by Eileen Rivera
September 13, 1971 was a day like any other. I was in the second week of eighth grade at Haverstraw Middle School and I just wanted the year to be over so I could hit high school. After school, I changed my clothing, went to the corner bakery for a jelly doughnut, put an album on my record player and settled in to do my homework. Some time later, my father was at my door telling me to turn down the music. He called my sister into the room and explained that our uncle was gone. My mother’s younger brother was an inmate in Attica prison and his cell block was involved in the uprising. After he left us, my sister and I whispered back and forth; we hadn’t a clue as to what had just happened to our family.
On September 9, 1971, there was an incident with two inmates at Attica Correctional; by that afternoon the story was all over the prison. The inmates, who had grown tired of one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper a month, decided that the time had come to fight back. They took over an exercise yard and later the cell block, taking hostages as they went. The inmates did not demand their freedom; they demanded better living conditions, they demanded humane treatment and they demanded amnesty for their actions. No one had been hurt and the leaders of the insurrection did not believe that the State would turn their back on amnesty.
In the end it was the only point the State would not concede, even after five days of negotiations that received national attention. Governor Nelson Rockefeller finally ordered military intervention resulting in 39 deaths; 29 inmates and 10 hostages. Rumors of the inmates killing the hostages were disproved when autopsies showed that they all died at the hands of the National Guardsmen’s bullets.
A complete investigation, by the McKay Commission resulted in the commission members finding that the Governor’s actions were wrong. They wrote, “Where state neglect was a major contributing factor to the uprising, the governor should not have committed the state’s armed forces without first appearing on the scene and satisfying himself that there was no other alternative.”
Has our nation, with almost two million people currently behind bars, learned a lesson? Can another Attica happen again? “It was a tragic event but it was probably a necessary event, given what the heck was going on,” says Stan Stojkovic, dean and professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. “But when you fast forward, we just haven’t made much progress since then.” When the experts in the field can say this, what hope do we have?
A government agency study shows that, ”Among nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years. A study of prisoners released in 1983 estimated 62.5%.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter how well “we” treat our prison inmates, it matters what “we” teach them. Correction and rehabilitation without education will accomplish nothing.
Entertainment and Cultura Editor, Eileen Rivera.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of
the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.