Investigating Attica

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Utilizing our unique privilege to monitor prisons, the CA’s Prison Visiting Project traveled to the notorious Attica Correctional Facility in April 2011 to assess conditions and services for incarcerated people.

Located in Western New York, Attica is a maximum security prison operating just under its capacity of 2,253-incarcerate individuals. During our two-day visit we found several positive aspects of the prison, including a college program that received enthusiastic praise from incarcerated individuals, higher-than-average satisfaction rates with re-entry programming and dental care, and a substantial array of services for people with mental health issues. These findings indicate a step in the right direction, but the prison still has a very long way to go to reach the goal of providing a safe and rehabilitative environment. While significant changes have taken place across New York prisons over the past four decades, many of the serious problems decried by the rebelling incarcerated individuals in 1971 persist, both system-wide and at Attica in particular.

Most notably, Attica stands out for its high level of violence among staff and incarcerated individuals, including allegations of sexual abuse.  Forty percent of our survey participants described staff-incarcerated individual sexual abuse as common, compared to just 12% for all CA-surveyed prisons. A 2008-2009 national study done by the Department of Justice also found that out of the 167 prisons surveyed, Attica rated second-highest in the country for allegations of staff sexual misconduct. Reports of staff abuse at Attica were worse than nearly all of the 30 prisons we have recently visited.

The vast majority of the incarcerated individuals we surveyed reported frequently feeling unsafe. Many asserted that incarcerated people were frequently physically assaulted by staff, regularly threatened and verbally harassed, and often retaliated against if they filed a complaint about mistreatment, and we perceived a noticeably high level of intimidation and fear throughout the facility. During our visit, officers were observed walking around the prison with batons in their hands—an uncommon practice in most New York prisons. We received numerous letters from incarcerated individuals after our visit describing threats and retaliation for participating in our survey.

Attica’s racial demographics were slightly different than those at other New York prisons, with a higher percentage of incarcerated individuals at Attica identifying as African-American (58%) and fewer incarcerated individuals identifying as white (20%). Prison administrators would not give us any information regarding the racial demographics of security staff; however, from our observations we noted that Attica correctional officers, much like at many other prisons in upstate New York, were overwhelmingly white. The racial disparities between staff and incarcerated individuals appeared to contribute to the tense environment inside the facility, with many of the incarcerated individuals reporting widespread racism on behalf of the staff.

Excessive idleness among incarcerated individuals only adds to the tense atmosphere inside Attica. Due to its large population and limited staffing levels, incarcerated individuals at Attica have fewer program options than other prisons and, accordingly, a larger proportion of incarcerated individuals were idle with little or no access to programs. At the time of our visit, less than half of the people incarcerated at Attica had access to a full range of programs, a figure far worse than almost all the prisons we have visited.  Only one-third of the incarcerated individuals held jobs at the facility, and many of those who did were assigned to a porter position, entailing only the most basic cleaning and maintenance tasks, not providing individuals with productive skills that could assist them in getting a job upon release.

Download a fact sheet of our preliminary findings
Since 1846, the Correctional Association’s Prison Visiting Project has carried out a special mandate to monitor prisons and keep policymakers and the public informed about conditions of confinement that impact incarcerated individuals, prison staff, our communities, and ultimately, society at large. This authority has been granted to only one other organization in the country, and it enables us to shine a spotlight on the dark corners of New York’s prison system and inform public discourse about important criminal justice issues.