On a regular work day for me in a newspaper wire room, 'ripping and reading', in September of 1971, Attica was introduced to me; not as a place but as a cause. The cause was justice! It was on the ninth day of that month the infamous riot began, resulting in the loss of 39 human lives and becoming known as “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War”. The reason for the riot was the request by the inmates for meager improvements in their hygiene and diet and work conditions.
Three days ago the echoes of Attica resounded. After almost three years crawling through the court system, three correctional officers, Sean Warner, Keith Swack and Matthew Rademacher, were allowed to plead to a misdemeanor conviction for misconduct for savagely brutalizing an inmate (George Williams) after dragging him from his cell to a darkened corridor where there were no cameras to witness. He was beaten with batons, fists and kicks until he begged for his life, as inmates in nearby cells watched the attack. His injuries were two broken legs; one had to be realigned surgically using a plate and several screws; a fracture of his left eye orbit; several cracked ribs; a broken shoulder; and multiple cuts and bruises. He had a mere four months left of his sentence before he could step out into the air of Wyoming County, NY. But the word ‘mere’ is really a misnomer when it comes to serving time, especially at Attica. Each hour could prove to be a life threatening encounter. Warner, Swack and Rademacher will not be returning to the bucolic cornfields where Attica sits and their penalty includes entitlement to their pensions even as they are rid from the system.
Why do we have a different and seemingly secretive brand of justice system for our once trusted institutions; our churches, our universities, our prisons, our military? Are these bodies so separated behind gates, bars, razor ribbon and ivy covered walls that we’ve agreed to keep the knowledge and penalty of the violence inside? It’s time to treat criminal behavior, wherever it occurs, with the same laws we are all governed by! As for Attica, the rumbles of violence are thunderous...echoes usually become almost inaudible over time but little has changed at Attica. Ask George Williams.
I invite you to read here a small segment of my book “Geranium Justice” describing my welcome to Attica:
“Then came the day that did change everything in my life. It was
September 9th, 1971, while I was
working in the wire room ‘ripping and reading’ that I learned about Attica, along with the rest of the world. I read the accounts of the riot that had been
fomenting for a while because inmates wanted to have more than one roll of
toilet paper per month and more than one shower a week, and reasonable
non-racist work assignments, among other fair demands. The reports came to me in stereo as while I
read the wires I talked by phone to Joe who was covering the story circling the
prison battlefield in a helicopter. By the next day, 1,281 inmates held 43
hostages and took control of cellblocks and buildings trying to get the
officials’ attention. After four days of repeated attempts at negotiations by
the inmates and standoffs by the authorities, the machismo of Governor
Rockefeller trying to be in power rather than right, resulted in his sending in
between 500 to one thousand state troopers spraying the population in the yard
with bullets after they were felled by tear gas from the sky making Attica’s
grounds the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War”.
It cost 39 human lives and made an indelible imprint in the annals of history;
a cautionary tale of injustice.
“There are different ways to get to
the state can send you, you can visit or you can work there. But everyone has
to travel on (I-90) West to Exit 48, to Route 98S, to Route 238S. Turn right at
traffic light. Facility is on left. There’s no U Turn if the state sends you.”