, the press should report on conditions inside prisons on a regular basis - not just at times of crisis.

Moreover, he says, after an uprising journalists should regularly monitor the progress being made in implementing any agreements reached between inmates and prison officials during the crisis. He adds that reporters should keep on eye on the inmate leadership after calm has been restored to determine whether these inmates are unlawfully singled out for harassment.

Chinlund praised the fact that ''no premature deadline for solution was set'' at Sing Sing, thus avoiding a confrontation from which neither side could retreat and which, in the final analysis, neither side wanted.

''Generally speaking, the more time taken with such a large number of men involved (500 inmates at Sing Sing), the more likely reasonable individuals will evolve to leadership roles,'' he says.

''When compared to other prison riots, the clear lack of physical force or even the threat of physical force came through from both sides,'' says Antonia Stone, a corrections specialist in New York City. ''It has to be a plus for a peaceful solution and hopefully Sing Sing will set a precedent for any future confrontations.''

The National Corrections Academy in Boulder, Colo., which is run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, instructs all guards taking its courses not to resist in a hostage situation. With an inmate-to-guard ratio sometimes averaging 50 to 1, experts say, resistance is a no-win option.

However, had negotiations at Sing Sing failed, New York officials did have other options. While one specially-trained ''crisis intervention team'' handled face-to-face negotiations with the leaders of the inmates, another quite different team stood at the ready.

This second team, called the Correctional Emergency Response Team, was ready to respond with force if negotiations broke down and physical harm to the guards occurred or seemed likely. The team, outfitted in special orange jumpsuits, earned an ironic nickname from the inmates: the ''Orange Crush.''

National correction officials say that such a two-pronged approach - combining the ability to negotiate under crisis with the ability to use restrained force as a last resort - is sound prison management. And, these officials add, inmates should know in advance that prison officials have both options.

But ''no amount of planning will enable correctional professionals to keep prisons reasonably calm if current overcrowding trends continue,'' says Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association.

At present, 39 states and the District of Columbia have existing court decrees or pending litigation involving either the entire state prison system or one or more of its major institutions. The lawsuits deal with overcrowding, inmate safety, sanitation, vocational and educational opportunities, and guard working conditions - many of the conditions that sparked the Sing Sing rebellion.

''Overcrowding is knocking us over, and politicians and society can't continue at a snail's pace to solve a problem that is a streamroller,'' says Mr. Travisono.

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