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Crime

50 years later: The legacy of the Attica uprising

A group of prison inmates
From the PBS NewsHour report “Unveiling the long-hidden story of the Attica prison riot.”
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Chuck Culhane is traveling to Attica Prison Thursday to participate in a vigil honoring those who lost their lives 50 years ago within the prison’s walls.

He does not believe the vigil will garner any headlines.

“That's emblematic of the attitude towards prisoners,” he said. “Towards people inside, that they don't exist. They weren't killed. And so a few of us are going to go out there and just read the names of individuals at the prison. The names of all the people, including the guards.”

What is the lasting legacy of Attica — a landmark event that encapsulates a generation of social progression, yet an event that also left at least 43 incarcerated persons and prison guards dead? On the 50th anniversary of the uprising, the conversation around its legacy is varied.

Culhane serves as a Prison Task Force Coordinator at the Western New York Peace Center:

“I was back in prison,” he says. “I was sent to a maximum security place and it was, I recall, low grade terror. I did quite a few years inside. I never experienced anything like that. I mean, people were just terrorizing and really ways every day, and it was very dispiriting to see that kind of behavior with the guards.”

Culhane said lessons regarding the rights of incarcerated people have yet to be learned.

“And unfortunately, the vast majority of the changes have been for the worse, not for the better,” he said.

The prison population has shrunk to just under 32,000 in New York State in the last 50 years, but the conditions the men living within the walls of Attica advocated for — improvements to food and medical care, religious freedom and wages — were abandoned in Attica’s aftermath, said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of Alliance of Families for Justice.

“Sadly though, most, if not all of those improvements have now disappeared,” she said. “So the concerns and the demands that the men raised 50 years ago are still major concerns today.”

Elijah was formerly the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. Her insight on the plight of incarcerated people leaves her believing more can be done to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society.

“I would say when it comes to incarcerated people, we can clearly see that we're not living in a more enlightened society,” she said.

Elijah points to how hard it has been to get incarcerated people supplies to fight against contracting COVID-19 as an example of how little attention is paid to their welfare.

“From not giving them PPE, from not giving them tests, not providing for vaccines," she said, "advocates had to work day and night to push for those things, advocates and family members of incarcerated people.”

And racism within a prison system where a majority of the incarcerated are non-white is a problem.

“The racism amongst staff, the virtual lack of any Black and brown staff members and most of the Upstate prisons,” Elijah said. “That was a problem back in 1971 and remains a problem to this day.”

One lasting legacy of Attica that both Culhane and Elijah agree on is growing prison reform and prison abolition movements in the state.

“The advocacy groups on the outside have been somewhat successful,” Elijah said, “and reaching out to elected officials to bring these concerns to their attention so that more members of the New York State Legislature are aware and have been using their role as legislators to visit the prisons, to inquire, to question and to challenge what's happening inside the prisons.”

A recent example of the success of these movements is the signing of the HALT bill by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April. The bill bans long-term solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the state.

Culhane said the push towards rehabilitation programs and restorative justice practices within the prison system are ways to keep people out of prison for good.

“Well in New York,” he said. “I would say, yeah, just in numbers, getting people out, you know, not sending them to prison for offenses that are not, you know, particularly nonviolent and where there's alternatives like restorative justice programs that do something for victims of crime and do something for society instead of this punishment ethic that’s insane.”

Elijah still believes the prison system as a whole is rotten and must be abolished.

“I don't believe at this point you can do this form any more than slavery could be formed,” she said. “I think it has to be completely destroyed. I think it is incumbent upon all of us in society to figure out a much more people-centered approach to addressing aberrant behavior by human beings.”

In a society still separated by the haves and have-nots, Elijah said these issues can be solved if we all worked together.

“If we can put human beings on the moon and other planets,” she said. “Then we can figure out how to level the playing field so that everybody's dreams and aspirations has a fair chance of being realized.”

The legacy of the Attica uprising has given us many teachable moments to reflect and improve on.

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