Sunday, February 5, 2012
Attica Lessons Not Learned
Stan Stojkovic, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says that states' budget problems may drive prison reforms.
JUSTICE: Attica: lessons not learned
By Jeremy Moule on September 7, 2011
Stan Stojkovic, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says that states' budget problems may drive prison reforms. PHOTO PROVIDED
The bloody conclusion to the 1971 inmate uprising at Attica got the whole country talking about prison conditions. Some attempts at reform were made in the aftermath, but four decades after Attica, reform on a large scale hasn't materialized.
Instead, more people are in prison, sentences are longer, and fewer public resources are devoted to helping inmates transition back into society.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Attica uprising, the deadliest prison revolt in the nation's history. Poor conditions at the prison are said to have been the overriding factor responsible for the revolt.
"It was a tragic event but it was probably a necessary event, given what the heck was going on," says Stan Stojkovic, dean and professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. "But when you fast forward, we just haven't made much progress since then."
In some respects, the country has gone in the opposite direction. The 1970's and 1980's brought the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the War on Drugs, less judicial discretion in sentencing, less discretion in releasing inmates, and other tough-on-crime measures. In-prison rehabilitation programs were cut, as were work-release programs meant to help prisoners
get on their feet before full release. New York and other states have also expanded their prisons. And in 1996, Congress passed legislation imposing restrictions on prisoner litigation; lawsuits and court orders have historically been the primary drivers of prison reform.
States have seen substantial growth in their prison populations since the Attica revolt. For example, New York had 12,579 people in state prisons in 1970, but has approximately 56,000 prisoners now. The number peaked in 1999 at 71,600.
The growth in the prison population raises two questions: is the justice system sending too many people to prison, and what should the role of prisons be? Ultimately, prison-reform advocates want a shift in the underpinning philosophy of the criminal-justice system. The focus should be on rehabilitation and not punishment, they say.
The complaints of inmates today are similar to those made by the 1971 Attica prisoners. The Correctional Association of New York regularly visits state prisons and prepares a report on the conditions at each one. The reports note inmate complaints, which include the quality of their food, the way they're treated by guards and medical staff, lack of access to education or vocation programs, the conditions of the showers, and high prices at the commissary.
Reformers are focusing on newer issues, as well. One is the widespread use of segregated housing units - areas of small cells used for solitary confinement - for disciplinary purposes or to separate gang members. Some prisons expanded these units during the 1980's and 1990's.
Inmates are generally kept in the small cells for 23 hours a day. They get one hour of exercise, and that happens in another small, enclosed area.
"You really damage somebody by isolating them that long," says Patricia Warth, co-director of justice strategies at the Syracuse-based Center for Community Alternatives.
A 2010 article from the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law says that the mentally ill are often disproportionately represented in solitary confinement, and that their experience tends to exacerbate their illnesses.
Elected officials, prison officials, and society at-large may not have embraced the reform opportunities Attica presented, but budgets are starting to motivate change, including in New York State.
The state closed seven prisons this year, eliminating 3,800 beds. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the closings at the end of June and said they would save the state $184 million in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 budgets. It costs New York about $55,000 per year to house a prisoner, says the Correctional Association of New York.
States can't put prisoners in beds they don't have, so some prison-reform advocates say officials will be forced to change the way they approach incarceration. Budgetary considerations aren't the ideal basis for prison reform, Warth says, but they do get the conversation started.
The state has taken some positive steps. In 2009, legislators passed bills reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The legislation eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for low level, nonviolent drug offe
nders, and lets judges order those offenders into drug treatment programs.
Reform advocates say they want to keep people out of prison as much as possible, as well as to ensure good conditions for inmates.
Education, job training, and other rehabilitative programs - which are often easy targets for cuts - can reduce recidivism rates by 8 to 10 percent, says the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Stojkovic.
That may not sound like a lot, he says, but for large states like New York or California, that could mean averting thousands of crimes. That, in turn, would mean fewer people heading to prison. That's important: consider California, which is under court order to release 30,000 inmates because of overcrowding and related problems.
But prison reform brings up many complex questions and problems. And the programs that keep offenders out of prison or reduce recidivism are imperfect.
"That doesn't mean you then go the other directions and then simply lock everyone up and throw away the key," Stojkovic says. "That's crazy."
Sometimes inmates find their own ways to push reform. Warth says she's encouraged to see inmates peacefully protesting conditions that they find unacceptable, even if the press doesn't always pay attention.
Late last year, some inmates in Georgia state prisons went on a six-day strike to demand payment for the work they do and better living conditions. They also wanted other things, like more fruits and vegetables in their meals. The inmates ended the protests to allow the administration time to meet their demands, but said there would be more if conditions don't improve.
In July 2011, inmates at California's Pelican Bay State Prison went on a hunger strike to protest isolation unit conditions and methods used to determine gang status, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. The strike lasted three weeks, and inmates at three other state prisons joined in. The strike ended when prison officials said they'd immediately address some demands and seriously consider others. The inmates said they'd go back on strike if they didn't see progress soon.