A Warning at Rikers on the Anniversary of a Deadly Prison Uprising

It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at the legacy of the Attica jail rebellion, which ended 50 years in the past this week with an armed assault ordered by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Credit…William Sauro/The New York Times

Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, walked by means of the infamous Rikers Island complicated on Monday and warned that a debacle like the revolt at the Attica jail in 1971 may play out at Rikers, and shortly.

“We were all in danger in there,” he stated after the tour, promising to name Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Kathy Hochul and describe what he had seen.

The point out of Attica might have been deliberate: Monday was the 50th anniversary of the blood bathtub that ended the four-day rebellion at that state-run most safety jail 350 miles from New York City. The armed assault by state troopers and jail guards left 43 folks useless, together with 10 guards and civilian jail staff who had been held hostage by prisoners for 4 days.

Attica gave life to the fashionable prisoners’ rights motion even because it pale from public consciousness. It has turn into little greater than a footnote from a time when the nation was divided by the Vietnam War and emotionally scarred from the assassinations and civil unrest of the 1960s. Later generations watching Al Pacino’s “Attica! Attica!” rant in the 1975 bank-robbery film “Dog Day Afternoon” may surprise why that phrase energized the crowd.

In the rapid aftermath of the assault to retake the jail, New York officers lied to the public and the press. Officials wrongly blamed the inmates for killing the hostages, saying the prisoners had slit their throats. Autopsies confirmed the victims had been shot. Only the guards had had weapons.

Attica, in-built the 1930s, was overcrowded in 1971, with greater than 2,200 inmates. Elements of each day life which may appear inconsequential to outsiders had fanned tensions: inmates had been restricted to a single bathe a week and a single roll of rest room paper a month. They acquired solely mail written in English as a result of that was the solely language jail censors may learn. Letters in different languages had been routinely thrown in the trash.

The head depend in state prisons, which exploded in the 1980s, has fallen in recent times. The state now has simply over 32,000 inmates, about half as many as in 1999, when the jail inhabitants peaked. Last week, Attica had 1,635 inmates.

A spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision stated that the Attica of at present is “markedly different from the New York State prison system in 1971” and that the company had made “significant changes to more humanely supervise and prepare incarcerated individuals for a successful release back to the community.”

But circumstances at Attica stay a concern for prisoners’ rights advocates. Karen Murtaugh, the govt director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which was arrange after the Attica rebellion to offer illustration for prisoners, stated circumstances had improved since 1971, however added: “I’m not sure they’ve significantly improved.”

Soffiyah Elijah, a former govt director of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit jail monitoring group, stated that “immediately in the aftermath of the Attica rebellion, there were some improvements for a while, but the racism that existed in the state prison system still exists today.”

“Shamefully,” stated Ms. Elijah, now the govt director of one other nonprofit group, the Alliance of Families for Justice, “we have not made much progress at all.”

The legacy of Attica

In 2005 — 34 years after the rebellion — Elizabeth Fink, the principal lawyer for almost 1,300 inmates, stated that “Attica was over, except it’s never over.” This was simply after the state had agreed to pay $12 million in compensation to households of jail staff killed or injured when the state troopers stormed in. That was the similar quantity that prisoners had received of their class-action swimsuit towards the state 5 years earlier.

Then, in 2016, the reporter Tom Robbins, together with Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz of The Times, regarded at 28 calls for from the prisoners in 1971. They discovered that reforms promised then had by no means been carried out or had been scaled again.

Prisoners’ rights advocates say little has modified since their story was printed. A new state regulation limits time in solitary confinement, which advocates say is usually used as punishment for jail infractions. Policies now additionally present for grievance procedures and non secular observances, and state guidelines name for at least three sizzling showers a week.

But the Correctional Association stated many Attica prisoners get solely two. They can take a third bathe in the yard, however a memo the affiliation despatched after a go to to Attica stated that yard showers had been “not a viable option” as a result of of chilly climate, lengthy strains and resistance from corrections officers who must unlock the bathe stalls.

That pointed to what prisoners’ advocates describe as persevering with rigidity between inmates and guards. The Correctional Association stated after a 2019 go to to Attica that inmates had complained about “sticks out,” a gantlet of corrections officers lining the halls, batons up, when prisoners are being moved from their cellblocks to the yard or different elements of the jail.

Inmates are actually given digital tablets they will use to speak with kin on the exterior, not by e-mail however by a separate messaging system. The tablets don’t join on to the web, although prisoners will pay to obtain some movies and e-books. But Jessica Scaife, the govt director of the Correctional Association, stated there had been issues with the software program and substandard content material.

Another distinction now’s video surveillance cameras. Nearly 2,000 have been put in in Attica since 2014 “to help both staff and the incarcerated population.”

John J. Lennon, who spent 9 years of a 28-years-to-life sentence at Attica, wrote in a 2018 article for The Marshall Project that the cameras “seem to have accomplished what once seemed impossible at Attica,” taming “a violent us-against-them culture.” He wrote that assaults on workers members plummeted almost 80 p.c after the cameras had been turned on and that workers accidents dropped 40 p.c.

One of the guarantees from 1971 was to pay inmates the state’s minimal wage for work they’re assigned to do.

That has not occurred, stated State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn who has proposed a minimal wage measure for inmates. He stated in an interview that pay can vary from 50 cents an hour to $1.25 a day. “Really unacceptable wages,” he stated, including that the final time they had been raised, in the 1990s, Mario M. Cuomo was governor.


It’s going to be one other sticky, mid-80s day, and the probability of showers and thunderstorms will proceed. Have an umbrella helpful by means of Thursday.

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With a downsized visitor checklist and an “American Independence” costume code, the Met Gala returned.


Steps of the Met

Dear Diary:

I used to be strolling off a full day spent in entrance of screens, reacquainting myself with the exterior world and pure gentle.

As I wandered down Fifth Avenue towards the Met, a full moon was developing and a summer time breeze tugged at the archway of timber. It was a exceptional enchancment from three hours earlier.

A lone accordion participant was swaying to his music at the backside of the museum steps. He appeared to be having fun with his night a lot that I sat right down to do the similar. The notes of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” floated by means of the air, overlaying the rush of the fountains.

If he was aiming for ideas, he had actually picked a sparse time of day. But as he performed, an older couple paused, after which stopped. The doormen throughout the road edged nearer. Three youngsters dropped down on their skateboards.

Eventually, the accordion participant waved good evening to the safety guards. He loaded his instrument into the again of a parked cab. Then, he received into the driver’s seat and turned the gentle on.

Down the subsequent block, a lady in heels flagged him down.

— Lucy Cross

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Read extra Metropolitan Diary right here.

Glad we may get collectively right here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s at present’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can discover all our puzzles right here.

Melissa Guerrero, Jeffrey Furticella, Rick Martinez and Olivia Parker contributed to New York Today. You can attain the staff at [email protected]

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