Attica is still a symbol of brutality

March 12, 2015

Lichi D’Amelio and Lee Wengraf report on a horrific beating by three guards at the prison infamous for abuse and violence because of an uprising in 1971.

IT IS a sign of our society's sick treatment of the people it incarcerates that George Williams could be described as "lucky."

Williams survived a beating at the hands of at least three prison guards at New York's infamous Attica Correctional Facility on August 9, 2011. The incident has been described in gruesome detail by New York Times veteran investigative journalist Tom Robbins, who spent months interviewing prisoners and staff at the prison.

On March 2, a plea deal was announced that allowed Sgt. Sean Warner, Officer Matthew Rademacher and Officer Keith Swack to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of official misconduct. "This marks the first time a prison guard in New York has been criminally charged with a nonsexual assault of a prisoner," reported Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh. "It's also the first time in state history a guard has pleaded guilty to committing an unauthorized violent act against a prisoner while on duty."

The plea bargain allows the correctional officers to serve no time for their crime and keep their pensions, in exchange for losing their jobs. As the Correctional Association (CA) of New York, a nonprofit organization based in New York City, termed it, "This is historic, but it is not justice."

Outside the Attica Correctional Facility
Outside the Attica Correctional Facility


WILLIAMS, WHO is African American, was serving a sentence of two to four years for robbery, and had only four months left before he was to be released. He was 29 years old at the time, 5-foot-8-inches and "a solid 170 pounds," according to Robbins.

These details matter because the three white correctional officers who took him into a dayroom in Attica's C-Block and took turns punching, kicking, beating him with batons and jumping on him as he lay on the floor "begging for his life" range in size from 5-foot-11-inches and 240 pounds to 6-foot-3-inches and 300 pounds.

The beating was so severe that witnesses agree Williams was unable to walk when it was over. Still, the guards handcuffed him and threatened to push him down a flight of stairs unless he walked. When he couldn't, they kept their promise and then smashed his head into a wall. Both of his legs were broken, along with his shoulder, ribs and orbital eye socket.

The plan was to then take him to solitary, but the officer on duty there wouldn't accept him because he was in such bad shape. At the infirmary, a nurse who had been on the job for only 10 months at that point refused to accept Williams due to the severity of his injuries and recommended that he be taken to an outside hospital. Her decision likely saved his life.

Williams' injuries proved too much for the hospital in nearby Warsaw to handle--one of his legs would require surgery--so he had to be taken to a hospital 50 miles away in Buffalo.

"As he rode the highways of western New York that sweltering night, Williams worried that if he were to be brought back to Attica, he would be killed," writes Robbins, "He asked a medical attendant to lend him his cell phone so he could call his family. The attendant refused."

It's hard to imagine the sheer agony Williams felt that night, thinking it may have been the last chance to take some comfort in hearing the familiar voices of his loved ones. But those who are labeled "criminals" apparently don't deserve the same kind of humanity as other people, even when it could very well be their last night.

Before the beating, the guards claimed they were taking Williams to the dayroom for an impromptu drug test when they found he was carrying a weapon. But a witness reported seeing one of the guards remove a razor from a plastic safety razor after the beating and yell loudly, "We got a weapon."

According to other prisoners, the beating was retribution for someone mouthing off to a guard distributing the mail that night--but, they say, it wasn't Williams.

Leaving aside the question of why a man with only four months left on his sentence would jeopardize his release, it says something disturbing about the culture in Attica that the guards felt confident their explanation for beating a man nearly to death while he lay cowering on the floor would be a perfectly acceptable one.


THE ASSAULT on Williams is by no means an isolated incident. Violence and abuse at the hands of prison guards has a long history at Attica, along with inhuman conditions and suppression of prisoners' rights.

Attica is the site of the historic rebellion in 1971, where prisoners took over the facility, calling for improved health care and educational programs, religious and politics freedoms, an end to segregation and the state minimum wage law for the incarcerated.

