“Whatever Your Worst Fear Was, That Was Attica’: Former Prisoners Ask Cuomo to Shut Down NY’s Infamous Prison

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From The Village Voice:

attica1 VV VL 9-9-16

Photo: Victoria Law

On Thursday afternoon, the day before the 45th anniversary of the most famous prison uprising in U.S. history, dozens of people gathered across the street from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office demanding that he close the maximum-security prison at Attica.

Fed up with brutal conditions, men imprisoned at Attica seized control of the prison on September 9, 1971, taking 43 staff members hostage. They issued 27 demands, including educational programs, fair disciplinary and parole processes, and an end to racism and violence by the majority white staff. They held the prison for four days; during that time, outside negotiators went back and forth between prisoners and state officials outside. On September 13th, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to retake the prison. Thirty-nine people died that day—29 prisoners and 10 hostages. Numerous others were shot.

Among them was Melvin Muhammad, one of the prisoners assigned to guard the hostages. “I was one of the first ones who got shot,” he told the Voice. “I got a big hole in my back. I gotta keep exercising to keep the pain down.”

“We never expected that they would come in the way they come in—that they would drop gas and shoot,” Carlos Roche, now 74, told the Voice. After troopers stormed the prison, he says he was hit in the back of the head with the butt of a shotgun. “It knocked me out. My hands being stepped on is what woke me up.”

That was only the beginning. He and other men were forced to strip and walk in circles for hours. Then they ran a gauntlet down a hall lined with police. “They beat us nude all the way from the yard to the cell,” he said. He was placed in a one-man cell with two other men. His hands swelled, but Roche says, “When I thought about it, they hurt. If I didn’t think about it, I didn’t feel no pain.”

Two days later, he was taken to see the doctor. He was still naked. “My hands were on top of my head. I had a trooper behind me with a twelve-gauge shotgun on my neck,” he recounted. The doctor told him that his hands were broken. Roche was returned to his cell without any treatment. The next morning, he was transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility, five hours away. There, he finally received medical attention. Today, Roche has full use of both hands, but when he lays his hands flat, both of his ring fingers curl at the middle knuckles.

Muhammad and Roche were among the dozens of people holding signs and chanting “Attica! All of us!” He was not the only person who has spent time in Attica calling for the prison’s closure. Those rallying charge that, decades later, conditions inside remain brutal. But they’re not simply calling Cuomo, who has already shuttered 23 adult and juvenile prisons, to shut down Attica and shuffle those inside to other prisons, many of which have similar issues with violence and racism. Instead, they are demanding wholesale criminal justice reform to reduce the numbers of people imprisoned throughout the state.

Tyrrell Muhammad didn’t know anything about Attica’s history when he stepped off the prison bus eleven years after the riot. Officers singled out another man from the bus to carry a bag full of handcuffs and other supplies. “Don’t drop it,” they warned him. But the bag was so heavy that the man inevitably dropped it; when he did, the guards set upon him, beating him badly. “Whatever your worst fear was, that was Attica,” Muhammad said.

Now working with the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors prison conditions, Muhammad says “things have deteriorated more.” When he visits Attica, it’s not unusual for him to see men he knew 35 years ago. Those men, now in their seventies and eighties, often suffer from age-related infirmities. Not only is Attica ill-equipped to address the needs of elderly people, Muhammad has heard numerous stories of staff violence against those who file grievances (official complaints) about inadequate medical care. But with the passage of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, the only way that a person can challenge their treatment in court is to first exhaust the prison’s grievance system.

Read the entire article by Victoria Law here.