It's Time to Close Attica | Opinion

As the Hochul administration looks to consolidate and close New York prisons, one name jumps to mind—and not just because its history is written in blood. 50 years after the famous prison uprising, it's time to close New York's worst prison: Attica.

We arrive at this conclusion from very different backgrounds. One of us is a formerly incarcerated activist who spent time in New York prisons. The other is a former federal prosecutor and police officer. But we both believe that closing Attica would be an important symbolic and practical step, a testament that the state is turning the page on its punitive past and abandoning the use of violence as a tool for control.

New York is wrestling with a stark reality: In a state where incarcerated populations have fallen by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years, there are just too many prisons. The number of persons incarcerated in New York—31,555 as of November 1st—is the lowest since 1984 and less than half the number in 1999. The state has closed 18 prisons since 2011, saving more than $300 million annually.

Now, the Hochul administration has targeted another six prisons for closure in March 2022. But DOC officials acknowledge that additional closures are likely. The New York prison system is also responding to new legislative requirements that will require thousands of New York City residents with children to be incarcerated closer to home.

Closing Attica—a powerful symbol in the culture of incarceration, for both correctional officers and those incarcerated—would turn the page on a deeply painful chapter in New York's history. This past September marked the 50th anniversary of the infamous prison "riot," when men incarcerated at Attica—seething at squalid conditions, pervasive racism, brutal correctional officers, and deteriorating security—took several dozen officers hostage. Governor Nelson Rockefeller negotiated for several days, then sent armed state troopers to regain control. After intense fighting, 43 were dead. The uprising inspired efforts to improve prison conditions around the country, but it also became a recurrent prop for the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1980s.

Attica
Attica, New York. Inmates at the Attica State Prison sit by the trench in "D" yard in this 9/13/71 photo made shortly after the state police halted prison riot. Photo, taken by State officials, was released to the news media April 26, 1972, by the New York State Special Commission Investigating the prison revolt.

So the symbolic value of closing Attica would be powerful. But the case for closing it doesn't rest solely on history. There are compelling practical arguments as well.

The parade of horrors in Attica continues to this day, as the prison remains one of the most infamous in the state—indeed, in the country—for violence and security failures. In 2015, a sergeant and two officers avoided jail time after pleading guilty to avoid trial on charges that they brutally beat a man without provocation—despite evidence the sergeant removed the batons the three used, sanded them down, and refinished them to stymie DNA testing. In 2017, unchecked violence forced a multi-day lockdown. John J. Lennon, who served time at Attica, has documented the brutal discipline and savagery that has made it one of the most infamous prisons in the country.

We, too, have heard from men who served time at Attica, who have told us horror stories. We've heard of officers who encourage incarcerated people to fight; officers with overtly racist tattoos; troublesome prisoners being left at the mercy of gangs or other predators; the rampant use of solitary confinement; and brutal shakedowns and administrative punishments meted out indiscriminately.

In New York prisons, a man who served time in Attica has cachet: He's a survivor, a tough dude. And every formerly incarcerated New Yorker we've interviewed has heard Attica invoked as a threat: "Do as you're told, or you're going to Attica."

Attica is also a poster child for the racial and other systemic ills of the criminal justice system. Most of its 2000+ residents are Black or Latino but the vast majority of its over 600 officers are white, making racial tension endemic. The prison is more than 350 miles away from the five boroughs, making visitation difficult. Untreated mental health issues are pervasive, leading to a debilitating cycle of violent outbursts and solitary confinement that further detach many from reality.

Culture is rooted in the way a particular institution understands, learns from, and responds to its history. Attica's history—the brutality, the riots, the symbolic weight of dozens dead—still shapes how it is operates today. Sometimes, the only way to change an entrenched culture of inattention, brutality, and violence is to eliminate the source. Or, as one person we interviewed put it when we asked if Attica's culture could be reformed, "They should strap dynamite to it and blow it up."

With the recent 50th anniversary of the uprising, New York's leaders should take the opportunity to ensure that Attica's shameful history doesn't continue to pollute the state's future. We cannot begin to mend the wounds of our painful past while sites of torture are standing.

It's time to close the books on Attica.

Alex Duran is a program director at Galaxy Gives, the family philanthropy of Mike and Sukey Novogratz. He served twelve years in eight different New York State maximum security facilities and is a graduate of the Bard College Prison Initiative. Arthur Rizer is a former federal prosecutor, police officer, and retired army officer. He is now an adjunct professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law, GMU and is CEO at ARrow Consulting.

The views in this article are the writers' own.