As Correctional Association investigations have documented, violence, racism and abuse at Attica is no less true today. As a person incarcerated at Attica describes on the organization's website:

Some people have been handcuffed, then beaten with sticks, and the cries for help are so loud, but useless, because there is no help. So our voices remain trapped behind this wall. The 1971 [Attica] riot led people across the country to hear the voice of incarcerated persons, exposing the foulness of the torture and inhumane conditions. Today, the same foulness that went on in the past is going on today.

Activists and advocates have called for Attica to be closed and for corrections authorities to end abuse elsewhere in the prison system. According to Edward-Yemíl Rosario, formerly incarcerated in New York state and the Associate Director for the CA's Prison Visiting Project:

For decades, the abiding problem in Attica has been an underlying culture of abuse--a banality of evil--that essentially normalizes the brutalization of the mostly Black and Latino people incarcerated there at the hands of white correctional officers. This culture is predicated on a deeply embedded racism that operates with impunity.

Unfortunately, Attica is not alone in these abuses. Recent investigations of other New York prisons have uncovered similar systemic abuses. The people of New York must engage in envisioning a greater society in which the state-sanctioned violence of incarceration is not the default response to the issues of poverty, lack of educational access, and economic injustice. A necessary first step towards creating a greater society would be closing the real and symbolic epicenter of that violence: Attica.

Antonio Yarbough, formerly incarcerated at Attica and recently exonerated, joined Tom Robbins on Democracy Now! to call for Attica to be shut down and turned into a museum.

The Williams case has pushed the depths of the abuse into the light of day, yet the struggle to close Attica will be an uphill fight. The facility is Wyoming County's biggest employer. The 2,240 prisoners will undoubtedly now face guards who see that a vicious beating will lead to little more than a slap on the wrist, even when it is exposed.

Yet the call to close Attica and fight for prison reform and abolition will resonate with the wider radicalization about the urgency to end mass incarceration and the new Jim Crow, as well as police violence, both on the streets and behind bars.

Above all, what's important about George Williams's case is precisely what's not unique about it: heightened awareness of violence at Rikers Island in New York City, in overcrowded prisons in California and elsewhere have made the widespread horrific conditions at correctional facilities across the country painfully clear.

The complete and utter vulnerability of the incarcerated to the whims of sadistic, depraved guards is obscured by the label "criminal." As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, it's a label that immediately strips people of even the most basic of human rights. It's acceptable to do practically anything to a "criminal," and the concrete cover of the prison walls shields the banal cruelty of prison life from the eyes of the outside world.


BUT THE legacy of Attica is not only of decades-long violence and inhumanity. There is also a legacy of radical struggle and leadership of people behind bars, highlighted in the 1971 rebellion.

Jazz Hayden, formerly incarcerated at Attica, recounts in Socialist Worker how the political period laid the basis for his own organizing behind the walls, and the reforms that were eventually won:

[I]t was a place where, especially in the atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the policies of this country were being brought into question--not just here, but all over the world...

Of course, us being prisoners here in the United States, we definitely were not sympathetic to what our government was doing over there. We were predisposed to look at things from the point of view of the oppressed. So we studied that struggle and the anti-colonial movements throughout the world. This was our way of turning the prison into an institution of higher learning. We began to start looking at the institution itself and began to analyze it....

In the decade following the rebellion, all kinds of reforms came out: higher education, work release, medical release, contact visits, conjugal visits. At the same time, they pacified the prison population, and they began expanding it. The drug war was the main policy they used to do that.

Rebuilding the movements for justice for the incarcerated is critical to upend the violence of the prison system, by closing institutions like Attica, fighting for real sentencing and parole reform, ending solitary confinement, and ultimately laying the basis for their complete abolition of prisons.

A radical vision for change behind bars is urgently needed, and it was powerfully captured in the Manifesto of Demands read out by LD Barkley, one of the leaders of the Attica rebellion who was killed along with 38 others when the prison was violently re-taken:

We are men! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.

What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed...We call upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens not only our lives, but each and every citizen as well.

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