The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America must listen to its prisoners before we make a major mistake

The anniversary of two major revolts remind us that tough-on-crime policies have created intense suffering in our prisons.

Prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility revolted in 1971 over inhumane conditions. (Bob Schutz/Associated Press)

Forty-six years ago, on Sept. 9, 1971, almost 1,300 men erupted in one of the 20th century’s most dramatic prison protests. Their goal? To be treated as human beings even as they served their time in one of New York state’s most notorious penal institutions, the Attica Correctional Facility. These were men being fed on 63 cents a day, treated brutally by prison doctors and forced to labor whether they were sick or well. They finally had reached the breaking point.

One year ago, on Sept. 9, 2016, thousands of prisoners, this time men and women from across the United States, marked the anniversary of Attica by engaging in another dramatic series of protests for the very same reasons that Attica’s incarcerated had rebelled in 1971. Conditions were terrible. Overcrowding was severe, food was maggot-ridden, and prisoners were still being forced to labor.

At both moments in our history, those who dared to speak up paid an unimaginable price.

In 1971 at Attica, after four long days of intense and productive discussions with state officials, hundreds of seething and heavily armed troopers and corrections officers stormed the prison without warning. Within 15 minutes, the prison yard was a bloodbath — the scenes of massacre. Thirty-nine men — prisoners and hostages alike — were fatally shot, and almost 90 other men were wounded so severely that they barely clung to life.

And then began the torture. After having full control of the facility, and with their charges stripped and naked in cells, law enforcement beat the surviving prisoners until their bones broke and they urinated blood. Officers played Russian roulette with these men, threatened them with death, burned them with cigarettes, forced them to give the “white power” salute and tried to prevent them from getting any medical help.

In 2016, the men and women who protested in prisons from Michigan to South Carolina to California also suffered mightily for standing together to demand humane treatment. In fact, throughout U.S. history, anytime men and women behind bars have rebelled — their only means of telling the world just how terribly they are being treated on the inside — they have endured severe repercussions.

Still, both uprisings made a difference. For starters, they forced elected officials to see that those in prison are people and that, thus, the conditions on the inside matter. After Attica, prisoner protests inspired some changes, including the implementation of prisoner grievance committees and improvements in visitation and guard training. After the 2016 uprisings, there was renewed public concern about how the incarcerated were treated.

And yet, these reforms and surges of sympathy proved to be short-lived.

In the four decades after Attica, the issue of prison conditions faded from the national consciousness. As a result, penal institutions grew ever more crowded, and the treatment of the people within them became even more horrific. And, thus, the protests last fall.

Now this pattern threatens to repeat itself. In the wake of the 2016 prison protests and with some serious criminal justice reform now possible, a new generation of law-and-order politicians is again taking advantage of our short memories and threatening to deepen our justice crisis if we don’t pay attention. We must learn the lessons of history, rather than making life worse still for the more than 2 million people locked up in American prisons.


Importantly, the Attica uprising occurred at a moment in which the fate of the nation’s criminal justice system was similarly up for grabs. On the one hand, President Lyndon Johnson had begun a war on crime that President Richard Nixon had doubled down on by 1971. On the other hand, across the nation, there had just been landmark court cases that affirmed the right of the incarcerated to humane treatment. There was also a serious push to reduce the number of Americans serving time in prisons.

The rebellion at Attica inspired New York’s politicians to implement vital improvements to confinement conditions in that state despite the punitive mood that threatened to envelop the country in the wake of the civil rights gains of the 1960s. They had listened to the voices from inside Attica. As one 21-year-old there on a parole violation had declared so powerfully, “We are men! We are not beasts, and we refuse to be beaten and driven as such!”

But after the initial burst of reforms that followed the uprising, legislators soon forgot about the terrible stories of suffering that they had heard. They stopped worrying about prisoners erupting in their state, and all talk of comprehensive changes ceased. The calls for the country to get tougher and tougher on crime, no matter what the human fallout might be, grew louder and louder.

The result? By the close of the 20th century, the United States had more people locked up than any other country on the planet — with more than 7 million Americans living under some form of correctional control — and was building penal institutions at a historically unprecedented rate.

Worse, by 2011, the conditions inside these jails and prisons had deteriorated to such an extent that the United Nations felt compelled to investigate them. Solitary confinement was being used to an alarming extent, mentally ill prisoners were being abused, prisoners suffered life-threatening injuries from guard attacks and from excessive heat, and all prisoners were doing substantially more time than they had at any previous time in American history.

And so, in 2016, protest again engulfed prisons. The inmates’ outcry brought some critically needed attention to the brutality of the places where they were confined. A bipartisan coalition had already been discussing the need to reform draconian drug laws and sentencing policies, in no small part because of pressure put on them by communities ravaged by incarceration. The uprisings last fall compelled them to pay much closer attention to conditions inside prisons, as well.

But now, as prisons again are out of sight and out of mind of the public and politicians alike, the reform momentum launched merely a year ago has stalled and is at serious risk of evaporating.

Indeed, from the moment that Donald Trump was elected president, optimistic headlines such as “Sentencing Overhaul Proposed in Senate With Bipartisan Backing” virtually disappeared and any public concern for conditions inside our nation’s prisons likewise vanished. Through words and deed — from the endorsement of police officer abuse of those they arrest to the pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio despite his long history of abusing prisoners in his facilities — Trump has made clear that he cares little about the people who end up incarcerated in this country. He endorsed Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s dramatic reversal of the Obama Justice Department’s attempts to liberalize the criminal justice system.

Again the voices and experiences of the very real men and women who populate our nation’s prisons are ignored by politicians and the public, who again find themselves seduced by quick, but brutal, fixes for our nation’s many social ills.

They call for tougher sentences, even when those same sentences lead to dangerously overcrowded prisons and fail to make the nation safer. They shout for more money for policing and prisons, even though history and the leading research study make clear that those resources would be much better spent on education, housing and health care than prisons.

The effect of the latest embrace of “tough on crime” policies for Americans languishing behind bars — children, parents, brothers and sisters — is yet to be seen, but all signs point to even more abuse, desperation and devastation.

On this 46th anniversary of that day when almost 1300 men stood together to tell the nation of the horrors of their confinement at Attica, and this first anniversary of that day when thousands of men and women again stood together, at equally enormous risk, to remind us all that conditions are still brutal in our nation’s penal institutions, we must listen to what they were trying to tell us: Everyone behind bars remains a human being and, therefore, no crime committed, nor punishment rendered, justifies abuse.

And should we forget this basic truth — one that was understood, accepted and stands as the very foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 — the men and women who endure our nation’s penal facilities will, inevitably, remind us again.

As those who struggled for better conditions and suffered so much in Upstate New York in 1971 oft said, “Attica is all of us.”

Indeed it is.