Behavior of four Attica corrections officers part of larger culture of violence and intimidation at facility

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Contact: Soffiyah Elijah
Executive Director
Correctional Association
212-254-5700, ext. 305

Jack Beck
Director, Prison Visiting Project
Correctional Association
212-254-5700, ext. 310

NEW YORK –The Correctional Association of New York (CA) applauds the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and state criminal investigators for taking action to investigate four Attica corrections officers. The officers have been indicted for allegedly beating up an incarcerated person, and then conspiring to cover it up by filing a false report that the incarcerated person was in possession of a razor during an altercation at the prison in August.

In response to the charges, Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director of the Correctional Association stated: “We are pleased that under the leadership of Commissioner Brian Fischer, the Department worked in cooperation with police to take the appropriate steps to thoroughly investigate and pursue sanctions in the case of these four officers. DOCCS actions will hopefully serve as a signal throughout the system that this type of behavior—the intimidation, harassment, and physical abuse of a prisoner—will not be tolerated, and that there will be accountability and consequences for officers who choose to break the law.”

As a prisoner at Attica, the victim George Williams reportedly suffered from a broken collarbone, two broken legs, and other injuries so serious that he had to undergo surgeries, from which he is still recovering.

While this is a particularly shocking and brutal instance of violence, sadly, this is not the first the CA has heard about mistreatment of people at Attica. Utilizing its unique legislative mandate to monitor New York State prisons, the CA has visited Attica seven times since 1995. During its last visit to Attica in April 2011, the CA compiled reports of staff abuse that were worse than nearly all of the 30 prisons the organization has recently visited.

Ms. Elijah continues: “People are sent to prison to serve their debt to society, not to be subjected to abuse and inhumane treatment. Attica has clearly been unable to cast off its violent past, and has proven, time and time again, to be an unsafe and inhumane place for prisoners. Four decades after the deadliest prison uprising in our nation’s history took place at Attica, the prison continues to experience extremely poor prisoner-staff relations. The only possible remedy is to close the facility.”

During its 2011 monitoring visit, the CA perceived a noticeably high level of intimidation and fear throughout the facility. Officers walked the corridors with batons in their hands at the ready, an uncommon practice in most New York State prisons. The CA collected 335 surveys from prisoners at Attica. After the visit, the CA received numerous letters from Attica prisoners describing threats and retaliation for participating in the survey.

The most common forms of abuse cited among survey respondents were verbal harassment, threats and intimidation, and physical abuse. In fact, Attica had the worst ratings of all CA-visited prisons for these types of abuse, as well as for abusive pat frisks, turning off lights and water, and retaliation for filing complaints against staff. Prisoners overwhelmingly described the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift as particularly problematic.

Racial disparities between staff and prisoners appeared to contribute to the tense environment inside the facility, with many of the prisoners reporting widespread racism on behalf of the staff. While Attica prison administrators repeatedly denied CA requests for racial demographic information of security staff, the visiting team noted the overwhelming majority of officers during the April visit to be white. Among Attica prisoners, racial demographics were slightly different than those at other New York prisons; a higher percentage of prisoners at Attica identify as African-American (58%) and fewer prisoners identify as white (20%).

Forty percent of our survey participants described staff-prisoner sexual abuse as common, compared to just 12% for all CA-surveyed prisons. A 2008-2009 national study done by the U.S. Department of Justice also found that out of the 167 prisons surveyed throughout the country, Attica rated second-highest in the nation for allegations of staff sexual misconduct.

Jack Beck, Director of the CA’s Prison Visiting Project, adds: “What happened to George Williams is certainly not an isolated incident, nor is Attica the only facility with a troubling culture of poor prisoner-staff relations. The CA has found a number of state prisons to have similar patterns of abuse of authority and violence against prisoners. Unfortunately, the standard procedures for sanctioning staff misbehavior have proven to be ineffectual and, short of a criminal prosecution, it generally appears unlikely that officers who commit abuses will be held accountable for their actions.”