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From Attica to Pelican Bay

Forty years ago, on September 9th, 1971, prisoners protesting medieval conditions rebelled at Attica, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Four days later the state launched a violent assault on the prisoners that left ten hostages and twenty-nine inmates dead. Both the uprising and its bloody suppression should serve as a warning about our country’s rush towards incarceration and the brutality of our prisons.

For me, the story of Attica is also a story about justice—the importance of fighting for it, especially for disfavored people, even against terrible odds. I began working at the Center for Constitutional Rights two days prior to Attica’s uprising, and within days joined with lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild, who fought to defend the prisoners and hold the state responsible. The justice we sought was sometimes deferred, often denied, and occasionally won over nearly three decades.

From one perspective, we failed. The legitimate complaints of the inmates—their “demands” including such basic human rights as access to adequate food and medical treatment, religious freedom, and an end to segregation—remain unfulfilled at Attica and elsewhere. Not a single state official was ever prosecuted for his role in the killing, wounding and beating of Attica’s prisoners during and after the uprising.

From another perspective, we succeeded. Under duress, then-Governor Carey shut down all of the prosecutions of Attica’s inmates for their part in the rebellion, and pardoned those convicted. Though he ignored the recommendations of the commission he had appointed, which included looking at the conduct of state officials, the state ultimately was forced to pay. In a civil damage cases that took twenty-seven years, Elizabeth Fink and other Guild lawyers eventually won a twelve million dollar settlement on behalf of Attica’s inmates.

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