50 Years Since Attica, Will America Observe the Human Rights of Prisoners?

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tags: human rights, prisons, Attica, Mass Incarceration, prison labor, Attica Riot, prison healthcare

It happened in January, inside California’s Santa Clara County jails. In April of last year, it happened at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana. It happened two separate times this year alone at the St. Louis City Justice Center. American prisoners erupted, many often refusing to go back to their cells until they were heard. As one man who had spent months confined to the notorious facility in Missouri told a journalist, rebellion is “their only grievance system.”

What motivated these protests was a disastrous COVID-19 response that has left prisons and jails utterly ravaged. There has been no way for those on the inside to isolate from, nor to care for, those who are sick from the virus, and their mortality rate is significantly higher than that of the general population. In federal and state prisons, according to the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, there have been 199.6 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 80.9 in the total U.S. population. “They are someone’s family,” the mother of a young man incarcerated in the Indiana prison told a local reporter. They are simply asking, she said, “to have open and honest communication about where the virus is and what is being done.”

That the pandemic remains dire behind bars, or that it has fueled protests there, may raise few eyebrows. But the uncomfortable truth is that there have been hundreds of moments of unrest just like these in recent years, dramatic episodes in which America’s incarcerated people have risked extraordinary punishment just to let the public know how bad conditions really are.

The attention people serving time do manage to attract may be laced with surprise, or skepticism. It isn’t that Americans can’t imagine prisons as hellholes; after all, many have seen movies like The Shawshank Redemption. But it is as if the disproportionately Black and brown people serving time have surrendered not only their freedom but also any claim on sympathy. Those on the outside are quite confident that the incarcerated today are legally protected from the cruel and unusual tortures of the past and, given that, many are remarkably comfortable with the idea that prisons are pretty terrible places of punishment—comfortable forgetting that how a society doles out such discipline is a reflection of its moral capacity.

It is true that extraordinary effort was put into improving conditions inside America’s prisons and jails back in the 1960s and ’70s. Exactly 50 years ago, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, 1971, the nation watched riveted as nearly 1,300 men stood together in America’s most dramatic prison uprising, for better conditions at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The men were fed on 63¢ a day; were given only one roll of toilet paper a month; endured beatings, racial epithets, and barbaric medical treatment; and suffered the trauma of being thrown into a cell and kept there for days, naked, as punishment. The Attica prison uprising was historic because these men spoke directly to the public, and by doing so, they powerfully underscored to the nation that serving time did not make someone less of a human being.

Now, despite the protections won by their rebellion, and the broader movement for justice of which it was a part, the incarcerated are once again desperately trying to call the public’s attention to the horrific conditions they endure behind the walls. The 50th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising is an occasion that compels making sense of why that is. These are institutions that we fund as taxpayers and send people to as jurors, and those inside of them are not exaggerating how bad the conditions really are. But how could they have deteriorated so markedly over the past five decades, and why have so many cared so little as it was happening?

That the pandemic remains dire behind bars, or that it has fueled protests there, may raise few eyebrows. But the uncomfortable truth is that there have been hundreds of moments of unrest just like these in recent years, dramatic episodes in which America’s incarcerated people have risked extraordinary punishment just to let the public know how bad conditions really are.

The attention people serving time do manage to attract may be laced with surprise, or skepticism. It isn’t that Americans can’t imagine prisons as hellholes; after all, many have seen movies like The Shawshank Redemption. But it is as if the disproportionately Black and brown people serving time have surrendered not only their freedom but also any claim on sympathy. Those on the outside are quite confident that the incarcerated today are legally protected from the cruel and unusual tortures of the past and, given that, many are remarkably comfortable with the idea that prisons are pretty terrible places of punishment—comfortable forgetting that how a society doles out such discipline is a reflection of its moral capacity.

It is true that extraordinary effort was put into improving conditions inside America’s prisons and jails back in the 1960s and ’70s. Exactly 50 years ago, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, 1971, the nation watched riveted as nearly 1,300 men stood together in America’s most dramatic prison uprising, for better conditions at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The men were fed on 63¢ a day; were given only one roll of toilet paper a month; endured beatings, racial epithets, and barbaric medical treatment; and suffered the trauma of being thrown into a cell and kept there for days, naked, as punishment. The Attica prison uprising was historic because these men spoke directly to the public, and by doing so, they powerfully underscored to the nation that serving time did not make someone less of a human being.

Now, despite the protections won by their rebellion, and the broader movement for justice of which it was a part, the incarcerated are once again desperately trying to call the public’s attention to the horrific conditions they endure behind the walls. The 50th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising is an occasion that compels making sense of why that is. These are institutions that we fund as taxpayers and send people to as jurors, and those inside of them are not exaggerating how bad the conditions really are. But how could they have deteriorated so markedly over the past five decades, and why have so many cared so little as it was happening?

Read entire article at TIME