Thursday, September 08, 2011


by Michael E. Deutsch

September 9th marks 40 years since the uprising
at Attica State Prison, in upstate New York, and
the deadly and sadistic retaking of the
prison---and mass torture of hundreds of
prisoners all the rest of the day and night and
beyond---by state police and prison guards on the
morning of September 13th. When the shooting
stopped and the gas lifted, 29 unarmed prisoners
and 10 hostages were dead, slaughtered by the
assault force. Over a hundred more prisoners
were shot, some maimed for life, and many others
seriously injured. In addition, almost the
entire 1200-plus prisoners who occupied D yard,
and had hoped that their demands for humane
treatment would be addressed by the authorities,
were systematically stripped and beaten, made to
run gauntlets of club swinging police as they
were herded back into cells, while dozens of
supposed leaders and other special targets were
taken aside for more personal vengeance. The
United States Court of Appeals, hardly a
pro-prisoner or even liberal institution, called
the re-housing of the prisoners, "an orgy of brutality."

Attica and its aftermath exposed the powder kegs
ready to explode inside the U.S. prisons, and the
urgent need to change the reigning penology and
administrative practices throughout the federal,
state and local prison systems.

Attica uncovered the hidden reality that the
prisons and jails were increasingly the
socio-economic destination for the poor and
largely disproportionate numbers of Black people,
as well as political militants. The Attica
prisoners demand for human rights also revealed
that both men and women were treated like modern
day slaves in prison, denied minimal humane
treatment, decent medical care, and fundamental constitutional rights.

It is true there was much liberal sentiment
expressed for prisoners in the wake of the
rebellion, and massacre, and a small flurry of
activity in support of prison reform, involving
recognition that prisoners had some rights, and
the need for rehabilitation programs to prepare
them for release. There was even some concern
raised about the racist underpinnings of law
enforcement and the entire criminal justice
system. These efforts at reform, however, in
comparison to policies already in motion to make
the prisons chiefly into warehouses for the
unemployed and internment camps for militants,
were minimal, and soon largely abandoned.

The Nixon administration, sweeping into office on
the cry of "law and order," was determined to use
federal government power to destroy what it
considered a radical domestic insurgency, which
it believed threatened the very existence of the
capitalist society. Following the urban
uprisings in Harlem, Watts, Newark and Detroit,
numerous confrontations between the police and
members of the Black Panther Party and other
militant organizations, and the massive movement
in opposition to the Viet Nam war, the government
calling for greatly expanded police powers,
passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets
Act of 1968. The Act established enhanced powers
for the police to carry on a "war on crime,"
including procedures to allow wiretapping by law
enforcement and relaxed standards to admit confessions.

The Act also created the Law Enforcement
Assistance Administration (LEAA), which over the
following years provided more than five billion
dollars in extra funding for state and local
police, and for new prisons. While small amounts
of money were given to non-institutional reform
projects, the vast amount of resources was
provided to police departments all over the
country for SWAT type counter-insurgency
training, hi-tech weapons and surveillance
hardware, and to build and equip more secure
prisons. Thus Attica served to reinforce the
Nixonian idea that militarized repression and
high security prisons were needed to confront the
growing militancy facing the country.

Certainly, in the few years before and after
Attica, there was clear evidence that
assassinations and frame-ups of radical political
leaders was the policy promoted and funded by the administration.

As was made clear in Court cases and other
investigations, the murders of Fred Hampton and
Mark Clark, and George Jackson, and the frame-ups
and imprisonment of Geronimo Pratt, Dhroruba Bin
Wahad, the Wilmington Ten and the Omaha Two are
only a few examples of this policy in
action. Some political militants still languish
in prison today over 35 years later.

Even before Nixon was in office, J. Edgar Hoover
had launched the FBI's secret
"counter-intelligence" program ("COINTELPRO")
with clearly spelled out plans to "expose,
disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise
neutralize" the "militant Black Nationalist
Movement," to prevent the rise of a "messiah,"
who could "unify, and electrify" the militant
Black movement, and to use "hard-hitting"
measures to "cripple the Black Panther Party" and "destroy what it stands for."

