Attica – A Judgment on America

<strong>Taken from the New Statesman archive, 1 October 1971</strong>

Forty-four people died in th

A few days after the Attica tragedy, a letter to the editor of the New York Times recalled to public attention Dostoyevsky's remark that "the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons". Not many Americans – myself included – would have subscribed to that thesis a month ago, and even now, after the slaughter at the gloomy prison in upstate New York. It seems a bit overdrawn, a bit too much the viewpoint of a man who had himself just returned from Siberia. But only a bit. Because the Attica revolt has slammed into my slumbering consciousness any number of truths: that a large majority of the convicts in the New York prisons are black, that the cells in a maximum-security penitentiary (where the inmates spend about 18 out of every 24 hours) are only a little taller than a man standing up and only a little longer than a man lying down, that the prisoners may not even telephone their relatives, and so on. I should have been aware of all these things long ago, of course, and other people should have, too. The fact is, however, that the system of punishment and penal reform in America routinely attracts about as much public attention as Ethiopian politics.

We put people in jail, I would presume, for at least three reasons: to restrain them physically from doing the same thing again, to teach them a lesson and to prepare them for a more constructive life once they emerge from behind the prison walls. We feel vaguely uncomfortable about the first two, if our resort to euphemism is any guide; just as the uneasy American military has insisted on calling huts in Vietnamese hamlets "Vietcong structures", so the authorities doggedly refer to "the Attica correctional facility". This constitutes self-deception on two counts: first, there is a clear if unpleasant necessity for any society to lock up miscreants out of self-protection, without embarrassment and, second, American prisons do not "correct". The level of recidivism in the United States is at or near its all-time peak.

The worst situations are to be found in the so-called maximum security prisons, such as Attica. Convicts are sent there, the experts tell us, because they are thought to be potential escapees or potential perpetrators of violence within the prison walls. Once, many long years ago, the denizens of these places tended to be hardened, classic, "cons" – social misfits, usually white, often deficient in intelligence and almost always lacking in education, hardened to lives of bank robbery or burglary. These people were unlikely to be rehabilitated, and that was that. But the inhabitants of "max" in states like New York todayare a different breed. Most of them come from the cities, most of them are black, and their recalcitrance transcends the traditional convict's resentment against jail and jailer. They are rebelling against the society that put them where they are, and while of course it is true that most of them committed specific acts that resulted in their incarceration, it is hard to look at the statistics – a majority of black prisoners, a black population in New York of less than 20 per cent – without concluding that there is some causal relationship between black skin and violent crime. It is hard, in fact, not to conclude that the racism of American society has driven many of these men into committing mayhem upon it.

If this is true, then prison reform is only a palliative at best. Certainly, prisoners should be fed something besides pork; certainly some way should be found for them to satisfy their sexual urges short of sodomy; certainly experimental programmes in rehabilitation should be undertaken, and on a massive scale. Attica probably sufficiently shocked us bystanders that the creaky political machinery will begin to grind out more money for prison administration, and that those with ideas somewhat more modern than Genghis Khan’s will be given a chance to improve the circumstances of prison life and perhaps begin to "correct". A few criminals rather than putting them out of sight for a while. But those with the best intentions will be nothing more than toilet cleaners, as Judge David L Bazelon once said in another connection, and the toilets will keep filling up again. "One can’t rehabilitate people by keeping them in cells", as Commissioner Russell G. Oswald said on television here the othernight; but nor can one rehabilitate people whose whole life experience has taught them that to adjust to the values and rules of white society is to accept subservience and often degradation. For those men – the George Jacksons of this world and the thousands of others that will follow – the only answer is to rehabilitate the society, not the man.

As for Governor Rockefeller's handling of the Attica revolt itself, I am afraid that it was yet another in that dreary series of episodes that has led the American people not to believe what their elected officials tell them. The Governor is no Agnew; he is, on the contrary, a humane man who once told me of the horror with which he read, as a young man, of his family's use of volleys of rifle fire to break a strike at their Colorado steel works many years ago. But what is one to make of the inflammatory and wholly groundless report that the hostages had their throats slit by the convicts? Of the assertions that one of the guards was killed by being thrown through a window that was thoroughly barred? Of the Governor's refusal, apparently on the basis of the dubious accounts of the guard's death, even to discuss the central question of amnesty? Of his refusal to visit the prison himself? Of the pathetically irrelevant comment by the waden that the uprising had been led by "coloured Communist Maoist inmates"?

Having allowed conditions in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant to fester for decades, having allowed Attica to become a breeding ground for revolution, the government had no real solution. So it panicked. It tried to cover up. In the end it resorted to the use of overwhelming force, admitting defeat and ensuring tragedy. Having squandered time, it had no more to spend.