Blog: “Living With Attica”
Tyrrell Muhammad has served as Project Associate for the Correctional Association’s Prison Visiting Project since April 2012. Prior to joining the CA, Tyrrell mentored young boys at Elementary Community School 21 in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. He also presently serves as Chief Consultant for Force One International Security, and is committed to helping formerly incarcerated men and women in his community find gainful employment. Tyrrell earned his Bachelor of Arts from Syracuse University and Master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary in 2004.
As we mark 45 years since the 1971 Attica rebellion, conditions there remain as deplorable in 2016 as they were then. It is time for New York State to finally close Attica.
I spent 26 years and 11 months in New York’s prisons from 1979 to 2005, and I was in Attica from 1982 to 1983. I witnessed the most horrific incidents of brutality and experienced it for myself inside Attica. Today I work for the Correctional Association of New York (CA) – a non-profit organization with legislative authority to monitor conditions in all NYS prisons — so now I go back inside in order to expose the abuses. Based on what I experienced inside and what I see still happening today, it is clear that Attica will never change.
There is a traditional “orientation” at Attica that the prison is known for and that I and countless others experienced in 1982 and others continue to endure today. While men are being transferred to Attica, unknowingly to them the driver is sizing them up so that when they get there everyone is going to be “introduced” to Attica. Once at the prison, the men are told to get out of the bus. Usually the driver picks out the biggest guy and orders him to pick up two bags. These bags are extremely heavy and hard to pick up because the person is handcuffed and shackled at the waist and feet. So, usually the bag is going to drop. Once that happens, that is the signal for the rest of the officers to jump on him and commence a beating in front of a bus full of handcuffed men. After the beating, the officers drag him away. They then proceed to “educate” the rest of us that “this is Attica. This is our jail. This is not New York City, and we will not have a repeat of 1971.” If you didn’t know about 1971, you were introduced to that time period right then at that very moment. When this orientation happened for me, I saw the COs beat a man to unconsciousness. You are just shocked because you are not expecting that. I still live with this and all the abuse of Attica on my mind to this very day.
Attica is notorious for its abusive treatment of the men in its custody and of families who visit their loved ones. For years the abuse has gone on uninterrupted and complaints fall on deaf ears. The men in Attica and their families felt helpless and powerless to do anything. Recently, the CA, the media, and others are shedding light on the atrocities Attica is famous for. The brutal beating of George Williams at Attica and the subsequent minor guilty pleas in 2015 of the COs who tried to murder him have cast a spotlight on the concrete walls that shield the outside world from looking in.
The recent attention, however, is not enough. In the last 45 years, there have been so many reports, commissions, and books about Attica and its abuses. When I was in Attica in 1983, Prisoners Legal Services released a report on Attica and how conditions hadn’t changed over 10 years after the rebellion. Instead of addressing the issues, the Superintendent shut down the prison, officers searched every cell to confiscate the reports, men were transferred, and some men landed in solitary confinement. Similarly, the CA has issued reports in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and up to the present, documenting horrible abuses. The New York Times and other media have also repeatedly reported on abuse at Attica over the decades. Yet the abuse continues unabated, as the CA learned through correspondence and interviews with people incarcerated at Attica in 2015 and 2016.The Attica rebellion happened 45 years ago and since that time, we have had failed “tough on crime” policies and a punishment paradigm that has devastated Black and Latino communities. Attica is located in a rural upstate village that is 99 percent white and the only Black people are the men who reside in the prison. Only 1% of Attica’s officers are Black, while over 57% of the people incarcerated are Black. From my own experiences at Attica nearly 25 years ago and from what I learn from people currently incarcerated there in my job at the CA, racism remains rampant at Attica and drives so much of the staff brutality and torture of the men who live there.
Unfortunately, Attica does not stand alone among NYS prisons in its racism and pervasive brutality. Today I have the opportunity to go back inside to monitor conditions, and I see how nothing has changed. I still see racial effigies hanging in a CO security station. I still see the racial disparaging reminiscent of the antebellum slavery era.
What must be learned from the rebellion, the state’s violent takeover, the experimental but failed policies which followed, and the ongoing abuses, is that NY must close Attica and re-think all criminal justice policies and practices. The only way to stop the abuses at Attica – and send a message across the prison system that New York will not tolerate abuse – is to close Attica immediately.
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