The rebellion at Attica was clearly viewed as a
reflection, and confirmation of the perceived
threat of domestic insurgency; indeed, Nixon
called to congratulate Governor Nelson
Rockefeller after the massacre. The political
speeches, and militancy of the Attica prisoners,
many of whom identified with the Black Panther
Party, the revolutionary nationalism of Malcolm
X, or the teachings and discipline of the Black
Muslims did not go unnoticed by the forces
determined to suppress any movement for Black
liberation. The government was increasingly well
aware of these ideas and movements, and was
determined to destroy them. Thus the massacre
and torture should not be viewed as bad
decision-making by New York authorities, or
roguish action by the police, but as simply the
most savage and bloody of countless acts of
conscious repression, which took place all over
the country, and showed the political intention
to destroy the Black Movement, and defeat and
intimidate its supporters. Its aftermath also
represents the further development, not of
liberal efforts towards prison reform, but of the
use of the prisons as an integral part of the
program and apparatus intended to control and
sequester America's economically marginal,
politically ungovernable populations.

The incarceration numbers clearly tell the story.
For almost 50 years prior to Attica, the U.S.
incarceration rates were constant, and
commensurate with those of Western
Europe. Beginning in 1972, however, the rates
rose steadily for the next 35 years, and Blacks
and Latinos were locked up in hugely
disproportionate numbers. In 1972 there were
about 300,000 people in Federal, state and local
prisons combined. Today the number is over 2.3
million.. The United States with just 5% of the
world's population has 25% of the world's
prisoners, the world's highest per capita imprisonment.

The "prison-industrial complex," comprised of
bloated "corrections" bureaucracies and the
companies they do business with, and fueled more
and more by private prisons owned by huge
corporations, has become a multi-billion dollar
industry. The annual budget in California alone
is more than seven billion dollars---meaning an
average of roughly $50,000 per prisoner per year.

By the beginning of the 1980s, after the
destruction of Black Liberation Movement, the
incarceration policies continued under the banner
of the "war on drugs" and the ramped up fear of
crime, and young Black and Latino men, often
demonized as predatory threats. The flooding of
crack cocaine into poor Black communities, in
some cases facilitated by law enforcement
complicity, and the Reaganite "voodoo trickle
down economics" created the ideal circumstances
to continue the obscene incarceration juggernaut.

In lieu of decent jobs and education, poor people
were given militarized occupying racist police,
and draconian punishments, including mandatory
sentences and three strikes life
imprisonment. Those behind the walls who
understood this oppression and wished to educate
other prisoners were often isolated and buried
alive in special isolation control
units. Moreover, unlike the Attica prison
rebellion, which was broadcast around the world,
the media more recently generally ignored the
explosion of numbers, and (until just lately) the
costs; the conditions of confinement---poor food,
indifferent medical care, no education or
training programs, arbitrary parole denials
---and the swelling numbers of prisoners locked
up permanently in sensory deprivation cells,
which constitutes mental and psychological,
legalized, torture. Absent a dramatic cry for
help, like a hunger strike or a riot, the voices
and plight of prisoners are generally
ignored. Certainly the shame of the U.S. prisons
is never even mentioned by the Obama administration, let alone addressed.

George Jackson said, "The ultimate expression of
law is not order; it is prison." In the absence
of vibrant movements for liberation and human
rights, directed by militant activism, we are
saddled with a society run wholly in the
interests of the banks, the military, the big
corporations and the rich people, which have no
other accommodation for huge numbers of people at
the base of the socio-economic pyramid except
prison. What we need is not marginal reform that
makes life a little better for those now (and
soon to be) locked up, but a thorough
revolutionary change in a political system
resting on such a corrupt base. Real "hope and
change" will only begin to emerge when we
dismantle the racist, class-based criminal
justice system, and allow those who are
oppressed, at the work place, in the community
and in the prisons, to freely organize and fight for justice.

Michael E. Deutsch, a partner in the Chicago
People's Law office, was one of the criminal
defense and class action civil rights suit
attorneys for the Attica Brothers. The civil
rights suit was settled for 12 million dollar in 1999.

No comments: